Tell Me How You Eat I Will Tell You Who You Are
I just read an extremely interesting blogpost on a parallel drawn between how Americans and Japanese dine and what this means in the workplace. The whole table manners thing has been an interest of mine for a while now. Having lived in several countries, you realize how much of a difference there can be just in the way you eat. It all starts with how the meal is structured. When does the salad come, at the beginning of the meal? Or at the end? Is it served in a big bowl or rather in individual bowls? What about the cheese? Is it served in an individual plate? On a big plate in the center of the table? Not at all?
You then need to pay attention to the table manners proper. Do you put your bread on the table? Or on the plate? Is there salt on the table? If not, am I allowed to ask for it? Or is it considered impolite to do so (the idea being that asking for salt would actually demean the culinary abilities of your host). Hands on the table, or on your lap? Do you wait to be served? Or do you serve yourself? Do you eat with your fork or with your fingers? When you're finished, do you cross your fork and knife or do you put them parallel to each other? Hardly existential questions, you'll tell me, but questions nonetheless, which answers might make you the best or the worst educated of people.
What I find most interesting in this is that something that might be perfectly polite in a country, will be considered completely rude in another, which makes for difficult and sometimes painful times. I've always hated it, when in a country of which I don't master the table manners, to have the host tell me "go ahead", because I never know what first step I should be taking and I am always scared of doing the wrong thing. Maybe it's just because I'm French and the French do care about these things...