Mind your (table) manners!
Mind your (table) manners! Image by Ronald de Jong
Image © 2014 Ronald de Jong
The Philippine hospitality is legendary and uncomplicated; visitors will always be greeted and treated with a spontaneous smile that comes straight from the heart. The "open arm" mentality is one of a kind and Mindanaoans, from all walks of life, are indeed known for the graciousness with which they show their generosity. They will display the utmost respect to their guests and will do everything to ensure that they feel comfortable and always have something to eat and drink. The Filipino culture has its own traits when it comes to basic house routine and table manners; most of these are in general based on profound politeness, togetherness, healthful living and often anchored in religion and shrouded with country wisdom. The rules of engagement that are dominating general behavior are complex and it takes some time to understand these, mostly conventional principles of attitude. When invited to have dinner with a Filipino family, sit down at the table with a gentle heart and a respectful mind, enjoy the food, the company and the hospitality, nonetheless, keep in mind a few simple recommendations. Wear the appropriate attire, preferably a conservative design; visitors are, in many instances, judged by the way they look and dress. Be attentive and friendly without being "artificial" and show a genuine interest in the culture. Be cordial, take time to smile and do not arrive empty handed, bring some sweets or flowers as a token of gratitude for the host family; but find out first if the flowers that are given are not the kind that are traditionally used for funerals. If giving a billfold or purse as a gift, make certain to put some money like coins or notes in, giving an empty wallet can cause bad luck and it means the wallet will stay empty in the future. A gift should be wrapped with festive paper and ribbons; this shows the amount of time, effort and thoughts that is put into the gesture. Do recognize that gifts are not opened immediately when they are received.
When meeting the host; a firm handshake is the usual and most polite way to greet, but do abstain from giving one that is bone-crushing, this is seen as a sign of aggression. Expect a handshake in return that lasts longer than usual. It is common for family and visitors to remove their shoes before entering the house, not doing so is considered rude and unhygienic. Don’t worry; normally house slippers will be given, if available. It is most likely a guest will be welcomed with the words "Kumain ka Na?"(“Have you eaten yet?”), instead of "How are you?” and probably a glass of water will be offered first, in doing so it is understood that the guest will only bring good news. Once inside, it is explicitly out of bounds to roam around without approval from the owner, be very cautious about touching and moving objects: these are often placed, so that bad spirits are kept out and the good ones are invited in. When it is necessary to pass through a group of people it is a good practice to bend forward a little, lower the head and clasp the hands together in front of the body, this is both a token of respect and a nonvocal apology for interrupting. When having a conversation it is normal to stand at arms lengths from one another, when meeting a stranger this distance could be more. It is a major no-no to place the hands on the hips; this could be associated with anger or arrogance. Proper table manners will also affect the way how a guest is perceived, remember that guests are expected to wait until they have been invited by the host before sitting for dinner and for directions as to where to sit. It is a custom to wash the hands thoroughly prior to and after every meal, eating with the hands (Kamayan) is not uncommon in rural areas, the food can be felt and smelt before tasting and it is said that the food taste a lot better, nevertheless, avoid using your left hand for any kind of eating, keep it at the side, do not place it on the table. Be careful not to eat the food from the palms of the hand; do not put the fingers in the mouth and do not scoop up the food using the right hand like a back hoe.
