Clean plates and Other Observations

A couple of days ago a friend of mine lend me the book Watching the English by Kate Fox who’s an English anthropologist. Not very willing to leave the comforts of modern Britain and undergo the sufferings of traditional fieldwork she decided to study her own people even though she still tried to redeem herself in the eyes of her more adventurous colleagues by researching the more dysfunctional aspects of English society. Realizing that this strategy wasn’t working she finally resolved to do what she really wanted to do: study the good behaviour of the English as this has been a somewhat neglected field among social scientists.

As a result of these studies she has written this book to inform the educated layman about the hidden rules that govern English behaviour. Using a humorous tone which is in accordance with one of the more important rules of Englishness, the importance of not being earnest, she describes the various rules in an informed and interesting manner. Anyone interested in human behaviour will benefit from reading this book and if you have ever lived in the UK or been exposed to large doses of English culture whether it be television programs, books or other forms of cultural products, it will cast light on some of the more unintelligible behaviours of the English.

Being myself very interested in human behaviour I’ve been unable to put the book down and I’ve even had to stop reading it right before bedtime as it has caused me an unfortunate lack of sleep by making me think too much about the rules of Danish behaviour. As a result of this I’ve decided to use this blog to air some of my thoughts and observation on this matter in the hope that this may be the way to get a good night’s sleep.

My credentials for doing this consist solely in being Danish myself which gives me the insider perspective on things, and having an Italian boyfriend which helps me see our behaviour from the outside. Basing my conclusions on nothing else but my own personal knowledge and these rather limited observations I may of course be mistaken about the generality of certain rules and only show my own social ineptitude or the idiosyncratic behaviour of my family.

To conclude this post I’ll just give a small example of something I had never even considered to be anything particular before my boyfriend made me aware of it. Apparently it is an unwritten rule here that when having dinner you always leave your plate as spotless as possible eating every last scrap of food on it, something that my Italian boyfriend has yet to achieve. To understand why this is so difficult for him you need to compare Danish and Italian dinner. First of all, normal everyday dinner in Denmark is only divided into two parts: the main course and a dessert and some people don’t even have desserts. This means we only use two sets of plates. One for the main course and one for the dessert. The traditional main course consists of meat and potatoes with lots of gravy and some vegetables all put on the same plate. Even when more modern foods are eaten, such as fresh pasta, we eat pasta with meat and vegetables on the same plate. When eating we use a knife and a fork to cut the potatoes and meat into smaller pieces which are then moved around to soak up as much gravy as possible before they are pushed on to the fork with the knife. Done in the right way this will result in a plate as clean as if the dog had licked it. It a very strong rule and many of us prefer to suffer the pains of over-eating rather than admitting to miscalculating the amount of food we could eat and leaving it on the plate. If it should happen that you have to leave food on the plate it is done with lots of excuses and, if it’s the host or the person which has cooked the food that notice you are poking around the food forcing yourself to finish it, they will go to greats lengths to help you save face by assuring you that you really don’t have to eat it all if you can’t. 

In Italy they usually divide dinner into three parts. First they eat pasta on it’s own plate using only a fork. Then they have some meat or fish and some vegetables, usually there’s a couple of different dishes to choose from, all of which is eaten on separate plates using a clean set of cutlery for every new dish. As a dessert they usually eat cheese or fruit or maybe the small sweet Italian cakes. Bread is always a part of Italian meals and is often used instead of a knife to manouvre the food onto the fork. It is also used to soak up any liquid parts of a dish like the tomato salsa that is very often used in Italian cooking.  However, cleaning your plate completely using the bread is rather bad form and seen as somewhat greedy. It is also perfectly all right to leave food on your plate if you cannot eat it all, something I quickly learned to do when presented with the huge plates of pasta prepared by my mother-in-law. Italians also prefer to remain starving rather than taking the last piece of something and at the end of a festive evening you’ll always see at least one remaining piece on the serving trays.

These differencies has resulted in many a faux pas from both me and my boyfriend. In Denmark it seems that in order to show respect towards the person who has provided you with the food, you have to eat as much as possible whereas in Italy eating all their food would be very impolite. Why this difference has developed I’m not sure but the deeper motivation seems to be the same. Until very recently food was something that required a lot of effort and it only took very little misfortune for it to become scarce. As a consequence wasting food is not something that’s done easily in most cultures and if done it can be a method of showing a higher social status.

I’m sure there remains much more to be said on this subject but I’ll save it for another occasion. Before getting into too many details I should try to describe one of the more important set of rules that govern Danish behaviour: The Jante Law. This is a complicated subject and requires a post of its own and hopefully I’ll be able to write it soon.

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2 thoughts on “Clean plates and Other Observations

  1. Hi Lone:
    This post is interesting as we learn about other cultures via www. Asian culture varies as well, but modesty about your cooking still remains a BIG part of the culture ie. saying to your guest that your food is not up to par, when indeed you spent hours to perfect it. Have you seen or read “The Joy Luck Club?” There is a very funny part of the movie where one of the Chinese daughters brought home a Caucasian boyfriend to dinner and he innocently responded in a way that was insulting the mother’s food.
    Many Asians are really noisy when they eat, slurping noodles etc. There are so many diverse differences here in the US regarding table manners.
    Your posts are thought provoking!

  2. I’m glad you thougth the book just as interesting as I did… It quite an eye opener.
    I’d like to see how you’ll describe the Jante lov ;-)
    Oh, there is a knit cafe at Bette Design the 20th – look at her webpage!

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