Where are Your Manners?

“Where are your manners?….Were you born in a barn?!”   Apparently in Asia people would have thought I was. Some things are done a bit differently over here and even though I thought I was being perfectly mannered (Yes Mother, I was paying attention all those years,) certain western etiquette flies in the face of Southeast Asian manners….and vice versa. Sadly, I am only aware of four such social opposites: 1) napkins, 2) toilet paper, 3) shoes, and 4) horns. It is highly probable that there are many more, but for the sake of preserving fond travel memories I shall choose to remain blissfully ignorant.

First, let’s talk table manners; specifically the use of one’s napkin. Back home the napkin is placed in one’s lap soon after sitting at the table. Throughout Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam) there often are not any napkins, and if there are they are tiny little squares stuffed in a box. They are made from a cross between wax paper and first grade writing paper and do a better job of smearing than wiping. They leave much to be desired for the slurping, slobbering, gobbling American- which, in itself might be another Southeast Asian table faux pas. Maybe Asians don’t need napkins because they know how to eat by making sure the food enters the mouth just as a basketball flies through the hoop with “nothing but net.” Westerners, on the other hand throw our food toward the hoop not caring that it usually rolls about our lips before dropping in. There’s nothing pretty about it and that’s why we are copious napkin users.

Lest I give our Asian friends too much credit, they do in fact use napkins. And when they do, Bobbi and I were appalled to see them simply throw their used napkins on the floor….can you imagine?!   A quick glance under a dinner table in a locals’ restaurant looks like the remnants of an Old Yeller movie marathon at PETA headquarters. What’s more appalling is that even when a restaurant provides a little trash can under the table, it is the only thing where used napkins aren’t.

photo courtesy of Culturaltravelguide.com

photo courtesy of Culturaltravelguide.com

Well, Bobbi and I self-righteously thought that the restaurants must love us as we stored our used napkin squares between our legs until the end of the meal, and then placed them either on our plates as we left or stuffed them under the rim of our plates. Nothing went on the floor….aren’t we civilized!

And, here’s where we had a little epiphany. In the Asian eyes our choice of napkin disposal probably appears gross and filthy…..Why?……Let’s think about it….where is a more sanitary place to put a used napkin that is smeared with food bits and spittle?….


a.  On the table where fresh food is placed and people eat; or

b.  On the floor where it is out of site and away from the food and can be swept up.

The answer seems obvious, and it is probably the Asian perspective. As I think back on our dining in Asian restaurants, the waiters probably grimaced as they had to look at our dirty crumpled up squares on our plates, or even worse, they had to pick them up off the table…..tourists….eeesh.

Speaking of napkins, let’s move on to the other kind of small paper squares…..toilet paper.

In many parts of the world bidets are used, or as they call them in Vietnam the “bum gun.” The “bum gun” is nothing but a water sprayer and hose attached to the wall next to the toilet. It is the same sprayer found on many western kitchen sinks….talk about marketing genius…imagine, if your will, the marketing crew for kitchen sink sprayer sitting around a table trying to think of how they can drum up sales, or maybe it was the other way around; maybe it was the “bum gun” marketers sitting around trying to think of additional uses for their guns.

kitchen sprayer

Regardless, the “bum gun” and one’s left hand are used to make things clean as a whistle. Toilet paper is merely used as a towel to dry. The toilet paper is not flushed, but placed in a little wastebasket next to the toilet.

Certain western countrymen might consider this horribly unsanitary, but when one thinks about it; it is just the opposite. Think back to childhood when your mum told you to go wash your hands; did you just grab a paper towel and rub your hands on the towel, or did you use water and maybe even soap? Apply the same logic, and voila! Additionally, a good thorough hand washing is assured after all is said and done. Though, it is also why cultures who use this technique do not touch other people or food with their left hand. This was terribly difficult to remember as Bobbi and I are both left-handed. Unfortunately, another taboo broken more than once.

Let’s move onto the third item.

It must be a party

It must be a party

In the West one would never think of entering a host’s house and kicking off one’s shoes and walking around in stocking feet. It just isn’t done…unless you live in the Oregon country during rainy season. In Asia, however, walking into somebody’s house with your shoes on is extremely rude. Imagine all the street filth clinging to one’s soles; grit and grime just waiting to hop off at the first clean carpet or tile floor. When entering an Asian home, hotel room and sometimes business, the shoes come off. Sometimes the host will have a pair of house flip flops or slippers to put on. From a Western perspective, however, asking somebody to wear flip flops that somebody else’s smelly feet had donned would seem a smidge offensive. And what about walking around somebody else’s house in bare feet…..”Hey hippy…put on some shoes!”……..It’s all a matter of perspective.