Religion plays an important role in family life, by tradition, a prayer is said before the meal begins and on occasion after meals as well. This is one way to be faithful and thankful for the Blessings that are received. Glassware and cutlery must remain untouched until the prayer has been said, wait for the host to lift a fork and invites all who are present at the table to eat, yet wait until the oldest person at the table has been provided first. When having an irresistible appetite for second servings, have some patience and wait until more is offered and when a glass is empty; usually the host is obliged to refill the guest’s glass; refilling one’s own glass is not done, for this will cause a feeling of disgrace. Because meals are set up family-style, with all dishes shared, only use the utensils that come with the dishes that are supplied to pick up food from communal bowls and salvers. It is easy to understand that using a spoon, a fork or food that has come into contact with someone else’s saliva is assumed as repulsive; it is also believed that it will cause the food to get stale rapidly. A knife is seldom a part of the table setting, so it is quite normal to cut the meat with the edge of the spoon or fork, most meat is served in small portions. In most families chopsticks are rarely used, unless they are of Chinese descent. Be careful and don’t drop the silverware, when a spoon goes ground ward it is an implication that a female guest is coming, if a fork falls down on the floor a male visitor can be expected. As said; Filipinos are very generous, so receiving additional visitors is no problem what so ever, there is always more food on the table than the family could eat; at all times there will be an allowance for unexpected guests. In the same way, try to pay extreme attention when handling a glass, it is a bad omen when this falls to the floor and breaks, this could mean serious trouble ahead or even that somebody in the family or a loved one will die soon. Never decline food that has been offered, this could be interpreted as a refusal of the hospitality, eating heartily is the best way to give kudos to the lady of the house, try not to overload the plate with too much food. Taking the last portion of food, without asking for permission, from a central serving tray is unsuitable, by doing so there is a possibility one will remain an old maid or a bachelor for the rest of one’s life. In any case; as not to give the suspicion of being greedy leave a small amount of food on the platter, leaving an empty dish could insult the host, it also means going hungry for a lifetime. At no time stack dirty dishes one on top of the other, this could result in to adultery. Surely death, loneliness, starvation and infidelity are that not kind of perspectives anyone wants to deal with.
Food is an essential part of socializing and the presence of family and friends is highly valued, so lunch and dinner time is, whenever possible, bonding time, no chair is left empty, most often there are more than a few people seated at the table, though the number of persons sitting down should never add up to thirteen, there is a possibility that one individual in the party could die very soon. Many persons at one dining table could lead to limited personal space, thus, never extend an arm too far to get something that is on the table and beyond reach, just ask politely for it, also do not extend the elbows to the side so as not to bump others. The food or item that is wanted can be pointed out with the chin, lips and even head, pointing with an outstretched index finger is presumed to be offensive. As a rule it is best not to use any single finger as a gesture, open-handed movements, with all fingers kept together, is always a safe approach. Keep the hands above the table at all times, the elbows off the table while eating and not in any way pass food only with the left hand, it is preferred to use both hands to give and receive. Cupping the chin with the hands at the dinner table and placing the face between the palms of the hands is supposed to be bad mannered, it will drive good luck away and it makes a person appear indifferent. Never put the hands in the pocket either, this could be an indication that one feels uncomfortable around other people. Even though; a wallet should be kept in the pocket; at any time, placing money bills or coins on top of the dining table will attract bad luck; this is a prediction that the entire income will be spent on food. Always sit up straight and leave all four legs of the chair on the floor, tipping the chair while eating is annoying. Light burping during or after eating is allowed and will be thought of as a compliment, even so; this should be done while covering the mouth with a hand or napkin. It gives the impression that the meal is enjoyed and there was enough provided to eat, however; belching, slurping, coughing, sneezing, smacking, moaning, blowing the nose, yawing or any other bodily noises are frowned upon, furthermore; sighing while eating can cause the own spirit to starve. Cover the mouth when it is not possible to control these natural inconveniences and do not forget to say “Excuse me” when done.
