Noisy Eaters? Not a Big Deal in China

The Importance of Living by Dr. Lin Yutang was once the best-selling book in America in 1938. In this book, he explains why Chinese don’t think it is a big deal to make noises when eating. Read it with a sense of humor:

The Chinese have no prudery about food, or about eating it with gusto. When a Chinese drinks a mouthful of good soup, he gives a hearty smack.

Why do the Westerners talk so softly and look so miserable and decent and respectable at their meals? Most Americans haven’t got the good sense to take a chicken drumstick in their hand and chew it clean, but continue to pretend to play at it with a knife and fork, feeling utterly miserable and afraid to say a thing about it. This is criminal when the chicken is really good.

Such is human psychology that if we don’t express our joy, we soon cease to feel it even, and then follow dyspepsia, melancholia, neurasthenia and all the mental ailments peculiar to the adult life.

Believe it or not, many Chinese never realize they make noises when eating, and the noises often go unnoticed by the fellow diners. There are indeed, however, some basic Chinese table manners to follow. (Photo courtesy of whysb.net)

35 Replies to “Noisy Eaters? Not a Big Deal in China”

  1. It is not expressing joy, it is expressing low breeding and lack of concern for others. I have heard pigs make less noise.

  2. “low breeding and lack of concern for others” eh? How about those filthy Westerners always wanting to touch your hands in greeting or God forbid, actually trying to hug. Now that’s low breeding.

    Puh-leeze, it’s just cultural differences. Try to be a little less condescending before passing judgment, shall we? In China, if your friend invites you to dinner, making those eating noises shows appreciation for the food. It’s actually rude to eat timidly and without a sound as that suggests you are not a fan of your host’s cooking.

    Of course, while in Rome, do as the Romans… Chinese should minimize those noises while eating in American/Western establishments where it is considered rude to dine with such gusto.

    1. You said it all. Thank you for commenting.

      Also, foods served on the table are often cut into small pieces in China while westerns tend to recut their pieces of steak or fish into smaller ones. Thus Chinese smack their lips to taste the flavor while it becomes impractical for westerns to to smack when they have to chew a lot.

      This is just my wild speculation, but I agree this is totally cultural, irrelevant to the judgment of right or wrong.

  3. I’m sorry but I think their eating habits are disgusting, we were at an American diner recently and they seemed to think it’s fine to spear an entire BLT bagel with a fork and fit as much in their mouth at once as possible! Also went to a Michelin star restaurant at the weekend only to have some chinese bloke next to us slurping an entire plate of linguine up in one disgusting noisy mouthful. Put us right off our (very expensive) dinner. The noise they make eating noodle soup – don’t get me started!

    1. I can imagine how those noisy eaters from China did their food, but they probably didn’t even realize the nuisance at all. For a long time, eating with gusto was regarded as a compliment to the food. Even today, many parents encourage their children to eat ‘like a tiger’, considering how hard it is for toddlers to finish their meals.

      I guess as China gradually become more westernized, people will accept the etiquette from the occident. By the way, I am a native Chinese, and next time I visit the U.S., I will try to eat as quietly as possible. I promise. 😉

  4. Let’s not label it merely a matter of etiquette. The sounds are noisy and annoying. A lot of Chinese people make a lot of noise even when eating food that barely needs any chewing. And it’s not just people from Western cultures who find it annoying. The other thing is that a lot of Chinese eating habits are unhygienic, and it being cultural doesn’t make it less so. I have a Chinese friend who I went out to dinner with, and he kept putting his own chopsticks in the bowl with the shared food, even bringing the shared plate up to his face to eat off. I had an awful time.

    1. Chinese are gradually noticing this and now the trend is changing. “Polluting the shared food” is considered bad in China unless people who are sharing are really close. Many meal tables offer shared spoon and chopsticks to avoid saliva contamination.

      The etiquette is changing and I am seeing it every day.

