Defining the Influence of Culture on Table Manners

We all know that food as a high concern in our daily life. Indeed, the food reflects a national tradition but most essentially the culture. Yet, every country has a different concept of food because of the environment: climatic conditions are some of the major factors that determine the types of food available for specific cultural groups. Religion is another outer factor influencing food habits and culture. Culture herself also brings a divide on food and finally because of the ethnic customs. Indeed, some foods have a far origin which can be traced back to community ancestral background. Table manners are present in our everyday life. They are a result of the history of culinary cultures for thousands of years, but also the sign that a nation went from ignorance and backward towards civilisation and progress.

The world is becoming smaller and smaller. People of different cultures are more depending on each other. The way our society is evolving ask us to see things through other people eyes and develop a new way of living together. To survive, everybody must eat and the manners in which way we eat are shaped by culture. We all should understand some basic facts about the table manner. Because table manners are not only an essential tool that allowed you to communicate socially but also an important figure which represents the historical culture and culture practices.


The complex of the philosophical thoughts and the numerous kinds of social factors make some differences in Chinese and Western table manners. In China, a dinner for whatever the purpose, everyone is sitting around the table and the food is put in the center of the table and it is, somehow a communication tool for people. Indeed, it represents the mutual respect and the value of humility. It's their way to communicate easier with others. However, in the Western table, the face-to-face position during the extended duration of the meal creates the conditions for a mandatory intimate conversation. Each meal, therefore, works as a test saying if the family has things to say to themselves, proof that it is alive and well.

The Chinese food culture is one of the richest in history and the Chinese etiquette makes the food culture whole. Everything in regards to food here is very organized. I believe we may associate this to the sovereignty’ influence. China was for a very long time led by sovereignty and the population was quick to adopt the set etiquette. It prides itself for being the first country to welcome the concepts of polite social intercommunications. Table manners began during Confucian philosopher’s reign. He believed that food and companion were inseparable.

An interest in manners considerably increased during the Renaissance, as merchants, clerics, and other emerging professionals slowly began to form a nascent middle-class. As courtesy began to be more democratized, it started to be called civility — the conventional behaviour for all subjects to adopt. The democratization of manners also led to their more and more refinement. Etiquette had originated as a status symbol of the aristocracy, but as the middle-class began to adopt its code as well, the old manners lost their renown and value as a marker of class identity.

The repercussion of table manners in international cultural communication

Table manners in different cultures reflect the values of the culture. As the world is opening considerably quickly and because of the globalization, intercultural communication also rises promptly and we must be compliant to communicate and understand that there are views that differ from our own. Everyone should know some fundamental knowledge about table manners because they are not just an important social-communicative form, but also an important symbol that represents the cultural traditions.

Since centuries, we do many things at the table. For example, when we meet an important person, or we have an important meeting, we could ask the people to have dinner, and discuss on the table. So we must know the table manners. On the table, no matter what country the people come from, they should feel respected by our table manners. Today, cultural communication which goes beyond the national framework is so frequent that table manners become more and more important. We can not only increase the understanding of the table manners culture but also improve the achievement of intercultural communication, which can help to avoid misunderstandings and communication disorder because of inappropriate behaviour.

Therefore, table manners have always played an important role in making a first good impression on the people in one host country. Our actions at the table while eating can be essential to how others perceive us and can affect our success in intercultural communication but also our professional careers. Unnecessary to say, table manners are one of culturally-recognized communication norms of the host culture.

The divergences in table manners between Oriental and Western countries

Regarding the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture, Oriental countries are high-context culture, Western countries are low-context culture. 

High-context cultures often arise from less straight verbal and nonverbal communication, employing small communication gestures and reading into these less direct messages with more meaning. Low-context cultures are the opposite. Straightforward verbal communication is needed to well understand a message being said and doing so relies profoundly on explicit verbal skills.

Oriental culture promotes the spirit of collectivity and team and individual relies much on his collectivity or team, whereas Western culture promotes the concept of independence and individual freedom. In Oriental culture, people are concerned a lot about family and country. Their culture is based on unity. In Western countries, people have a strong relationship with their individual liberty. People want to be autonomous as early as possible to get rid of their parents. They don't want to depend on their family or it signifies that they're losing their freedom. On this, Asian culture is completely different knowing that in their culture, the family is the most important entity.

Both cultures assign great attention to interpersonal relationship, but there is a noticeable difference in the ideas and ways of dealing with it. Asian people are very courteous to their friends and they have nothing secret to keep from their friends while in Western countries, people give special attention to privacy; they have no any interest in other people's privacy and private life. Different table manners represent different cultures. The manner is the character of a person, while culture is the essence of a country.