Finally, no discussion on cultural differences would be complete without addressing horns. Not the instrumental or pronged type, rather the psyche piercing, stress inducing mobile type. One thing we can all agree on is that the purpose of vehicle horns is to alert other road users of one’s presence. Cultures, however, have diverged in the principal sentiments that accompany the blaring of a horn. This is not to say that “laying on one’s horn” is not a worldwide ubiquitous demonstrative of one’s annoyance; it is. However, in western cultures horns are most associated with negative connotations, whereas in Southeast Asia the short hoot of the horn is used as a courtesy.

When one uses their horn in the states it is usually followed by a hand gesture, a yell, or at the very least a fleeting thought such as “….what an idiot” In Southeast Asia, on the other hand, when one does not use their horn it is usually followed by a surprised look, followed by a dirty look and probably a fleeting thought such as “…stupid tourist.” Because horns are expected they are used constantly. This results in a cacophony of chaotic rolling audio. A westerner hearing this imagines the worst and erroneously believes that Asian traffic must be anarchy in motion.

Honk if my driving makes you want to Honk!

But this is not the case; the horn is used as a courtesy and keeps other drivers informed of their immediate surroundings. For example, vehicles overtaking motorbikes toot their horns to let the motorbikes know that they are passing them. This ensures that the motorbike stays put. Another example of mandatory horn hooting is when the driver on the main road approaches a side street. The driver on the main road is expected to hoot if they see a motorbike on the side street approaching. This is because Southeast Asians do not look before pulling out onto the main road. They only hesitate to merge if they hear a horn. It must be a rookie maneuver and bad form to actually look sideways at approaching traffic before merging….nobody does it; except tourists.

I experienced a surprised and perturbed look when I failed to hoot at a motorbike rider who merged onto the main road without looking and nearly t-boned me. My presence was an unexpected and unwelcome surprise to the rider whose startled look was quickly replaced by a quick glare and a head shake before speeding off. Apparently, the near collision was my fault….stupid tourist. I slowly learned to hoot, but it did not come easy and each time I hit the horn I felt like a chump….cultural differences, indeed.

***Brief video of Hanoi traffic:  http://youtu.be/IPWq80BLnOs

As if the constant horn usage for moving vehicles is not enough, horns are also used by taxis and kombi’s to get your attention when you are being so foolish to walk along a road. This practice is not limited to Southeast Asia. Bobbi and I first experienced it in Botswana. We nearly jumped out of our skin every time a horn blew beside us. When we looked over to see why somebody was blowing their horn at us, it was inevitably a kombi or taxi letting us know that they were available to whisk us away. Since, Bobbi and I walked a lot we must have looked like frogs making our way to our various destinations.

Such are the joys and unexpected fun(?!) of immersing oneself in foreign cultures.


  1. Vive le difference! East is East and West is West! When Gandhi was asked ‘What do you think of Western civilisation?’ he replied, ‘I think it would be a very good thing!’ When travelling (even at home here in Turkey), I am often left thinking that we have a long way to go in so many socially important ways.

  2. Gaah! No wonder they call us ugly Americans. Your “Asian logic” with napkins and TP sounds so much more sensible than our applications.

    And I love the description: “the remnants of an Old Yeller movie marathon at PETA headquarters” 👍

  3. I quite enjoyed this post. It explained the contrasting behaviors well. For the used napkins and the SE Asian custom of throwing it on the ground rather than keeping it on the table, I never thought of it like that.

  4. Very enlightening. Why weren’t we China travelers warned?!

  5. Well said. You’ve got a great perspective from all your travels.

  6. Really enjoyed learning about the differences between East and West. Well-written and I loved watching the Hanoi traffic videos.

  7. Gaile Meeks · · Reply

    I laughed because I’ve heard your mother say “Where are your manners?” to you so many times. but I read and enjoyed all of it. I’m so happy for you to be enjoying this type of life! I would really like to find out more. I’m back in Colorado working for Jody at her electrical engineering (product development) firm. … and button your jacket. How rude! Cousin Gaile

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