Chapter VI: Table Manners
From: Pensri Kiengsiri, Sudchit Bhinyoying, Malithat Promathatavedi, Thai Social Etiquette, Ministry of Culture, Bangkok 2007, ISBN 974-9681-45-2
Since eating is an everyday routine that we go through at least three times a day, table manners are important for us to know and to practice. When people have good table manners, they are not embarrassing for other people at the same table to look at.
Good table manners should be instilled into children in the family from their young age. Once they have learnt how to eat properly in the family, when they find themselves at banquets, if they observe just a few more rules in good table manners, they will be considered fine people who know what to do and what to say at parties.
1. Basic Table Manners in the Family
The Time to Come to the Table, and to Leave
If the family head prefers the whole family to come to the table first, before anyone, starts eating, his family members should try not to be late in coming. Some people have the habit of being so 'pleasantly absorbed' in what they are doing that they almost always are late at the dining table, making other member sick.
We should avoid doing this and also avoid the habit of leaving the table sooner than the rest of the family. Lunch Lime or dinner time is when we converse, ask about each other's welfare and exchange news. To be so openly disinterested is to show and foster an undesirable, uncaring attitude.
The Proper Way to Sit
We should not lean forward and rest on the dining table.
We should not put our elbows on the table.
We should not lean back till we look immodest.
We should not swing our weight onto just two legs or one leg of the chair causing it to weaken or to break.
The Use of a Common or Serving Spoon
A serving spoon is of great importance. We should have a serving spoon in every common dish from which everyone may take another portion after the first serving. This is not only for the sake of cleanliness but also to protect everyone from getting an infection if a sick, virus-carrying person happens to be enjoying the same meal.
The Proper Way of using Forks and Spoons
While using a fork and a spoon to eat, if any piece of food sticks to either of the utensils, one should not knock the two poor things together to cause the morsel to fall off, thus making unwanted music (clanging) for other people at the table. The thing to do is use either the fork or the spoon to scrape off the morsel from its partner.
You should notice if there is a common serving spoon or not. If it is there, do not use your own personal spoon or fork to spoon up, or pick up food from the common serving dish. It is also important not to pick and choose, touching this piece and that piece of food, and then picking up yet another piece! Especially if you do this with the personal spoon that has gone into your mouth several times! The best thing to do is ask for a serving spoon if it is not there.
Do not convey to your mouth too big a mouthful. This may leave some rice or other food particle saying hello to people from upon or somewhere around your lips.
Make good use of your napkin or paper napkin.
The Proper way of Using Chopsticks
Whether you use chopsticks to eat inside or outside your home, you should not lift up your bowl of rice and use the two chopsticks to push rice into your mouth. Nowadays it is no longer done because it does not look good. What most people do is hold the chopsticks so that the two ends are together, then use these ends to spoon up some decent amount of rice and convey the rice to the mouth. It is wrong to dip your chopsticks into the big common bowl of soup groping in the bowl for a piece of chicken or mushroom in the soup! This is washing your chopsticks in the soup meant for everybody!
In eating things like noodles, do not clamp up a big cluster of the noodles, thus getting a terribly big mouthful, which, to make it worse, is equipped with short and long hanging ends. Pinch up only a decent amount of the noodles and the hanging ends will not be too many or too long. This way, you may need to turn the chopsticks round two or three times only to get a neat lump around them, to convey nicely to your mouth.
What should be strongly forbidden and yet not realized by some well-meaning people is using their chopsticks to pick up food for someone near them. Nobody likes eating something touched by chopsticks that have gone into another person's mouth several times!
Nobody wants to see the shape or colour of food in your mouth, especially when it is being mixed with saliva, so do not open your mouth as you chew or eat. For the same reason, it is just as bad to speak when there is food in your mouth, and also because doing this makes your voice sound ‘unclean’.
There should not be an audible sound in food chewing or soup drinking. When some delicacy looks really appetizing to you, do not spoon out a great portion. Consider what you are leaving behind. Is it enough to share among the rest of the people who get to it after you?
When you want things like salt and pepper shakers, do not reach out in front or over people near you but ask them to pass them to you. Having used them, look near and around to see if anyone else would like to have them, instead of just happily leaving them within your own reach for your convenience alone.
When asked to pass anything to anyone at the dining table, pass it. Do not take the liberty to use it first. If you want anything, take it before someone asks you to pass that thing to him.
