Samui Wining & Dining
Mind Your Manners

And be aware that the rules of dining etiquette vary from country to country.

Mind Your MannersWhy do some people consider the waiters in France to be rude? When is it perfectly all right to use chopsticks the wrong way round? Why would not kissing your bread upset somebody? How could it possibly happen that the famous cricketer, Dennis Lillee, greeted Queen Elizabeth with the words, “G’day. How ya goin?” When and where and why is it sometimes all right to use your fingers to eat your food with – and when (and where) is it taboo?

My old granddaddy used to say – “There’s nowt so strange as folks,” – by which he meant that people were odd. And how much stranger again, when the ‘folks’ you’re with are from another country or culture? Sometimes it’s hard enough to know exactly what’s correct in your own society!

And then there’s a big difference between ‘correct’ and ‘usual’. For instance, in America it’s usual to cut your food with your knife and fork, and then lay down your knife, change your fork to your right hand, and use this, by itself, to eat your food. Using the knife and fork together is considered to be ‘European style’. It’s not at all frowned upon, but it might raise an eyebrow or two.

Although the UK, America and Australia all share a common language (some may disagree!), even within these comparatively similar cultures there are big differences in attitude and etiquette. At one time, America attracted millions of hopeful immigrants who were escaping to the ‘land of the free’ – a country where social equality was combined with equal opportunity. Australia, however, partly due to its inherently egalitarian origins, is a different story! Australian rules of social etiquette are somewhat ‘different’ from most countries. The Australian outlook places little importance on how a dinner table should be laid, or who should be served first. Instead, most of the nation’s attitudes relate to expressing equality. When Dennis Lillee greeted the Queen in such an informal way, he was unthinkingly responding to her as an equal. After all, it wasn't her fault that she couldn't play cricket!

Americans, on the other hand, place a higher value on ‘service’. The expectation of rapid-response and customer satisfaction is an inherent part of city living. In Los Angeles, a good waiter is one who is constantly at your elbow, to check on your table and await your every request – and as soon as he sees you finish your last mouthful, he knows that you’re a busy person, and immediately appears with the bill. However, the French have a different approach altogether. The waiters will avoid ‘pestering’ you by constantly asking if everything’s all right. In Paris, a good waiter prides himself on his professional ability to be able to check on your table with just a quick glance from across the room. Dining is a leisurely and enjoyable activity. What some may think of as ‘being ignored’ for long periods, in French culture translates into your being allowed to relax and enjoy yourself for a while. And the bill won’t appear until you’ve asked for it. Is it any wonder that some people think that American waiters are fawning and pushy, and yet others feel that the table service in France is off-hand and lazy?

My point is that it’s tricky enough to be aware of different traditions and customs between cultures that are very similar – never mind getting to grips with something completely strange. Even within Europe, expectations and habits vary considerably. In Italy, for example, it’s considered a real social blunder to eat your spaghetti with a fork and spoon – it’s the equivalent of tucking your napkin into your collar like an infant’s bib. You should only use the fork. And in Turkey, chicken should never be eaten with a knife and fork, only with the fingers.

Moving further afield, it’s not surprising to find less-familiar customs. In Afghanistan, the place at the table that’s farthest from the door is special. Elderly people are respected, and that’s where they’ll be seated – unless there are guests, in which case they will take the place of honour. Oh – and if you accidentally drop your bread, then it should be kissed and placed briefly on your forehead, before being placed back on the table. The Russians also respect their elderly, but they’ve also got a thing about looking or staring at another person’s plate - it’s most rude. And moving over towards China, you’ll find quite a mystique surrounding the use of chopsticks. There are more social dos and don’ts here than there is about tableware in the West. However you are allowed to use them back to front. This is acceptable when moving larger items from the serving dishes onto your plate.

One thing that I haven’t mentioned, and which seems to be common in many countries, is eating with your mouth open and making a noise whilst you do so. You just mustn’t do it. Which brings us to Thailand. Now, whilst the sophisticated might have a different opinion, many Thai people you see cheerfully masticate away at full volume! Eating in Thailand is a social occasion, and it’s no problem to talk with your mouth full, either.

The accepted format for a meal is that there will be five or six communal dishes in the middle of the table and each person will have his own plate of rice. Everyone takes a little of one of the main dishes, places it on his rice, and when this is finished, repeats the process with another dish. Knives aren’t used – only spoons and forks – and the fork is used as a ‘stop’ while the spoon pushes against it and scoops up the food. There’s really not much you can do to cause offence – except just one thing. Never use a toothpick unless you also cover your mouth with your other hand.

“Manners maketh man.” I’m sure that when William Wykeham uttered this back in the 14th century, he didn’t have the cosmopolitan vision of the world that we have today. Manners might indeed ‘maketh’ man, but there are lots of different men – with their own variations of just what those manners are!

Rob De Wet


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