The notion of time

When talking about the time, Asian and Westerners have different views. In China, they don’t pay much attention to time. They don’t have specific demands about arrival time. To arrive earlier, on time or a little late is allowed. They often get to the place where they have dinner at a litter late time. Because most of them think the host should wait for guests and it is a way to respect others.

The Westerners think both of the time and money are very important, so they always make time and money bonded together. There is a saying goes said that “Time is money”, and the saying goes has become deeply in the Westerners mind. Therefore, they embrace as far as possible, they plan and manage their time carefully. The Westerners are usually filled with a sense of urgency of time.

The seating arrangement

Both in China and the West, people are particular in the seating arrangement of a formal banquet. In the Chinese banquets, the seat of honour is reserved for the master of the banquet or the guest with the highest status, is the one in the center facing east or facing the entrance. Those of higher position sit closer to the master of the banquet. The guests of lowest position sit furthest from the seat of honour. When a family holds a banquet, the seat of honour is for the guest with the highest status and the head of the house takes the least prominent seat. If round tables are utilised, the seat facing the door is the seat of honour. The seats on the left-hand side of the seat of honour are second, fourth, sixth, etc in importance, while those on the right are third, fifth, seventh and so on in importance until they join together. In ancient times there was a piece of furniture known as an Eight Immortals table, a big square table with benches for two people on each side. If there was a seat facing the entrance, then the right-hand seat when facing the entrance was for the guest of honour. If there was no seat facing the entrance door then the right-hand seat when facing east was the seat of honour. The seats on the left-hand side of the seat of honour were, in order of importance, second, fourth, sixth and eighth and those on the right were third, fifth and seventh. In a grand banquet of many tables, the table of honour is the one furthest from the entrance. The tables on the left-hand side of the tables of honour are, in order of importance, second, fourth, sixth and so on, and those on the right are third, fifth and seventh. Guests are seated according to their status and degree of relationship to the master of the banquet.

In Western countries, people usually use a long table. The host and hostess should sit at either end of the table. The most honoured male guests typically sit at the right and left-hand of the hostess, while the most honoured female guests are seated to the right and left hand of the host. Husbands and wives can't sit together and sitting them across from each other need to be avoided. Newlyweds are the exception to the rule. Same for engaged couples. Engaged couples are always seated together.

 The tableware

As everyone knows people use chopsticks in China, and chopsticks are the most significant tableware for Chinese. Usually, they are traditionally held in the right hand, even by left-handed people. Although chopsticks may now be used by either hand, left-handed chopstick use is considered improper. Besides, there are also some rules to remain by when using it. For example, before dinner, chopsticks must be put on the right of the rice bowl tidily. While after the meal, it should be placed in the middle of the rice bowl, and when talking with other people, we should put down our chopsticks. It is a polite action to others.

In Western countries, people use knives and forks. When eating western-style food, a knife should be held in the right hand and a fork should be held in the left hand. What’s more, the different ways knives and forks place have different meanings. For example, you have to leave for a while when you have a meal, you can put the knife and fork separately as a triangle. The service person will not receive your plate. If you have already finished the meal, you should make the knife and fork paralleled. Bread is taken in the fingers and laid on the side of the plate or the edge of the large plate. It is never taken with a fork. Butter is taken from the butter dish with the butter knife and placed on the side of the plate, not on one’s bread.

Well, the Chinese use chopsticks and westerners use knives and forks. However, they also represent the difference between both collectivism and individualism. Westerners use knives and forks to cut food and separate it to represent individualism. The Chinese use chopsticks to grasp the entire food to mean unity and collectivism.

The order of serving

Chinese order of serving: the first are cold dishes, beverage, and wine; then the hot dishes; next staple food; at the end the sweets and fruit. The order of serving still keeps the traditional ways, first hot and later cold. Besides, hot dishes should be served from the left side opposite the seat of the guest of honor. In the wedding banquet, the plates on the table can be overlapped which means that a good thing comes again and again. While, in a white banquet like a funeral, the plates cannot be overlapped, you can guess the reason why.

Western serving steps are usually like that: bread and butter, cold dishes, soup, seafood, main course, dessert, coffee, and fruit. In Western, the cold dishes are known as an appetizer dish, served as the first course to eat with an aperitif. There’s soup and bread. The main course has chicken, beef, fish, and pork and so on. The dessert always has ice-cream, pudding, etc.