When you have spooned out something for yourself, look around to see if anyone else is waiting for it, or would like to have it next. That person may be far at the other end. Pass it to him or to someone near you to pass it on to him. You will be surprised at the number of people to whom it never occurs to take care of someone near them, much less a person farther away at one end of the dining table.
In some families, the dining table is a round one with a smaller revolving inner part for placing, say about 5 to 6 dishes, to be enjoyed by the whole family. When seated at such a table, you should look before setting the revolving part into motion to get what you want, because someone may have already done so before you. When you see this, just wait your turn. But there are some thoughtless people who just boldly stop the motion and get what they want first, as the dish they eye is about to pass them! Another thing is, if you do not look first, someone may be in the act of spooning out something and then the revolving part goes off suddenly and that person is left with the common spoon in his hand in the air! Very embarrassing!
If there is a piece of bone or something you need to take out of your mouth, do not spit or bend your head down to drop it directly from your mouth onto your plate. Use your spoon to receive it from your mouth and place it at the edge of your plate. In eating, sit up straight and bring the spoon or the fork up to your mouth in a dignified way instead of bending your head down to a lowered spoon or fork.
After eating, put your fork and spoon together. But before this, use them to gather what remains on your plate together and leave it at the middle of your plate. Unless it is necessary, avoid the use f a toothpick. If it is necessary, use it and avoid picking something out from between your teeth by using your fingers!
Be quick in using the toothpick. It is not a pretty sight so do not indulge too long in it. And never, never leave the toothpick poised in between your lips, daring everyone to look at you.
If most other people have finished eating but you have not and the maids are already taking away the dinner plates, leave your fork and spoon apart on your plate so that they will know and not come to take your plate away. But you should not take too long to eat and hold up the dessert, making other people have to wait a long while, especially when you are at a rather formal party.
As you are drinking, your eyes should be looking down on your glass instead of roaming the dining room. There is no need to look up just because someone starts speaking. For a lady, check often and clean off any lipstick traces on your glass.
Manners in Conversation
While conversing at the dining table, if someone asks you a question and you need to give an answer quickly while there is food in your mouth, use your tongue to push the food to one side of your mouth toward the inner side of one cheek and speak. You will see that your voice sounds reasonably clear and clean. If you happen to be the one who asks a question, turn away and this will make a person with food in his mouth know that you can wait till he is more ready to speak.
You should not speak about something dirty or draw up a vision that is not pretty, such as talk about worms in a garbage, someone being sick and throwing up, the condition of someone down with diarrhea or constipation. You should also train yourself and your children not to have to visit the rest room directly before or after eating.
To sneeze, turn your face away from the table and cover your mouth with the napkin or with your hand. After that, say 'Excuse me'.
When other people are speaking, do not break in. Do not irritate or argue strongly with anyone at the dining table. If one or both of you get upset and leave the table, it is bad for you both physically and mentally. It also worries people who care about you who are sharing the same meal.
Manners in Eating Fruit
There are certain kinds of fruit that are not easy to handle and yet served unpeeled. We should pay attention to how to deal with at le.st four kinds of fruit.
Ngo (rambutan) has a red hairy skin. Halve the skin with your fruit knife. Then take the fruit out and convey it to your mouth with the dessert fork. If it is too big, you should cut it right through into halves before eating it.
Mangosteen. Halve the dark skin and pull the top part of the skin off. Use your fork to pick up the fruit for eating. Some people fork up the whole round circle of 5-6 cloves of the mangosteen in one mouthful. lf the fruit is big, the eatable part can be quite large and it does not help one to look very well-mannered in eating.
Durian. In the old time, people ate durian with their hands. But this kind of fruit, if over-ripe can be quite soft and messy. It is best to eat durian using knife and fork.
Oranges. In eating fruit with seeds, like oranges, when you want to take each seed out of your mouth, lift up your dessert fork to receive the seed and place it at the edge of your plate. Seeds should not go directly from your mouth to your plate.
Manners in Eating desserts
Some desserts are in syrup or in sweetened coconut milk. As when you are eating or drinking soup, see that you do not make a juicy noise while enjoying each mouthful. If the host lets you take out your own portion, leave enough of the dessert for other people after you.
2. Table Manners at a Sitting Down Thai or Chinese Banquet
For the Invited Guests
When invited to a meal, be it at the host's home or in a restaurant, do not arrive too early, or it may cause inconvenience to your host, especially jf the party is in his home and he is not quite ready. You can always tarry a few minutes in your car.
