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All Manner of Manners

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[1] The Parker Pen Company has been doing business internationally since 1902. In that time, the company has collected many reports about customs in different countries. In 1985, Parker Pen asked Roger Axtell, one of its international sales representatives, to collect these reports in a book about cultural differences. The result is a series of books called Do’s and Taboos Around the World.


[2] The books deal with all sorts of customs, but the information about eating gives an idea of the challenges an international traveler faces. Customs for dining with guests vary so much from one country to another that you could do something polite in one country that has a completely different meaning in another. Here is one classic ex­ample: a host in the United States offers a guest from Jordan more food at dinner. The guest refuses and the host does not offer again. The Jordanian may be shocked and hungry because in Jordan, it is polite for the host to offer the food several times while it is polite for guests to refuse, even if they want more. Then what happens when someone from Jordan travels to Zambia? There, according to Axtell, it is impolite for the host to offer food first. If you aren’t aware of this custom, you may all be hungry!


[3] In some countries, guests are expected to finish everything on their dinner plates. In other countries, such as Egypt, it is polite to leave something. In China, the host will continue to fill a guest’s dish. It is polite to leave some food in the dish in order to show how gener­ous the host was. At a formal dinner, the second-to-last course is sometimes plain boiled rice. You should refuse this to show that you are satisfied and full.


[4] What about serving yourself more to drink? In many Asian coun­tries, you can fill everyone else’s glasses, but not your own. You will have to wait for someone else to offer you more to drink. However, if you are a woman in Italy, don’t pour your neighbor a glass. Some people do not consider this appropriate behavior for a woman. If you do pour the wine, think twice about which hand you use. In Bolivia and Chile, most people consider it incorrect to pour the wine with your left hand. When someone pours you something to drink, do you hold your glass up or leave it on the table? Customs for this are differ­ent in many countries.


[5] In the United States, you are supposed to keep one hand in your lap while you’re eating. It is considered impolite to put your elbows on the table. Diners usually hold a knife and fork only when they are cutting something, and then they put the knife down to change hands and eat with the fork in their right hand. If food is fairly soft, they use the side of the fork to cut it. However, in many countries, just the opposite is often true. People eat with their wrists resting on the edge of the table and continue to hold both the knife and the fork in their hands while they eat. In Brazil, it is considered rude to cut food with the side of a fork.


[6] According to Axtell, if you want more food in Spain, you should put your knife and fork down on opposite sides of the plate. In Greece, to show that you are finished, cross your knife and fork on the plate with the fork facing up underneath. In Argentina, do the same thing, but put the fork face down. In other countries, you posi­tion your knife and fork close together on the side of the plate or di­agonally when you are finished.


[7] Of course, in many countries people don’t eat with knives and forks. They may eat with their hands, but in most countries only with the right hand. The left hand is considered unclean. If people use chopsticks, it is common to pick up the dish and hold it close to your mouth. But how close should you hold it? Customs vary from country to country!


[8] In some countries, cleaning your hands is part of the mealtime ex­perience. In Morocco, someone will bring a pitcher of water and a basin before you eat. You hold your hands over the basin and rinse your hands in the water that is poured from the pitcher. In Japan, you will get a warm, wet cloth to wipe your hands before you eat. In other countries, such as Italy, cleaning your hands after youeat is important. You may have a finger bowl beside your plate to rinse your fingers in.


[9] When you have finished eating, can you use a toothpick? In the United States, it is impolite to use a toothpick in public. In other countries, using a toothpick shows that the food was delicious. But be careful how to use the toothpick! In some countries, it is polite to hide the toothpick behind your hand.


[10] So what is a traveler to do? Axtell recommends that you watch others carefully to see what they do. He also says that conversations about customs are very interesting, so ask questions about ways to do things. He ends each of his books by talking about the universal action that can help a traveler in many situations – the smile.

Country Custom

1.22. Do the following questionnaire. How do you feel about food? Discuss your choices a partner, then in class.

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