  5. Hi, Thank you for commenting on my post. Your noisily eating colleague may making the sound unconsciously. I am sure once he realizes his smack, he will lower it. Maybe you can kindly insinuating your grudge to him? Fortunately or unfortunately, I am never good at handling office politics.

    The good news is that more and more Chinese people are eating with less gusto and gradually adapting the western table manners.

  6. The problem is easily solved, basically if these people close their mouth when they chew it would finish…. I sit opposite a very polite Chinese girl at work, everyone likes her very much. She eats at her desk and like OMG she eats like a starved wolf….chew chomp slurp, crack, growl, burp, smack, fart, slurp, lick, chomp, chew, chew chew…..all this noise from such a petite feminine lady. I noticed that she eats with her mouth open which would be responsible for about 80% of the noise pollution leaving her pie hole.
    I’d love to tell her but I guess it wouldn’t be the polite thing to do. When she’s in full swing I have to leave my desk and go for a walk, I ‘d rather hear someone scrape their fingernails down a blackboard.

    1. It is funny to read how you describe the noises the lady makes. She probably does not even hear any of her noises at all.

      Your observation make me think of how I am disgusted when seeing someone fingering between the toes in public.

  7. I am relieved to see I am not the only person who cannot stand the sound of loud chewing and smacking lips etc. at the workplace. I sit beside a man of Asian descent who eats extremely loudly, and frequently also has food hanging out of his mouth because he eats open mouthed. It makes me feel physically ill to hear the noises. I have tried listening to music on headphones but I can still hear every sound. I try to just leave my desk as soon as he sits down to eat, but sometimes I have work that can’t wait so I have to try and wait it out. He slurps coffee really loudly too. I am usually a tolerant person – I’m sure I have annoying habits, too – but some days I just want to scream at him to be more polite and close his mouth. Knowing now that this is probably a cultural habit helps a bit, but then I guess that means no one in his family will ever let him know how gross his eating habits are. We don’t have cubicle walls in this area of the office so I at least moved my computer to face away from his desk, as the sight of the food hanging out of his mouth was over the top. Thanks for letting me vent!

    1. Sorry to hear about another story about noisy eaters.

      I guess it is like listening to water drops from the tap in the dead of the night. Some people will not notice it at all and sleep soundly, but for others the sound kills them. The noise is such that the more you want to ignore it, the more it gets your attention.

      I’ll do my part as an English speaking Chinese to tell me compatriots about the western table manners.

  8. I do agree that lip smacking should immediately be stopped and not tolerated..especially at the workplace and especially if the host culture does not tolerate such behavior. There is absolutely no reason to endure a painful experience, so you wont hurt someones feelings. My mother n law is visiting from China and will be staying for another 8 months. I already told my wife that the smaking makes me sick, makes me want to put a sock in her mouth. Wife tries to remind the old lady, but if she forgets the old lady will smack. It will immediately make me sick, disgusted, feel angry and put me into a rage for two days till I calm down and try and forget about it. I try to avoid eating with them and quickly learned NEVER to take her old lady out to a restaurant with us. Thank God my wife doesnt smack but she picks up the bowl of rice, puts the edge on her mouth and shuffles the food in very quicly. I dont understand the rushing movement with the chopsticks coupled with a vacuum sucking from the mouth. Looks and sounds awful. I told her to stop it and she is doing a better job. I am just afraid that our new born will pick of these disgusting habits.

    1. You can tell your wife that culturally you abhor the smacking sound made by your mother-in-law, but sometimes the old people are very stubborn.

      Regarding your wife’s shuffling and sucking sound when eating from a bowl, I believe it has a reason if the food is rice or porridge — by using chopsticks to push the food into the mouth, one can avoid the embarrassing moment of dropping the rice on the table. Besides, granules end up on the table instead of in the mouth are considered a big waste in China considering the repeated famines in its history.

