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Pass the Salt: Table Manners Around the World

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If you grew up in the United States and thought American table manners were tough to remember—Keep your elbows off the table! Don’t talk with your mouth full! Always pass the salt and pepper together!—think again, because you don’t know how good you’ve got it. Just try eating a “casual” group dinner in one of these other countries, where the slightest indiscretion with a pair of chopsticks or the position of your feet can land you in the doghouse with your host.


Afghanistan


  • Dinner guests are treated like royalty: they’re seated farthest from the door, they’re offered food first and expected to eat the most, and they’re always given the prime portion from each dish.
  • If you drop bread on the floor while dining at a table, pick it up, kiss it, and touch it to your forehead before putting it somewhere other than the floor.


Chile


  • Dishes should be served from the left and removed from the right. Guests should be served first.
  • Do not answer the phone at the dinner table.
  • Always chew with your mouth closed, and do not talk until it is empty.
  • Eat quietly and do not slurp your food.
  • Eat only one helping of food, unless the host specifically encourages you to take seconds.


China


  • Never wave chopsticks at another person, bang them like drumsticks, use them to move plates or bowls, or stab them vertically into a bowl of rice. This last gesture indicates that the food is meant for the dead.
  • To serve a guest, use the blunt ends of your own chopsticks to transfer food from a communal dish to the guest’s plate.
  • When chopsticks are not in use, place them neatly on the table, side by side, with the ends even.
  • When picking food out of a communal dish, select only food that is on the top of the pile and the closest distance to your plate. Do not rummage through the serving dish to select specific food items for yourself.




India


  • Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after eating.
  • In general, eat with your right hand and use your left hand to pass communal dishes.
  • You must finish everything on your plate.
  • Do not leave the table until all guests have finished eating or your host asks for your help.


Japan


  • Before you commence a meal, wait for your host to tell you three times to begin eating.
  • The youngest person at the table should pour alcohol for the other diners, beginning with the most senior person. A senior should then pour the server’s beverage.
  • Never transfer food from one pair of chopsticks to another. When women transfer food with chopsticks from a serving dish to their mouth, they should cup their hand beneath the food; men should not.
  • Rubbing chopsticks together to remove splinters is a sign of disrespect to the restaurant or host.
  • When eating hot noodles, you are encouraged to make a slurping noise; the Japanese believe that this inhalation of air enhances the noodles’ flavor.
  • Pieces of sushi should be eaten in a single bite whenever possible; if you must eat a piece in more than one bite, never place it back down on your plate between bites.


Pakistan


  • Before each meal, Muslim Pakistanis always recite this phrase: “Bismillah Ar-Rahman al-Rahim.” (“In the name of Allah, who is most beneficial and merciful.”) Afterward, they say, “Al-Hamdu-lillah.” (“Thanks be to God.”)
  • Do not begin eating until the eldest member of the family is seated at the table.
  • Always chew quietly enough that no one else can hear you.
  •  Always tear bread into pieces before eating it, and use only your right hand.




Philippines


  • Before you enter a dining room, select a seat at a table, or serve yourself food, always wait for an invitation from the host.
  • Never refuse a sample of food from the host; always clean your plate.
  • When you have finished eating, place your fork and spoon side by side on your plate, facing up.
  • Always help your host clear the table.


Russia


  • Never stare at another person’s plate or saucer.
  • It is polite to leave a little bit of food on your plate at the end of a meal, as a tribute to the host’s abundant hospitality.
  • Always cultivate a vivacious, relaxed dining atmosphere.
  • Upon leaving the table, always compliment the person who cooked your food.


Tanzania


  • Do not expose the soles of your feet if you are eating on a carpet or mat.
  • Showing up early for dinner is considered rude; aim to arrive fifteen to thirty minutes late.


It may seem daunting to remember other cultures’ culinary particularities, but if you master these dining guidelines before you sit down at the table, you won’t have to be “that guy”—you know, the one who gives other, more polite American diners a bad name. And once you’ve mastered these etiquette basics, you’ll be on your way to worldliness—all you need now is a good appetite and a plane ticket. 

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