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Themes in International Interactions

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Chopsticks: A Brief Primer for Basic Survival

Given the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States, it is an appropriate time to discuss a less policy intensive (but no less critical) side of international business: food. For this reason, I will commit the rest of this post to the background and guidelines relating to chopsticks, as well as to explain where and why they are so important in the context of multinational relationships.

I have written this post to both share my perspectives and to provide a VERY basic guide for those with no experience in Asian business dining settings. As a “foreigner” in this context, my views are thus biased and naturally incomplete, though I think they can provide many readers with confidence and a helpful start in making a good impression through an attempt at good manners (especially in the Chinese context).

Asian growth and the importance of chopstick use today

While globalization has become a fact of life throughout the world, the impact on Asia has been particularly enormous in scope. Today, two of the three largest economies in the world (China and Japan) are Asian powerhouses that attract foreign investment and business activity. Though distinct culturally, these countries do share an important practice: the use of chopsticks as a matter of dining etiquette.

Where it matters

Countries the predominantly use chopsticks are appear in red. Credit:  Expedia (Canada) .

Countries the predominantly use chopsticks are appear in red. Credit: Expedia (Canada).

Chopstick use is primarily found within the same area generally influenced by China and Chinese culture over millennia of history. The contemporary countries of this region include China, Japan, North and South Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Singapore. Of these countries, the five closest to the traditional sphere of Chinese influence (China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) employ chopsticks as primary utensils.

Using chopsticks as a foreigner

For Westerners, chopstick use requires sustained effort in both physical activity and social awareness. There is, of course, a proper method for holding and handling, though I am not the authority to address such technique in depth. I have terrible motor skills and sloppy handwriting, so I consider my ability to use chopsticks effectively as one of my life’s great achievements!

On the social awareness side of things, the key aspect of chopstick use is, from my experience, one of positioning. This is particularly the case when it comes to resting chopsticks. This should be done on a specific chopstick rest next to the plate or on a plate itself; they should never be crisscrossed.

This brings us to the most important section of this post…

Some major offenses

Credit:  Pinterest (UK) .

Sticking chopsticks directly into food
Perhaps above all other offenses, this should be avoided at all costs because it is a religious symbol of death. Witnessing such a symbol is a sign of disrespect and bad luck. Although a foreigner can be forgiven for many faux pas, this is among the more difficult to forgive.

A visual representation of the negative emotions involved in pointing with chopsticks. Credit:  Gurunavi.com .

A visual representation of the negative emotions involved in pointing with chopsticks. Credit: Gurunavi.com.

Pointing at other people with chopsticks
This is a point of bad form when eating and chatting with others. Such action also carries with it aggressive overtones given how many Asian cultures (especially the Chinese) associate direct pointing with verbal abuse and loss of face.

Piercing food with chopsticks
Instead, the proper method is to lift the food item with your chopsticks as prepared. Sometimes piercing may be unavoidable, but in those cases it is still best to minimize such a technique.

Crossing chopsticks
This is a move that implies negative feelings towards the other members of the dining party. Given the social networking and transactional nature of many Asian cultures (especially the Chinese), this action also results in reputation damage to the host of the gathering. Such a result is ill-advised for any business traveler as it can easily derail the relationship closeness needed to achieve work objectives throughout Asian societies.

Using chopsticks of unequal length/resting them at uneven lengths
This is another cultural norm with roots related to death and mourning.

Moving forward

I hope this post has been a helpful introductory resource into an essential element of Asian culture. In my experiences as a businessman and student abroad I have enjoyed learning more about this unique window into food and camaraderie, and I want others to have the same preparedness and enthusiasm for equally fulfilling experiences.

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Please feel free to comment or reach out to me at info@wpglobalconsulting.com to discuss further. Thank you for reading!

William VogtComment