Chopsticks or Silverware: Dining and Entertainment Etiquette in Asia


When traveling overseas to conduct business studying the culture and customs of that country is imperative. Offending or making a mockery out of someone’s customary practices while dining can leave a bad impression and ruin a business deal, even if done unintentionally.  When traveling to Asia for business keep the following in mind:

Dining and Entertainment

Asian citizens enjoy entertaining in bars and restaurants. They take special care to ensure that the food is exquisitely flavored, prepared, and presented. In China and Hong Kong, expect a banquet styled meal with innumerable courses served one after the other. Arrive on time and be prepared to eat. If you do not know how to use chopsticks you should practice long before the initial dinner. Eating with chopsticks is customary and asking for cutlery will be seen as an insult. We will discuss the use of chopsticks in further detail below. Take something from every serving dish, even if it’s only a small portion. Never clean your plate – symbolically, the magnificence of the meal means that you can’t finish it. In Japan, you will be hosted to an evening of eating and drinking. Let your host order and enjoy something from each platter. Don’t refuse to eat sushi or sashimi – (both of which involve raw fish) – you’ll insult your host. If drinking beer or sake do so slowly – you host will fill your cup every time it is empty.

Koreans entertain both at home and at restaurants. Arrive on time if you’re going to a private home, and bring a small gift. If you’re invited out to a night on the Town, be appropriately grateful, for your host has probably spared no expense. The Filipinos style of entertaining is to invite you to a private home, where you and a gaggle of your host’s friends will enjoy a lavish meal.

As a rule of thumb, when in doubt look at what others who are familiar with the customs are doing and follow along!

Chopstick Do’s and Don’ts

  • Chopsticks should always be held correctly, i.e. between the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.
  • When not in use, chopsticks must always be placed neatly on the table with two sticks lying tidily next to each other at both ends. Failure to do so is evocative of the way the dead would be placed in a coffin before the funeral and is a major faux pas.
  • Chopsticks are traditionally held in the right hand only, even for the left-handed. Although chopsticks may now be found in either hand, a few still consider left-handed chopstick use improper etiquette. One explanation for the treatment of such usage as improper is that within the confines of a round table this may be inconvenient.
  • Never point the chopsticks at another person. This amounts to insulting that person and is a major faux pas.
  • Never wave your chopsticks around as if they were an extension of your hand gestures.
  • Never bang chopsticks like drumsticks. Though you may find this amusing, this is akin to telling others at the table you are a beggar.
  • Decide what to pick up before reaching with chopsticks, instead of hovering them over or rummaging through dishes.
  • To keep chopsticks off the table, they can be rested horizontally on one’s plate or bowl; a chopstick rest (commonly found in restaurants) can also be used.
  • When picking up a piece of food, never use the tips of your chopsticks to poke through the food as with a fork; exceptions include tearing apart larger items such as vegetables. In more informal settings, smaller items or those more difficult to pick up such as cherry tomatoes or fishballs may be stabbed, but this is frowned upon by traditionalists.
  • Never stab chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice, as this resembles incense sticks used at temples to pay respects to the deceased. This is considered the ultimate dinner table faux pas.

Communal Chopsticks

  • When there are communal chopsticks, it is considered impolite to use your own chopsticks to pick up the food from the shared plate, or to eat using the communal chopsticks.
  • It is considered impolite to use the blunt end of one’s own chopsticks to transfer food from a common dish to one’s own plate or bowl; use the communal chopsticks instead.
  • When communal chopsticks are not provided, it is considered polite (and sanitary) to use the blunt end of one’s own chopsticks to serve a guest by transferring food from the common dish to a guest’s plate or bowl.
  • An exception to the above can usually be made in intimate settings such as at home.

Other utensils

  • If noodle soup is served, many consider a more elegant way to eat by picking the noodle into a serving spoon first, and eating from the spoon, rather than slurping directly from the bowl into the mouth using chopsticks.
  • Chinese traditionally eat rice from a small bowl held in the left hand. The rice bowl is raised to the mouth and the rice pushed into the mouth using the chopsticks. Some Chinese find it offensive to scoop rice from the bowl using a spoon. If rice is served on a plate, as is more common in the West, it is acceptable and more practical to eat it with a fork or spoon. The thumb must always be above the edge of the bowl.

Eating from common dishes

  • Pick the food on the dish that is at the top and nearest to you in distance. Never rummage through the dish or pick from the far side for your favorite food.
  • In general, more conservative Chinese frown upon the practice of picking more than one or two bites of food in your bowl or serving plate as if you were eating in the Western way. Most Chinese would understand the practice during infectious disease epidemics, or if the person is from the West.
  • If both a serving bowl – separate from rice bowl – and plate are provided, never put any food items to be eaten onto the serving plate. This rule may be relaxed for foreigners.

Seniority and guests at the table

  • The elderly or guest(s) of honour are usually the first to start the meal.
  • The youngest or least senior may serve the eldest or most senior first, as part of the Confucian value of respecting seniors.
  • The youngest on the table addresses all of the elder members at the table before starting, perhaps telling them to please “eat rice” as a signal to help themselves.
  • The best food in a dish should be left to the elderly, children, or the guest of honour, even if they are one’s favourite.
  • The eldest person present, or the guest of honour, is given a seat facing the door.
  • When the hostess says her food is not good enough, the guest must disagree and tell her it is one of the finest foods they have ever tasted.

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