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Kosh, Tanya, Are You in or Are You Out? Inclusivity andExclusivity of Table Manners: A light-hearted journey into a rather seriousmatter
Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at diversophy.com
Tanya Kosh has a both brilliant and entertaining writing style, easy to read, yet stimulating and surprising at the same time. When I took notice of her book, being an inveterate foodie as well as an interculturalist, I asked to review it immediately. Travel and food and foreign company are inevitable in my line of work, and table manners seem only to be lightly touched upon in most of the literature about business abroad and expatriation. When They are dealt with, advice is largely behavioral – one gets tips about do’s and don’ts, but very little insight about the logic behind local customs and the inner discourse which supports them as well as raises feelings about their observance or violation.
This book is much more a reflection on the philosophy behind what we do at table rather than an international tour guide. I don't think I would be far off to describe it as auto ethnography, in that the author largely speaks from her own experiences as an extremely well-traveled professional. In addition, there are anecdotal treasures found in the author’s interviews and discussions with others. For those of us who love stories, this approach adds to the pleasure of the read. The line from Crow and Weasel, a children’s book, always reminds me, “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
On the other hand, coming from a working-class immigrant family to the USA, I have had a lot of contradictory etiquette to sort out. I also have many sins to confess and repent of. Perhaps the most egregious and precocious of these was, as a four-year-old, gobbling all the maraschino cherries topping grapefruit halves on an elegantly set table, while my parents and their hosts chatted in the parlor.
The roots and variations of table manners (even if we eat sitting on the floor), like many sacred dogmas, are often rooted in practicality and survival. Whatever our kosher or halal, or our behavior consuming it, it is likely to find its roots buried in the safety, security, and community concerns of our cultural group ancestors, if not explicitly exposed, as in the present day abundance of contemporary “food religions”. These root considerations sprout into spiritual, ethnic, national, class, and myriad other distinctions, and may be critical in contexts of business and diplomacy. In interculturalist terms, it is important to recognize that table manners are part of one’s own identity discourse and an identity marker for others, while yet, in the age of globalization, the frontiers are increasingly porous.
Kosh’s book, though it cannot precise your behavior, helps you stay you alert and keep your head about you, a useful passport when crossing alimentary frontiers. In closing, one point that stuck out for me was the author’s clear emphasis on the fact that you can’t eat and digest well or at all when you are afraid. Knowing good manners reduces that fear, as does the kind whispered advice of a cultural informant sitting next to us in an unfamiliar dining context. It is not only important to act correctly in the situation, but also to quell the gastro-intestinal butterflies by knowing that we are doing it right and helping fellow diners to that same comfort. Bon apetit!