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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Never leave chopsticks upright in rice

November 20, 2009

Food-laden table.

Table manners help us navigate cultural boundaries, says University anthropologist William Beeman.

Behind eating 'do's' and 'don't's' around the world

By Deane Morrison

If William Beeman sees chopsticks in a Thai restaurant, he walks out. In Thailand, says the University of Minnesota anthropology professor and department chair, diners use a fork to put food on a spoon, then eat off the spoon.

That custom is part of a universal pattern of rituals that shape the human habit of eating together, he explains. All over the world, communal dining is more than just eating; it's an event full of transitions, both material and symbolic.

The event begins when guests arrive and transit from outside to inside, then to the eating place. The last boundary is crossed when food enters the body.

"In every single case, you're passing a boundary between cultural spheres," says Beeman. "You must go through ritual actions to mark the passages."

The first action is to greet guests at the door, or to stand as other members of the party arrive at a restaurant. In most societies, diners form a procession to the table, with the oldest, most prominent, or most respected people leading the way, he says. Another boundary marker is the signal to begin eating, which may be "bon appétit," a prayer, or the Muslim blessing for any new undertaking.

Table manners evolved not just to make the communal passage of food into the body pleasant, but to keep out polluting influences.

For example, "in Japan, you turn the chopsticks around to serve from a common bowl, then turn them again to eat off the other ends," Beeman says. In a big part of the world, eating with the left hand is unacceptable "because the left hand is used for toilet purposes." Likewise, the Thai—also Persian—practice of transferring food from fork to spoon to mouth helps reduce the chance of contamination.

Cultural practices may also banish symbolic pollution. In Japan and China, servings in units of four are avoided because the Chinese word for "four" and the Chinese reading of the number four in Japanese have the same sound as the word for death. And in Japan, says Beeman, "make sure chopsticks never stand upright in rice—that's done at funerals."

Holiday traditions may strengthen bonds between family or group members because sharing ritual foods unique to a group or occasion can cement the feeling of belonging.

"In my family, we always had turkey with stuffing, and the stuffing always contained oysters," says Beeman. "We also had creamed onions. And my sister-in-law brought lime jello with pomegranate seeds."

Holiday dining also tends to emphasize seasonal foods and more elaboration in the foods and how they are eaten, he notes. Pre-dinner eggnog, hors d'oeuvres, and food scattered around the house allow people to eat together even when not at the table. And dessert, coffee, or drinks are often served in another room.

When a meal is over, the processes of greeting one another and starting to eat are reversed, Beeman says. For example, in the West, people signal they have finished by placing the napkin on the table and crossing knife and fork on the plate. And, of course, one must excuse oneself when leaving a meal early.

Many Western table manners have roots in the Renaissance, when eating became a serious event for the upper classes, according to Beeman.

"The fork was invented in the Renaissance as a way to be more genteel," he notes. "Eating can be disgusting, but surrounding it with rituals and choreography makes it less unpleasant."