Don’t Ask Unless You Don’t Mean It: Food Manners 101

“Do you want to eat ?”

The taxi driver held up the remaining 5 or six bites of his sandwich in his right hand as he gripped the steering wheel with his left.

“No, it’s okay,” I replied as I settled into the front seat. Just a moment later, the driver pulled over and two more passengers climbed in to the back seat. He repeated the question for them, now with just a couple bites remaining at the end of the baguette. “No, go ahead,” they responded in unison, and the driver finished off the remaining bites.

As I glanced sideways at the little morsel of sandwich in his hand, part of me thought,  “Really? Who would want to eat after him like that ? That’s kind of weird.” But then I thought back to an encounter in my neighborhood a couple of weeks earlier.

I had met a group of students on our street, and I spent the middle of the day with them. At one point, I went into my house to have lunch, telling them it was time to go eat lunch with my family. When I came back out, one of the students said to me,

“You know that was really rude.“

“What was?” I asked.

“Well, you just left and said, ‘I’m going to eat,’ and you didn’t ask us if we wanted to eat. You’re supposed to say, ‘Do you guys want to eat? ‘ and then we’ll say, ‘No, you go ahead,’ and then you can go eat your lunch.”

This made more sense when another friend informed us later that if you really want to give somebody something to eat, you don’t ask them if they want it. If you ask that question, they’ll think that you’re just asking to be polite. If you really want them to take it, you just bring it to them, and you can say  “Eat this” or “Take some”. This helped me understand why, when a group of guys came to visit our house, they all refused the drinks I offered them, until I just handed them out a little later.

In some ways, this is not all that different from Western culture: we’re generally told not to “eat in front of” someone who is visiting our house. It seems that here in West Africa, the idea extends a bit further – to customers of your business, or to people you are talking to on the street who, in my American mind, would obviously be eating with their families while I ate with mine.

The differences in food manners are more obvious when you share a meal with others here. A couple of days ago I went to a neighbor’s wedding, where I ate lunch. I was not sitting at a table with my wife and kids, as I would have been in the U.S.: the men sat in groups and the women sat in groups, and the kids not big enough to join one of these groups were with the ladies. They brought out big dishes of food out and set them on the ground, one in the middle of each group of five or six guys. Then everyone reached down from their chairs, stuck their hands (which, thankfully, had just been washed) into the rice and meat and started scooping it into their mouths. I’m pretty sure I won the prize for having the most rice on the ground in front of my chair, since I am used to eating it with utensils.

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If you really want people to give you a dirty look here, just stick your left hand into the dish. The left is considered the dirty hand, that you would use for doing gross things, so you can keep your right hand clean for eating. This could pose a problem for my son, who at age one and a half seems to prefer his left hand. A Nigerien lady who ate with us recently saw him shoveling in food with his left hand and queried, “He eats with THAT hand?”

Hmmm. His American parents never really bother to correct him for eating with the left when he’s sitting at our table. Could be a long life of dirty looks ahead for you, kid. Sorry.

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