Bring a present as a friendly gesture. But what you bring should not be too big or costly especially if the host is in the position to favour you in business etc., because it may be looked upon as a bribe.
Wait to be seated at the dining table.
Remember all the good table manners you have at home.
The Kind of Conversation not to Make
Do not speak almost all the time to the person on one side, leaving the person on your other side mute for long stretches.
Do not speak too many times to someone across the table if the table is a round one. Craning your neck to talk too often to someone far or quite far away from you at any kind of table should not be done.
Do not act as if some person at the table is not there. If you do not know any of the guests, mention it to the host and he will do the needed introduction. The atmosphere will then be light and relaxing for everyone. Do not speak almost all the time about yourself, your great achievements or your wonderful, adorable children or grandchildren.
Do not talk shop for a long time, thus boring other people and excluding them from the conversation. It is surprising to see how many people love showing off. l was recently at a party of ten people and saw two guests who had recently attended an opera. They went on and on about the opera for even more than ten minutes while the rest of us had to just wait and listen. Though not a single one of us joined in, they just went on and on.
Do not engage someone in conversation with you and you only, till he hardly has time to talk to other people.
Although you are close to someone at the feast, do not ask him anything personal. He is not close to everyone at the table!
Do not gossip about or bad-mouth anyone who is not there. Do not speak mockingly or derisively about or to anyone sitting there with you.
If your small children or grandchildren are invited too, see that they are not noisy. Tell them beforehand that they should not walk about or run about as if the host's home were their own.
The Kind of Conversation to Make
Bring in a wholesome subject that is not likely to touch anyone personally.
Distribute your friendly, socializing questions to more than just a few people.
When you talk, look at many people.
Do not look only in one direction, making some people feel left out.
If everyone becomes quiet, initiate a new topic of conversation.
Some Important Points to Remember
If you have good table manners in your own home, eating with guests is nothing difficult. However, there are a number of things that you should remember not to do.
Do not begin eating before your host. Some very well mannered Thais will not even eat before an elderly fellow guest.
If the meal isin a restaurant, do not give a direct order to the waiter for some dish or dishes. You are not the host!
Do not inform your host, without being asked, what delicacy you would like to have.
A crunchy appetizer is usually brought in a small dish before the main dishes arrive. Do not scoop up half of it. It is meant for ten people, not two, around the table to whet their appetite.
If you need anything, it is more polite to inform your host and not wave for the waiter yourself.
Do not get into a bad mood with a waiter no matter how he acts, e.g. he is not attentive, he is slow in serving you, etc.
Remember to keep your mouth closed as you chew your food, to refrain from speaking when your mouth is full and to turn away from the table, putting your hand over your mouth to cough or sneeze.
Do not wrestle with a tough piece of food trying to cut it into two smal1er pieces till it shoots across the room or the table.
Do not lift the soup bowl up and rink from it.
Do not lick you lips or your fingers. Do not criticise a dish that you do not like. Some other people may like it.
Do not forget to put in a good word when some dish is nice and tasty.
Do not place your chopsticks over the rice bowl if there is a stand for them or a plate under the rice bowl.
When a waiter asks about dessert, do not order it if the host has already refused to order, saying that he could not eat anything more, and if he has not invited you to order.
Do not eat too quickly and then sit looking at other people while they eat, thus embarrassing them.
Do not lean over to look at the bill to see how much the host pays for that meal. Do not forget to thank the host before leaving.
For the Host
Some Important Points to Remember
Whether the party is at your own home or in a restaurant, finish with preparing the meal and yourself about ten minutes before the time you invited your guests to arrive.
Do not show uneasiness if someone arrives too soon. Sometimes it is difficult to know what the traffic is going to be like. At home, if you have enough time, it is friendly to offer a drink before the meal.
See to the seating of your guests, not only to honour the main guest but also to see that a minor guest has someone to speak to.
See that no one is left out, in conversation and other things.
See that no one is unnecessarily made to feel less important.
See that your guests are offered a second serving of rice or other things.
See that the different kinds of food get replenished, especially if you have a lot of people at the meal. If you host in a restaurant, and children at some nearby table make too much noise, ask the head-waiter, called 'captain' in Bangkok, to go speak to the adults at that table.
Do not lose your temper with the waiter or anyone else because this will make your guests uncomfortable.
Table Manners at a Thai or an Asian Buffet Banquet
For the Invited Guests
Go to see and greet your host first before mingling in and starting to eat.
Stand in a line to take the food. Though you know someone already standing at the head of the line, you have no right to push yourself in behind that person.
