Top 10 Dining Taboos

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“Keep your elbows off the table.” “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” These are popular reprimands we’ve all heard while sitting around the dinner table. If you’re planning on traveling abroad, minding your manners may be a bit harder than you thought. Check out this list of quirky dining taboos in other countries.

10. Asian Noodles Taboo

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In Asian countries, it is known that rice and noodles are the staple of their diets. Eating a bowl of pasta seems pretty cut and dry. Pick it up and put it in your mouth. But if you’re in China, chopping your noodles in half will definitely draw a few dirty looks your way. To the Chinese, long noodles represent longevity. It is customary for people to slurp up a heaping bowl of lengthy noodles on their birthday. Your mom would have a fit if she saw you with noodles wagging from your lips. Tell her not to blame you, it’s Chinese tradition. In addition to watching your noodles, you better be careful of where you point your chopsticks. It’s rude to aim them at another person. That we can understand, but the don’t flip your fish on your plate is a little unusual. But who are we to argue with tradition? This one is mainly practiced in areas that rely on fishing. Apparently, flipping your fish over is symbolic of capsizing the boat.

Neighboring Japan also has its fair share of intriguing dinner table taboos. They too are particular about their chopstick placement. In both countries, it’s frowned upon when you poke your sticks straight up in a bowl of rice. It’s a practice that is reserved for funeral services and a sign of disrespect for the dead when done any other time. If you’re out in a restaurant, the owner will take offense. This is a sign of you cursing his business. Better watch out for the steaming hibachi.

9. New Guinea Menstrual

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As if “that time of the month” isn’t already filled with an overflow of emotions, women in New Guinea must take care not to violate traditional taboo. According to their customs, women on their cycle are viewed as being ill. To heal themselves, they aren’t allowed to eat fresh meat, red fruit, or juicy bananas. On top of everything else, they have to watch their step as well. Anyone who eats food prepared by a menstruating women, or a meal she’s stepped over is believed to be destined for a horrible cough. The usual victim is the woman’s husband, some even believe this illness could lead to his death. In Papua, New Guinea, the Wogeo only believe blood is dirty when it comes from a woman’s menstrual cycle. In fact, they even say that those who come in contact with this blood are likely to die. As with the majority of ancient customs and taboos, no one really knows when or why they started. They’ve been taught what they’ve been taught and dare not question tradition.

8. Don’t Go Dutch

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In America, some men would jump for joy if a woman offered to pay for her half of the date. Well in France and Russia, the “independent woman” mentality is not welcome. When picking up the tab, it’s all or nothing over there. Only an uncivilized person would only pay for half the bill. In fact, most women won’t even bring their wallets on a date. Just a not-so-subtle reminder that she’s not paying for a thing.

Since we’re on the topic, it’s also expected to dress for the occasion. Jeans and a tee are never ok. In Russia, it’s viewed as an honor to get acquainted with someone new. When getting ready for your date, it’s preferred to dress formal.

Say you were invited to eat at someone’s home, it’s extremely rude to show up empty-handed. When you’re first greeted, it’s also taboo to shake hands through a doorway. Also, don’t ask for a to-go box or doggy bag. In America, we see it as a sign that we loved our meal and want to take it home. In France, it’s the exact opposite. There is a bunch of differences we accept over here but people across the water may not share our sentiments. Something as simple as using the wrong hand gesture is social suicide. Your trip will be much more pleasant if you study the taboos before you travel.

7. Italians Are Sensitive About Their Cheese

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Our Italian dining experience is normally tailored around ordering lasagna from Olive Garden. On the contrary, an authentic experience in Italy will vary quite a bit. First thing to remember, don’t insult the chef by asking for more cheese. Instead, you might get a swift whopping by an old loaf of garlic bread.  Seafood in Italy isn’t meant to have cheese on it. If you ask nicely, the chef might oblige but most of the time, you’ll just get a dirty look.

Also, Italians take their meal definitions seriously. Breakfast food is for breakfast. Lunch is for lunch, and so on. Ordering a cappuccino after breakfast is not cool. More milk than what’s in a macchiato’s after mid day will give the locals permission to tell you about yourself. You don’t need to speak Italian. They’ll make it perfectly clear that you’ve crossed the line. When you’re offered food, proper etiquette says you should always decline the first time. After they insist again, you humbly accept and merrily enjoy the cuisine.

6. Tardy Tanzania

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This dining taboo is one we can get used to. Americans pride themselves on arriving promptly on time (well, most of them), but in Tanzania it is considered rude to show up to an invitation early. Out of respect, invited guest should always wait 15-20 minutes after the affair’s commencement to make an appearance. If you’re looking for something to wear, loose-fitting clothing is always appropriate. Most meals are enjoyed while sitting on the floor.

