Communal Dining – do’s and don’ts

Communal dining is fun – a food ritual to share as many dishes as possible.

A while back, at a conference, 10 of us went to a Chinese restaurant to enjoy some Chinese-style dining. In today’s multicultural Australia, diners are quite used to communal dining and understand the concept of ordering and sharing a number of dishes. Not only that, most Australians are adept at using chopsticks.

Two of the diners were Americans. When the menu came, the two each ordered a dish for themselves. This posed a dilemma for the others. They looked at one another then some ordered a dish each while six decided to order a few dishes which were shared.

You can imagine the problem that resulted when the bill arrived. The people who had their own dishes paid for what they ate; the others split the bill as is the normal custom in Australia. It was a very uncomfortable lunch with not much conversation.

If you have dietary requirements, it is perfectly legitimate to have your own dish. In this case, there weren’t any dietary requirements.

Perhaps, what should have been done before organising the lunch was to check whether everyone wanted to go to a Chinese restaurant (some didn’t like Chinese food) and let them know it was to be a communal dining event which means sharing the food and splitting the bill.  

Communal dining is part of Chinese, Indian, Middle-Eastern and, in general Asian food culture.

Coming from other cultures some people may feel unsure about this method. Hygiene may be an issue for some. So it’s important they know that when helping yourself to food from a communal dish, you use the accompanying spoon not your own cutlery.

Always, let your dietary requirements be known right at the beginning.

Learn to use chopsticks so you can enjoy Chinese, Korean and Japanese meals more fully. Not all South East Asians are familiar with using chopsticks, for example I have met some Indians who are not.

Consider Western dining. It’s easy to assume everyone knows how to eat and behave in these situations. In today’s Australia, with both parents working, there isn’t always the luxury of time to have children at the table learning about dining etiquette.

I once saw a diner take four bread rolls at once. Obviously, she loved rolls but it would have been nice if she’d waited till everyone had a bread roll before helping herself to far more than her fair share. The same person also piled more than her share of potatoes on her plate – this in a fine dining restaurant where the side dishes were shared. This is inconsiderate behaviour in any company but particularly for those for whom communal dining is the norm.

On formal occasions, dining etiquette dictates that you do not talk with food in your mouth, nor use your cutlery too enthusiastically. Napkins are there to protect your clothing and wipe your mouth – some people find it offensive when they are used to blow the nose or mop the brow.

When unsure of dining etiquette in a restaurant situation and the purpose of cutlery, you are encouraged to observe and follow your fellow diners. But what happens when your fellow Australian diner makes a mistake?

Attending a dining etiquette class helps you gain confidence not only to ensure that dining will be an enjoyable experience but also to entertain clients in a business environment.  

Soraya Raju, Cultural Integration Expert, Migrate Success Jan 2017

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