Do not be too long or too loud conversing while standing in the line.
Do not pick up a plate and other eating utensils, passing them to a friend who will go directly to the food, thus forestalling other people in the line.
When someone is taking some food, do not reach over his arm or let your hand reach from under his arm to get the dish you like. Wait your turn.
Do not take an overflowing supply of delicacies, fruit, cakes, etc. You call always go back for more.
At the tabIe, spread out your napkin over your lap.
On getting away for a while, leave the napkin on your seal.
When eating is over, fold it reasonably well and put it on the table.
Do not order too many kinds of hot (full of chillies) dishes.
Have some vegetarian foods for those who need them.
Order sufficient amount of food for the number of people invited.
Do not omit tea or coffee for after the meal (some people do) and offer a refill at least once if the party is in your home.
If it is in a restaurant, tell the waiters to see to this.
Table Manners at a Sitting Down Banquet, Western Style
For the Invited Guests
When you are invited to a sitting-down Western style meal, be it in a hotel a restaurant or in your host's home, there are manners to be kept. Be formally, or informally dressed, according to what is specified about the attire. But always be cleanly and politely dressed.
Bringing with you a cake or a bottle of wine is a gesture your host will appreciate.
Whenever invited to have a drink, do not just blurt out about what you want but ask what the host has and then choose to order from what he has.
If the dinner is formal, when a waiter comes your way offering to take food from his tray to serve you, do not ask for many pieces at once, especially if they are big. He usually comes around again.
Knives, forks and spoons should be picked up for use from the outside first. The ones nearest to your plate are used last.
Soupspoons are round. If you are not used to drinking your soup from the side of this spoon like Westerners, do not worry. As long as you do not make noise when you drink the soup, it is fine.
When eating bread, use your hand to break off a piece enough for one mouthful. Then butter it using a butter knife, and hand the piece to your mouth.
Do not butter the whole big piece and cut it into many pieces from the beginning. Apart from the bread, be careful not to use your fingers in eating.
When eating spaghetti, use your fork to wind a small amount up neatly before conveying it to your mouth.
If bread and buns are put on the table in a large basket for all, hand the basket to a lady or an elderly person near you first and then take a piece for yourself. After this, place the basket away from you, where other people can reach it.
Do not spoon up something that is still very hot and blow on it as if you were in such a hurry to eat that you could not wait.
When eating something delicious or very much to your liking, do not break off a piece of bread and use it to scrape up the last drop on your plate.
When stirring your tea or coffee do not let your spoon touch the side of the cup or it will make a lot of noise.
For the Host
See that your dining room is bright and airy. If the day or night is sultry, turn on the air conditioner.
The number of guests should be just right for the size of the table. Do not squeeze your guests together till they feel uncomfortable.
Use a tablecloth or plate mats, and napkins.
The service set should not be of disagreeing variety.
Glasses for water and other kinds of drinks are on the right of each person's plate. These glasses should be in place before guests come to the table.
Hard drinks should be offered to ladies too, not only to gentlemen.
See that the centre-piece flowers are in a low vase and not hiding a part of someone's face from the person that he is speaking to.
For a night banquet, candles on the table can look romantic and festive.
For eight people upward, there should be two sets of salt and pepper-shakers, each set at each end of the table.
Know the correct protocol in seating you guests. Apart from seating the guest of honour near you, plan it so that everyone has someone he knows not too far away from him.
It is good to seat men and woman alternately for them to socialize.
Instruct your maids or waiters to begin by serving an elderly guest first, or start with the guest of honour and then go round.
The waiter should approach from the left.
If bread is served and you have butter knives, let them be used.
If brandy is offered after the meal, there is no need to place the brandy glasses on the table from the beginning.
When someone comes with a present, do not directly put it away for your own family to enjoy later, but see if he intends to let it be enjoyed by the people there.
Do not spoil the atmosphere by chiding your inferiors in front of your guests.
When guests are leaving, unless you need to be looking after those who are not yet leaving, go to the front door and see them off warmly.
Table Manners at a Buffet Banquet, Western Style
For the invited guests
Most of the manners to be observed are similar to those given in the Thai or Asian Buffet Banquet.
There are a few more points to remember such as the use of eating utensils which, the food being non-Asian, differ to a certain extent. However, this is sufficiently discussed in Table Manners at a Sitting-down banquet, Western style.
For the Host
Similarly, the main difference here is that the food is Western and served Western style. So provide the eating utensils and keep well-mannered accordingly.