Also, Tanzanian men and women don’t eat together. In fact, taboo prevents men from entering the kitchen at all. That’s a card we know a bunch of American men wish they could pull. “Honey, I would help with the dishes but I’m forbidden from coming in the kitchen.” A bowl of water and towel will be passed around for you to clean your hands. This as well as the ugali, or communal bowl for the meal, must all be passed only with the right.

5. You Can’t Eat Melons in the US

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Our global dining taboo list has found its way back to the Americas. You’re probably thinking, I have American etiquette down packed, what else can you teach me? We bet you didn’t know that you could be arrested for eating a watermelon in Beech Grove, Indiana. The wacky law applies to Beech Grove’s parks. It was established after a bunch of watermelon pierced park trash bags, making a terrible mess. So when you’re in Indiana, you best be sure to mind your melons.

We’re not finished with the U.S. of A. just yet. If you thought park-eating watermelon offenses were crazy, then don’t ever visit Gainesville, Georgia. To this day, it is illegal to eat fried chicken with anything but your hands. Passed in 1961, these crazy outdated taboos normally go overlooked. One lucky 91-year old’s friends thought it would be funny to have her arrested for eating her birthday meal with utensils. (Oh look, a heart attack- just what I always wanted!) Everyone had a good laugh and the charges were dropped.

4. Be Careful What The Baby Eats

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Jamaicans believe children should not be given chicken before they can talk or else the baby will never speak. They even believe that infants who drink milk from the bottle will grow up to be drunks. Intriguing superstitions can be found all across the Pacific. In Nigeria, children are not allowed to eat eggs out of fear that it will cause them to steal when they get older. Silly as it may sound to us, if this is what has been passed down from generation to generation, would you rather go with the flow or risk raising a sticky-fingered mute? Some even say that pregnant women should stay away from eggs for the same reason. Sweet food, snails, puffer meat, and kola-nuts are also added to an expectant Nigerian’s list of foods to avoid. The reasons behind this taboo vary from causing the baby to drool all over itself to having scaly skin.

3. Eat With the Right, Wipe with the Left

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This taboo is respected in many different nations. African, Caribbean, and even Muslim countries all believe that only the right hand should be used for eating. For certain hygienic reasons, these customs teach that each of our hands serves its own purpose. The left is solely for wiping. We touched on it earlier but the eat with the right, wipe with the left taboo deserves further explanation. If overlooked, you pose great risk of offending others. Not only should you dine with your right hand, it is the only one to be used in greetings. When arriving for a meal, never offer the left for a shake. If you catch the right one on the wrong day, you might fall victim to a swift right hook.

Some will give you a pass on holding a cup with your left hand, but never ever wipe your mouth with it. To be on the safe side, keep it under the table. Put it between your legs or even sit on it. Do whatever you need to do to keep from being offensive.

2. A Polite Goodbye

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Hopefully you never get too thirsty in Kazakhstan. If you happen to order a cup of tea, don’t look as it as half empty. See the miniature portion of your steaming drink as a nice, warm, half-full hug. Never ask the server to pour you some more. In Kazakhstan, a full cup of tea is the most polite way we’ve ever heard of telling someone they’ve overstayed their welcome. The people of Kazakhstan drink tea about 6 times per day. Now we can understand why they use it as a form of communication. (And why they only give you half a cup!) Formally a nomadic society, the people of the Republic still carry deep superstitious beliefs. Tea is only consumed warm, they believe cold drinks will make you sick. Aside from telling you to get out, the half full cups of tea also show how much the guests wants to be able to serve you during your visit. The passing of an empty cup for a refill is a courteous act hosts love to participate in. Other taboos are a lot more common. Things like picking your nose… just don’t do it. Anywhere.

1. Don’t Eat With Your Hands

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Some customs tell you which hands to use but if you’re traveling to Chile you better grab your utensils. Chileans never eat anything by hand. Even the smallest French fry must be stabbed with a fork. Pizza, chicken nuggets, and whatever else you can think of, the people of Chile don’t believe in finger food at all. Usually, dinner is not served until 8pm or later. Even if you’re ravished with hunger, keep those hands out of your mouth. Licking your fingers or utensils is considered vulgar. Avoiding the temptation is obviously why they eat everything with utensils. Standard European manners are taken to the max to avoid being disrespectful. In Chile, you need to know which utensils are the correct ones to use for your meal. If we ever visit, we’ll need to write a few notes on the palm of our hands. To us, salad fork or dinner fork… they all work the same.


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