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Why do you eat with your hands? A lesson in intercultural management

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When someone from a different culture does something you find "unacceptable", have you ever thought to ask 'why' they may do it?

By Karn G. Bulsuk

Back in the late 1980s one of my father's business friends had recently returned from a business trip to Malaysia, where he told us of his exploits and his observations of the culture there, back in the days where an overseas call was an expensive luxury, budget airlines still a dream, and information still in encyclopedias down at your local library.

"When I went out for lunch, I saw these guys who would go out to the cafeteria and eat straight from foam boxes." Holding an imaginary foam box, he began to open it up.

"It would usually be curry with rice, but instead of using forks and spoons, they would use their hands to eat it instead!" He started eating out of the imaginary lunchbox, while making loud snorting noises.

"Ewww, that's disgusting!" we all chimed in, having a laugh at these anonymous men who were doing what was normal to them, but in our prejudiced minds was an unacceptable practice.

Almost two decades later, I attended Osaka University in Japan and lived in the international student dorm, where we had a shared kitchen. As we all ended up to cook and eat there most evenings, we would swap tales and talk with the other friends we had made. One of them was a physics researcher from India, and too would eat his food using his hands.

The anecdote from years earlier never quite left me, and while growing up I had come to realize that it was an insensitive and one-sided story, I simply did not understand why people would eat with their hands. So I asked him.

"Ah, it's quite simple really," he started, while rolling some rice into a bite-sized ball. "We believe that when eating, we need to use all of our senses. We need to see, smell, taste and feel the food, and by doing that it'll taste even better."

The simplest of explanations helped to clear over twenty years of curiosity, and helped to bridge the gap to another culture.

As humans, we can sometimes judge others with insufficient information. It is too easy, even for those with more international experience, to reach conclusions about an entire culture without really asking why something is being done that way.

Spending the time to ask "why" will not only give you that understanding, but also endear you to those who you ask - culture is an integral part of all of us, and by trying to learn about it is the greatest sign of respect, and a hallmark of a truly global leader.

Photo credit: obtained from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Patrin Watanatada said:  

    A quick note to thank you for posting this -- my parents followed your instructions to the letter the day before flying to the UK and got their int'l licenses within 20 mins. If we hadn't had your instructions here we wouldn't have been able to do it, since as you know it's not easy to find instructions online. Thanks again!

  • karnbulsuk said:  

    Hi Patrin, I'm glad you found the article useful - thank you for your feedback!

  • Ling Ling said:  

    It's very helpful, many thanks will go try it out next week. :)

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