10 No-Nonsense Tips to Brush Up Your Manners

It’s hard to navigate through the different social customs of the East and West. Here are some surefire ways to avoid embarrassment (and possible confrontations).
Monday 27 August 2018
Don't be afraid to slurp those noodles if you're in Asia. Photo: iStock

Get ready to discard all those dinner table rules your momma taught you because when it comes to slurping your soupy noodles, it’s a compliment in China, Japan and Korea. In fact, if you aren’t making enough loud, questionable noises, your fellow diners may think you’re not enjoying your meal. We’re not saying you should gargle that beef broth, but a nice slurp will make your hosts happy.

Watch where you place your chopsticks. Asians may be sympathetic to your clumsy use of the utensil but you should never, ever, stab your chopsticks into the rice and leave them there. Reason being, it’s reminiscent of an offering to the dead. Yikes.

Dinner table manners are key to making a good impression and yes, it’s much more complicated than just lazily placing your cutlery on the plate. If you’re taking a break, place the fork and knife crossed at the centre of the plate with the fork tines facing downwards. When you’re finished, place the cutlery in the 4 o’clock position. You’re now ready to show off your sophistication to the world.

If you’re ever using the subway in Japan and feel a gentle nudge from behind, you’re probably not being pick-pocketed. It’s more likely that you’ve been touched by the oshiya or “pushers”; but check for uniforms and white gloves. They’re paid to ensure nobody gets squashed between the doors, so don’t scream blue murder and mistake their help for harassment or thievery.

Unlike Southeast Asian countries, European cities such as Amsterdam, London and Paris are renowned for their efficient public transport. When using the subway/metro, allow people to exit the trains before entering to avoid chaos and a whole lot of shoving. Remember, everybody has somewhere they need to be too.

Chewing gum may be tolerated around the world despite its reputation for being left in public areas and just generally being gross. In Singapore, you can actually get fined for chewing gum. While this ban has been partially lifted and there are exceptions to the types of gum you can chew, why tempt fate, yes?

Aside from China, and a few other Asian countries, it is totally inappropriate and frowned upon to spit in public, litter, or urinate anywhere that’s not a toilet. Keep your fetish of spraying bodily fluids, behind closed doors – preferably your own.

In Thailand, touching someone’s head is considered immensely offensive as Buddhists believe that the head is the most valued part of the human body. In contrast, the feet are considered the least valuable as they embody attachment to the ground. And don’t use your feet to point at things, that’s also a sign of rudeness.

tips-on-table - faux pas
Don’t be stingy with your tips. Photo: iStock

In Europe, and especially America, it can be considered quite rude not to tip after eating at a restaurant and your stinginess may even spark a confrontation. It’s best to leave a tip of 15% of your total bill to keep your server smiling.

When holidaying in Malaysia or Indonesia, it’s usually fine to sunbathe by the ocean and debut that sexy red bikini you just bought. However, if you’re the vagabond type looking for rural beachers, remember to bring along a wrap or sarong. Keeping yourself covered keeps everyone happy. In Muslim countries, modesty is held in high regard.

In Japan, bathhouses are still a staple, whether they’re a sento or onsen (hot springs). There’s nothing like relaxing in a Japanese bath and feeling your worries dissipate in the ripples. But knowing tourist tendencies, you’ll probably want to jump in right away. Stop. First make sure you’ve thoroughly washed yourself. Don’t dirty the water in any way as it is seen as a sign of disrespect. You wouldn’t want to risk muddying your reputation with the Japanese would you?

America is probably the only place in the West where you’re allowed to be rude and crass but in the majority of countries in Europe, it is relatively bad-mannered to amplify your voice. Whether you’re at the Louvre in Paris or an intimate restaurant in Positano, Italy, try not to screech as you may attract unwanted glares. Pubs in London, while watching football, MAY be an exception.

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The one rule that goes for every Asian country and will continue to prevail for generations to come is: ‘No shoes in the house!’ This practice has been ingrained in the young, so don’t be surprised if your Singaporean mate asks you to leave your shoes outside his flat in London too. Remember, nobody wants germs lingering in their houses…at least no Asian.

If all else fails, the Chinese government has issued a guide on how to remain a civilised tourist which highlights the dos and don’ts when travelling abroad, so try to pick that up. If not, there’s always Google.