I’ve had the privilege of welcoming friends from a dozen or so different countries to my table. Not all at once, of course, but frequently there’s a mix of cultures reflected in the faces gathered for that oldest of traditions—breaking bread together. (Or slurping soup. Munching salad. Sharing stir-fry. Devouring muffins.) I love the way the blend of experiences brings new flavors to the conversation. But different backgrounds have different ground rules for mealtime—and that can cause some confusion and awkwardness at the table.
Foreign friends, inevitably, have diverse table manners and consider different things polite while eating. What one group finds rude may be good behavior in your home. Breaking unspoken food rules can cause deep offense, and worry over manners can make cross-cultural dining strained. So how do you smooth out the tension?
My mother-in-law, a longtime expat herself, told me how she puts people in her home at ease:
At the beginning of the meal she announces, “This is an international table. Please make yourself at home.” That’s it. She invites everyone to focus on the food and friendship, not formalities. It encourages her guests not to be self-conscious or worry about making mistakes.
She grew up in Hong Kong, attended school in the States, and spent most of her adult life in Africa. She’s eaten meals in homes all over the world and has cooked for friends of all different backgrounds, so if anyone knows about hosting an international table, she does.
How often do we shy away from serving a meal to international friends because we aren’t sure if they’ll like what we cook? What if, instead of worrying, we address the situation head-on? We can acknowledge that the cuisine is new to them and if they don’t like it, we’ll understand if they don’t take more than a taste. Or reassure them that everyone has their own table manners. I know I’d appreciate it if I were on the other side of the table.
And if using picking up food with your fingers, burping, or slurping soup is bad form in your world, remember that there are many countries where it’s polite. Relaxing the rules when friends are over can make everyone comfortable enough to focus on the conversation, instead of whether their elbows are on the table.
Does your family have any clashes with the manners in your host country? Do you have any funny stories involving table etiquette? How do you open up your home and table to the international community around you?
(For more on the subject of hospitality and the international table check out this awesome blog!!)