Table Manners – Eating Without Prejudice (?)

In Indonesia, when we go to restaurants, there are no other ways to grab waiter’s attention but calling {this can go from mbak (sister) or ibu (ma’am), to unnecessary flirtatious remarks like sayang (darling) or cantik (gorgeous)}, waving (hand or napkin), or – these are extremely rude manners – whistling, clapping and flicking your fingers.

I am told that in UK you should not do anything but engaging eye contacts (and souls, perhaps), until they realize that your plate is empty and you are ready for your second course. Rather than eye movements, any gestures will be considered rude. No calling “xcuse me!”, no frantic waving, and don’t you dare to whistle, clap or flick your fingers if you want to be ignored for the rest of the night, or worse, have your soup tasted like feet because probably someone dropped his shoes accidentally into it. So imagine that you’re extremely thirsty and longing to have your glassed refilled, and you desperately are staring to those busy waiters, hoping that somehow they realize that “there is a person in table 8 staring intensely, and she’s either trying to hypnotize you or mesmerized by the size of your….apron…

I told my friend, a Dutch lady, about that particular rule in UK, she was horrified to find out that she must have been considered rude so far by British. But she wasn’t accustomed to the rules here, and if no one tells her, she wouldn’t know it for the rest of her life. She also finds that due to the language, people will think Dutch are rude because they are more direct to express their feeling and are not used to say ‘please’, or ‘thank you’ all the time, and my friend deliberately has to remind herself to use both words (so I would hear her placing an order like “salmon brochette… (3 seconds pause), … please“).

Usually the waiter will come back during the main course, asking if everything is ok. We are expected to say that the food is lovely, delicious, nice, or any other praise, followed by a thank you. Of course some don’t follow the rule and just say whatever they think. The eccentric Michael Winner, who judges the restaurant by whether they serve Evian water or not, is my favorite. In Indonesia they will only be back to our table to pour some more wine or clear up when we’re done, with exception at some places like Cazbar or EP where the staffs call you by first name and are willing to engage in small talks. Unless if it doesn’t taste good, Indonesians are rarely asked and tell the restaurant what they think about the meal they just have had. I had aubergine truffle at Scusa in Jakarta Intercontinental Hotel once, and it was so orgasmic I excitedly told the waiter what I thought, but she only smiled awkwardly, probably wasn’t used to such expressive comments.

Not like in Indonesia where you can ask for dressings as much as you want, at Saigon Restaurant the waiter provided the extra chopped chilies in soy sauce twice, and when Stuart asked for another one so we did not have to share, the waiter said we had to finish it first before she would give us another one. I think part of it because she did not believe a Caucasian man can take up so much chili (she’s wrong), and the other part she calculated that we would have finished our meal together with the second chili (she’s right).

In Indonesia, no matter how small you have left on your plate, you can comfortably ask the waiter to take it home. I usually asked them to put the remaining fried gurami fish in a doggy bag, “for the cats”, when they looked at me in disbelief, since there was nothing left but bones. At one restaurant I actually got a little bit extra fish, probably because the chef felt sorry my cats had to eat fish bones and decided to do a good deed. However they are reluctant to do so in UK. Yesterday I had 2 salmon skewers and only managed to finish one. When I sheepishly asked the waitress if I could take the remaining salmon home, she said they normally don’t do it, and if they do it for me, if something bad happens with the fish – contaminated with bacteria, and makes me suffer from food poisoning, or something like that – they would not bear the responsibility. Wow.

Bad service and silly waiters are usual in Indonesia. Although it’s done with smile, and generates a chuckle or disbelief head-shaking, on a bad day we could scream at the top of our lungs and ask how the hell they could open up a restaurant but know nothing about it. I once ordered a salad, and the waiter, after gone for 10 minutes, got back and said they were out of lettuce, and would I “like the lettuce to be replaced by something else?”. Once I had a silly argument in a cheap restaurant. I asked if their fried rice is red or brown – the fried rice from South Sulawesi is red because it’s poured with tomato sauce, the one from Java is brown because it’s mixed with soy sauce. The waiter assured me that it was red, and – hallelujah! – it was brown when it turned up. No matter how mad I was, the waiter wouldn’t understand because she simply had never seen red fried rice and was still insisting what I had indeed was red! There is a pizza restaurant in Semanggi Plaza serving ice-cold red wine. When I returned it back they didn’t know what their mistake was. The first time when Starbucks chain was open in Jakarta I had such a bad experience with almost all of their counters, I wrote a complaint to their headquarters back in USA. In any other part of the world, bad service means unfriendly staffs (I don’t know why they look so miserable like suffering from hemorrhoids all night) and slow service (we have to wait for a long time to get served, or even to pay our bill). I hardly have to argue about the food (yet).

