Fork or Fingers? Different Manners for Different Cultures

No. 1 Ladies' Detective AgencyA few nights ago I was watching an episode of the new HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  The stories are set in Botswana. In the episode I watched, Mma Ramotswe, the No. 1 Detective, takes a client from the US out to do some investigation near the Kalahari Desert. Mma Ramotswe and Mrs. Curtin, her client, are served food by Mma Potsane, a woman who lives way out in rural Botswana.

When the meal is served, there are no utensils, so Mrs. Curtin asks Mma Ramotswe what to do, how to eat. Mma Ramotswe demonstrates by taking a bite sized portion of rice, balling it up using her thumb and two fingers, dipping it in the creamed spinach dish served with the rice, and popping it into her mouth. Mrs. Curtin manages very well. Having just published a book for middle school kids, Emily Post’s Table Manners for Kids,  I was naturally intrigued by the wonderful display of great table manners by both Mrs. Curtin and Mma Ramotswe.

As I watched the scene it brought to mind the diversity of eating styles throughout the world. Depending on what culture you grow up in you might eat with your fingers (as Mrs. Curtin discovered), chopsticks, or a variety of utensils. That led me to think about kids in school cafeterias. When children who are refugees arrive in the United States, one of the first things they do is enroll in school. There are so many things to learn, including new styles of dress, language, forms of greeting, and different ways of eating. Mrs. Curtin was perplexed when she faced the dish without any utensils. Kids who were born outside the US, in a different culture, are in an equally unfamiliar setting–the American public school cafeteria.

It is not the job of kids to teach their peers how to eat. It might prove awkward and embarrassing for all involved. It is their job not to stare or make fun of another student having a hard time learning to use the tools of a new culture. The kid who is having a hard time cutting their meat with a knife and fork may be a whiz with chopsticks or use their fingers with a dexterity that the American kids could envy. The message to the majority of the American kids who are not perplexed by the cafeteria is to be as considerate and thoughtful as Mma Ramotswe was when she understood that Mrs. Curtin was not ignorant; she just knew a different way.

It’s all about learning about each other. And table manners are elements of the diversity in this world. Respect for other cultures leads to the building and strengthening of friendships, and the cafeteria may be a great place to start.

14 comments to Fork or Fingers? Different Manners for Different Cultures

  • Hey – whats up. Thanks for the info. I’ve been digging around looking some info up for shool, but i think i’m getting lost!. Google lead me here – good for you i suppose! Keep up the great information. I will be coming back in a few days to see if there is updated posts.

  • Great Read! Looking forward to more on this subject Bookmarked the blog. Was also curious if anybody could point me to some related material. Thanks in advance.

  • Bonnie

    very dissapointed at your lack of sincerity in this article. Eating with your hands is unsanitary, repulsive to western society,and at all costs avoided by all. I tried it once (not knowing about the hand eating) in a NYC restaurant. I went to the ladies room to wash my hands, it was not clean,no form of dissinfectant was provided at the table,as I looked around and saw people eating with their hands I was nauseated and had to leave before our food arrived.Do not encourage children to envy this ability (what ability)it will give them parasites that they will not be able get rid of for as long as they live. When visiting third world countries, one should be informed and always bring along plastic utensils,and don’t worry about offending anyone, your health is the most important thing in your life,other than offended they will be curious on how we eat instead.

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  • Amanada B

    This is a very good video. J$MONEY, shut up and get off this website. I love this. It is awesome!! Keep up the good work by feeding little babies fingers instead of forks!!!

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  • This is about the article you wrote concerning the ways of living and manners at the table in Botswana. I believe that respect is the most important part, but it is also true that as Mrs. Curtis did, “where ever you go, you do what you see”, So the manners of your country must be stressed and taught to the foreigners with respect, so that they can learn your culture, and you can learn theirs’.

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