The Filipino cuisine can best be described as a unique fusion of Chinese, Malay, Spanish, Mexican, American and Indian flavours, but is not as famous as its other Asian counterparts. Because everybody’s taste buds are different, some local dishes may not be all time favourites. If the food that is prepared is not that tasteful, do not act disappointed and don’t set it aside, the meal could be lost forever, try to eat a small portion and make an excuse rather than rejecting it straight away. Take into account that playing with food could cause a stomach-ache. Eat moderate portions and chew thoroughly, if someone is choking on a piece of food there is a great chance a remote individual will be talking about that person and if a fish bone gets stuck in the throat, don't tell anyone, at most try to pretend nothing has happened and turn the plate around three times and the bone will disappear. If, by coincidence, the bone is still inside it can be picked out discreetly, preferably unseen with the fingers and placed at the edge of a plate and while on the subject; picking the teeth with a toothpick in front of tablemates is uncivilized. By the way; tapping with the fingers on the table, humming, whistling or singing is without question not accepted. Chewing should be done quietly and with the mouth closed. Sniffing the food from a short distance and talking with food between the jaws is regarded as vulgar. When finished eating, place the fork and spoon side by side on the plate, facing up, napkins should be placed on the table beside the plate. Don’t leave the table until everyone is done with their meal; although in large families it is allowed to leave the table before others are finished; another family member will take the vacant seat and join in. Still and all, when someone has to leave the table, the plates should be rotated a full 360 degrees by those still eating; this will bring good fortune to the person that is leaving.
Every main meal is an occasion that will allow family members and friends to talk about their day and share ideas and opinions. It is expected that guests are entertaining and will actively take part in the conversation, howbeit; beware that Filipinos possess a great sensitivity to other people's feelings and needs and any form of directness or frankness could be presumed as intrusive and brutal. Show courtesies to every person; regardless of their social class or age and not under any condition discuss religious issues, culture, body parts or politics. Avoid asking very personal questions and don’t stare at a person’s eyes to long; direct eye contact is regarded as an aggressive and challenging attitude. Try to keep away from whatever confrontation and refrain from being demonstrative, do not take sides, don't go straight to the point, and be diplomatic, don’t complain and never show negative emotions like anger or dismay. Losing temper or raising a voice could be explained as losing face (Walang Hiya), not in the least speak in a harsh tone and by no means curse, the family will certainly feel terribly embarrassed. The people in Mindanao tend to communicate through nonverbal cues most of the time; eyes, lips, and hands are used to convey a wide range of messages. Body language and voice tonality often conveys more than the words that are used and it can also be misunderstood or completely change its meaning, so be aware of physical gestures and facial expression. Know that the level of comfort with touching, tone of voice and gestures is depending on one’s ethnic background, social class, gender and age. The average Filipino has a high tolerance level; they can easily excuse or ignore small mistakes and will react to minor cultural imperfections with an understanding smile. Thus; be modest in speech and do not act boastful in behaviour, humility; politeness and passiveness are much more appreciated in a person. After dinner does not offer to help to clear the table and wash the dishes, guests are not allowed to do so, this is because the mice or rats could come out their holes and eat everything in the house. Clearing the table will not start unless everyone has finished eating, otherwise the last eating dinner guest will be doomed to a life of loneliness. When leaving the house be sure to personally extend good wishes and show appreciation to the elders of the family. And finally, it is a sincere expression of kindness to give the departing guest a kind of time-honoured send-off gesture. In fact this is customarily a doggie bag (Pabaon) with some leftover food inside; turning this down is blunt and disrespectful. For this reason thankfully accept the favour and bear in mind that it is called a doggie bag for a good reason.
Nowadays these formal table rituals and manners may seem old-fashioned and stilted; withal they are still and will remain an important part of the Philippine culture and tradition. Actually; most table manners are not really that different than those in other countries, take note that whether dining in someone's home or in a restaurant, for the most part, the same rules apply. Anyway, when having enough self-discipline and if not discouraged or confused; following these typical Do’s and more than plenty of Don’ts and being conscious of the What’s and Why’s will require constant alertness but keep an unaware visitor out of harm’s way and prevent possible social blunders and public embarrassment. Anyway, for those people who are not invited, like to eat outdoors or are too modest; there are more great ways to enjoy the local dishes. Mindanao is famous as well as notorious for its street- and hawker food, this side-walk cuisine is something like a hand-held-fast-food heaven, freshly cooked-before-your-eyes snacks are served on sticks, wrapped in paper or a plastic bag. It gives each and everyone the pleasure to eat with bare hands, to dig in with the fingers and chew on mess-making mouthfuls of drool-worthy goodies.