Of course as customers we have certain set of expectations when we enter a restaurant, especially if they claim to be such a specialist, and from the area that we are familiar with. In Wagamama Glasgow I expected to taste Asian-slash-Japanese noodle as, well, Japanese noodle, and was crestfallen when the noodle tasted more like… spaghetti. So I think our expectation should be set accordingly with an extra spoon of tolerance. One lady told me a story when she and her friend went to Canada and ended up in what they claim as an English pub. She ordered a sherry and was in shocked to find that they served sherry in in a brandy glass. She politely told the owner (who didn’t even know such thing), explaining and teaching him a bit, and ended up getting free drinks (loads of it). If the bartender in Jakarta doesn’t understand the term you normally use back in your country, is it too much to ask to bear with them and take a little bit of time to explain what you want?

There is a bad service, and there is a bad manner. Tere once posted how one foreign customer insisted to get her money back because she thought she was being ripped off, even though Tere had tried to help by explaining to the angry lady that she had paid the same amount of money too. To me it’s just plain silly and rude, and the waiter should have asked the lady to bugger off. I have mentioned about the flat-white Australian guy, who asked for a flat-white coffee to a waiter who stared at him blankly. The Australian guy repeated the order and when clearly the waiter didn’t know what that was (hence he was an idiot), the guy got angry. The poor waiter, still held the normal Indonesian belief that customer is a king even though he is a jerk, instead of simply saying they don’t have it on the menu, tried to accommodate the customer’s wish, and ended up being bullied. In one restaurant in Amsterdam, it’s the waiter who was very rude, he practically threw our meals from 1 meter away to our table, my cousin was tempted to leave without paying (it should have been easy, they did not really care about us, we could easily sneak out!).

Ah, this would be a very long post if I start showing different customs on each country which is considered rude or polite. What we think are normal, are weird to others, and vice versa. My Dutch friends learned to use chopsticks a few weeks a go. I still cannot master the fork-and-knife art to eat rice (and still wonder why can’t we use spoon?). Westerners are shocked to see Asian (and Arabian) eat with hands. We think whoever eats noodle with fork and knife are ridiculous.

Isn’t life wonderful? Bon appetite!



  1. I am a firm believer in the way you treat the people that service you says ‘volumes’ about the kind of human being you are. So when a stupid tourist treated a waiter like craps just because the waiter didn’t get the idea what “flat white coffee” is all about…I would probably tip the waiter to serve that idiot “kopi tubruk” instead. Rudeness is just so low class!

  2. Jakartass says:

    In Ya’Udah (Jl.Jaksa) the other week Our Kid and I heard an expat oder “an iced tea, but hold the ice.”

    And he got it!

    Yep, good service is always worth praising, isn’t it?

  3. You’re right: (as long as it doesn’t suck) life IS wonderful – so is your entry and Indonesian food.

    You taught me one or two lessons as well. One of them is that is possible to get orgasmic on aubergines. It opens wide horizons …

  4. Finally Woken says:

    @Elyani: couldn’t agree more. The way we treat the waiters reflect the way we treat our spouse.

    @Jakartass: My Malaysian friend usually orders a chinese tea… with ice. She usually gets it right after several explanation.

    @Colson: I think it’s because the truffles, not the aubergine…

  5. After we had “orgasmic” experience, we invite the chef to our table and extend our appreciation on his/her excellent foods with applause of course. Starbucks ‘s barista here? Yeas they are gloomy.

  6. Rob Baiton says:


    For me customer service is that the customer is always right even when the customer is wrong. I have worked in the service industry before and this is a philosophy that I think works.

    On the rudeness front, I think that I agree with Elyani that being rude is low class! But with proper training (perhaps they get proper customer service training in Indonesia, I do not know) you can educate your staff to “handle” even the most agressive and rude customers without causing a scene.

    Some customers just enjoy being difficult with their orders and usually for their own perverse pleasure of seeking to confuse the waiter and others genuinely have bizarre requests. Ordering ice tea and holding the ice I must admit puts a smile on my face as I recall one of my own experiences.

    I used to work for a large pizza chain (remain unnamed) and had a regular order from a guy who always ordered a pepperoni and cheese but without the cheese!