Sharing dinner

In China, food should be taken by guests firstly and the men could give service to women. When taking your food, you need to avoid leaving your seat. Chinese table manners atmosphere is lively, people like chatting while eating. Your statement should be rich, scholarly and delicate. But talking and laughing loudly is not polite. Before you have a drink, you should make a toast to the elder and the guest.

In the West, men should move the seat for women. People always talk with their neighbors when eating, but they don’t talk loudly. Usually, people start talking after the main food and when they eat dessert. You can't make sounds while using the knife and fork and you can't put your elbows on the table.

Leaving the table

In China, only can the host state the end of the banquet. After the host leaves his seats, the guests can leave theirs. Then, the guests should express their thanks to the host. If the guests want to goodbye to the host in the midway of the banquet, they just say good-bye to the master or give a nod as a signal to others.

At the end of the banquet in Western countries, people should pick up the napkin from the leg, fold optionally, put the napkin on left of the table, and then get up for leaving. When leaving, people should help elders or ladies to move the seats, and say thanks to the host when they say goodbye. If you want to be more cautious, you can thank by phone or card again.

The explanation of different table manners between the Westerns and the Oriental

The culture significance

Culture will affect people’s view on things. Different country has a different culture, so it is obvious that the thinking model between China and Western are different. The Chinese culture pays more attention to one’s intuition, and the Western culture leans to logic and analyze.

As to the tradition of the culture, Chinese people especially believe their intuition. They insist on the experience of their feeling but this phenomenon also happens in the communication between west and east. In China, thousands of cultural tradition is reflected in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The Confucian thought mainly emphasized “altruism, piety, dignity, wisdom, faith”; Taoists advocated “natural” and “clean”; Buddhist is advocated “thoughtful”, “purdue beings”,

However, Western countries assert democracy, freedom, equality, and advocated personal power, emphasize personal value, pay attention to individualism. We have to learn from the American literature that the theme of the “American Dream” is an important indication in American literary history. It means that Americans wish to succeed through their self-dependence. They believe that they are created by God and that they are endowed with special traits which will help them to become the kind of people they wish to be. So this culture connotation can also be reflected in the table cultures. They respect freedom. So there are not so many rules as in Chinese table setting. They behave freely.

The frame of mind

Compared with the western thinking model, the eastern idea is sloppy and unclear. The Chinese thought is more comprehensive and integrated. The essence of the idea affirms harmonization or even cancel it with an extreme solution to the problem. The Chinese psychological lean for comprehensive and logical analysis. The simple integral concept and unified way of thinking reflect our national understanding and the ability to transform the world. The west emphasizes analysis and partial logic thinking. At the same time, in western countries, they always put the value of the individual in an important position, the principle of the supremacy of outstanding individualism.

The code of conduct

Conduct regulation means the single standard, which the society can accept. That means that something can tell people what is the right way to resolve this matter and what is inappropriate to do. When different background culture people do communication with each other, they usually judge the coherence by own principles of behaviour. So it is inevitable for them to misunderstand others. And what’s more, it will ruin the bond between people. For example: In China, it is kind to pat children’s heads, but it is a very disturbing thing in the western country. If you do this, his parents will probably get irritated. And the other different thing: In China, men always smoke after they finish their meals, they think it is a kind of pleasure. Nevertheless, in western countries, they consider this behaviour is not polite to women and children and it is also a rude thing to smoke on a table. So, we need to acknowledge and use various regulation conduct when we do business or have communication between foreign countries. To ensure the communication will be smooth, we should understand each other’s conduct. Especially remember the forbidden things and impolite things.

The values

Value is the heart of culture and the most relevant criteria that are used to estimate the behaviours, things and make decisions. Values are the light of people’s human living, people in the same natural and social environment will have the same values. Hence, every society and country is using its own recognized values. In the dinner table etiquette, people’s behaviour is a fragment of the national values and the identical behaviour under the guidance of different values. In a state of traditions like China, highlights loyalty and respectful fervour reveal the values of collectivism. Chinese people respect the old people and take good care of children, therefore, seating arrangements are very regular, seats not only have upper and lower grades, but also the specific seat sorting. For western countries, individualism values occupy the dominant position and the individual power of each person is reflected. This is because, in the philosophy of Westerners, it tends to focus on individualism, personality development, and self-expression. They deem that if a person is not up to his purpose, which is not because of destiny but their laziness and their lack of fighting spirit. Western people put into practice the individual dining system, each of them eats their tableware and choose their favourite food.


From the above study, we saw that table manners exist thanks to the culture. Those table manners can differ widely among different cultures, countries and even regions. All culture are different with different traditions and these create different table manners. To conclude, culture is the root of table manners.

16 August 2021
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