    He was not being a smart arse, which I did not find out until some time later as the bloke eventually filled me in that he had a lactate allergy or something like that.

    On the how we treat our waiters is how we treat our spouses, I have to disagree :) I would reckon that my missus would slap me one and tell me to wake up to myself…

    I am not sure that the wait staff would have the same luxury of being able to slap me one if I was being rude. Or for that matter to tell me to bugger off even if that was what should be said!

    The chili story is a common one for many mixed couples I am sure…It is like ordering something at KFC take away, when it comes to the sauce I am always offered only the ketchup (tomato sauce for us Aussies)…but this is resolved with a simple; “I would prefer the chili sauce, if you have any?” Done deal in goes the chili sauce to the take away bag :)

    As always a thought provoking post in the sense of getting us to think about our own experiences on Manners and Food…

  7. Finally Woken says:

    @Rob: then imagine our local pizzaria every time we phone to order a delivery, we always ask for a vegetarian pizza with extra beef!

    It’s because other pizzas have ham or bacon and I’m not allowed to eat them. But I can imagine, the guy who takes the order must think we’re a weird couple…

  8. The story about the Aussie getting cranky about the flat white coffee was probably because the flat white is a pretty common coffee in Australia, but most Australian’s don’t realise that it’s an Australian term. They think it’s as international as cappuccino.

    Also, another big difference between getting the attention of staff in restaurants in Indonesia and in Australia (don’t know how it compare to Scotland) is that in Indonesia there are always lots of waiting staff. If two or three are busy taking orders or delivering food, there is usually a fourth or fifth waiter standing around waiting to assist. By comparison, where there would be four waiting staff in Indonesia, you can guarantee there would only be two in Australia, and they would be rushed off their feet the whole time, no time to keep an eye on the level of the customer’s drink, but always scanning the room to see if anyone is giving them a “look” to get their attention.

    I found it very weird in Pakistan that to get a waiters attention, you had to get almost out of your chair, otherwise they would walk straight past you, eyes firmly avoiding you. And I always find it hard to get a waiters attention in Indonesia, but lucky I’ve got Ecky to help out with that. πŸ˜‰

  9. Finally Woken says:

    @Sam: oh dear. So the whole 2 years in Sydney, I must have been considered rude too by Australians, because I did what I usually do in Indonesia, waving and calling!

  10. interestingly, in my present society now, we kinda think people should be open minded. and if you are not tolerant enough to differences of cultures, then you are kinda low.

    so if i am in a dinner with friends, and choose to eat with spoon, i’d u mind if i eat with spoon? they’ll say, of course not and then we talk about different cultures in eating.

    in our opinion, people who judge some one rude or uneducated or low class because they stick to their culture (but still being polite to other cultures), are narrow minded people.

    i really like that actually. i think people are different and let them be. sometimes we should adjust, some other times, others should adjust. just keep positive thinking. and you can really differ between real rude or different culture, i think.


  11. Michael Aulia says:

    When I went to UK for a business trip last year, that was what I do!! (waving my hand to call the waitress)

    I didn’t know that it was rude there until my friend told me (I went to a restaurant with 2 friends from U.K)

    I was so embarassed. I should have apologized to the waitress πŸ˜€ lol

  12. Finally Woken says:

    @Mulia: interesting insight. I guess it depends how big our tolerance range. Some people don’t mind at all, some people will look down on us. But isn’t it quite compulsory to adapt our host country culture?

    My American consultant in a project years a go, pointed at the power sockets with his feet, and all construction labours and workers were so mad because they think he’s being rude. I went a great deal to explain to them that he’s from a totally different culture and (perhaps) pointing out things with feet isn’t rude in the States – especially because he’s got a big belly and it’s rather difficult to bend over. But then everybody saw him talking to our British owner and this American guy pointed things out with his index finger. Bugger. I had to keep everybody calm and this American guy continues his life without having his head hammered….

    @Michael: we learn. And grateful that someone tells us!

  13. dinysays says:

    What an amusing posting. Yet so cultural. Love it!

  14. Having been to so many different countries – I found this so amusing. How do you explain this type of stuff to someone who has never eaten in another country?
    Kerry-ann recently posted…Challenges faced by immigrants trying to fit in and preserve cultural identityMy Profile


  1. […] people are influenced by many things, so I shouldn’t judge them or be offended too quickly. Table Manners – Eating Without Prejudice is actually a very good example of people’s different perception. Dutch wouldn’t feel […]

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