      Maybe it all boils down to one thing: love your wife and live with your in-laws. 😉

  9. My husband is tolerant guy and recently an Indian guy moved to the spare spare seat next to him. He’s having such a hard time dealing with the guys’ bad eating manners. We live in Glasgow in Scotland and there are a few asian restaurants here but we’ve never experienced such behaviour. Please help in a posible solution: What can we do to get him to calm down without hurting his feelings or making the situation at work unbearable? My husband does not want to raise it with him because it’s too awkward. We’ve thouhgt about picking up a bad habit to annoy him but that’s just silly. Please help with other solutions other than “tell them politely”.

    1. Frankly I don’t have good advice on this. It is just one of the pet peeves of our lives that we try to get by.

      I empathize with you as I believe the noise by the Indian guy is as irritating as listening to water dropping from the tap in the dead of night, only you couldn’t even get up and tighten the tap.

      Maybe you can send him an anonymous email with some information about eating manners? Still I think the best way is telling him politely that he is bothering you.

  10. I’m a person of Chinese descent who grew up in the States and I can definitely agree with the noisy eating part. Slurping while drinking soup is considered normal in China. I usually eat as soundlessly as possible. And whenever I deal with mainlanders or people in Hong Kong, people ALWAYS comment on how silently I eat when it’s a norm that should be strived for here. Funny thing is all of my immediate family members including my brother who actually had to take an eating etiquette class when he was little.

  11. I share a flat with à (very intelligent) Chinese bloke for a month. He eats like a pig as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to comment on this as I know it is a good custom in china. We get to the point though, he bothers me, so I’d rather leave the room or flat when he eats. I told him it does bother me very much. He couldn’t care less. Now this is when it does become rude. It is not the eating manners, but when you knowingly bother someone or your neighbors. His reply is that a quarter of the world population is @hotmail.comChinese, so why should I be right?

  12. I must agree with the consensus. I am married to a Chinese individual. Every member of his family eats like a horse with open mouths and loud sounds that make me feel physically ill. I try to turn on music, but it is still hard to tolerate. I have decided to discontinue eating with him due to the fact that he refuses to respect the discomfort that he is causing. He does close his mouth whilst eating with colleagues from work, so for people he does respect, he will eat respectfully. I know it is not a big deal and is accepted and even a positive thing in his culture, but I simply cannot tolerate it. I respect his culture in our home since I take off my shoes, why can’t he respect mine by closing his mouth?

    1. It sounds more like a marriage issue rather than a cultural issue. Most wives, I assume, will be able to discipline their husbands in this small matter. Are there any pet peeves you have about this Chinese individual?

      Maybe you can record his eating noise and play it back to him so he has an idea what his problem is.

  13. An expression of joy…. Do me a favour. Chinese have just pig gutter manners when they eat. Its an indication of what they generally are like culturally… Ill mannered. Slop, slop, slap, slurp, slap. Fucking disgusting. They need their heads kicked in dirty shits

    1. Looking back at this comment, its not just some chinese people who eat in this awful manner. Plenty of people of all nations do. My anger is directed against those who just have these piggish manners whilst eating and don’t give a shit about those near them, (nothing to do with their nationality). If you do eat with your mouth open and smack your food in an offensive (and aggressive manner) please for God’s sake stop and have some basic manners and consideration for others. It is not hard to chew with your bloody mouth closed (unless you have a disability then that is understandable).

  14. Anyone who has not lived in China for an extended period of time, has not right to comment on “cultural differences”. MOST Chinese people are REVOLTING when they eat. End of story, all the crap about “appreciating the meal” is old news, these things do not apply in modern China. People who are loud, gross eaters are looked down upon by the more educated and polite Chinese.

    Spitting, sucking, smacking, slurping, burping, laughing and talking with full, spraying mouths. This is all very common here in China and those people are disgusting pigs.

  15. “People who are loud, gross eaters are looked down upon by the more educated and polite Chinese.” So there is cultural variation within China regarding what is considered good table manners, just like in any other country. That doesn’t make one way “better” than another. Just because one preferred set of rules is closer to/influenced by the West doesn’t make it superior to other sets of rules. I personally find noisy, messy eating unappealing because of my own cultural upbringing, but when I go to a place where it’s considered acceptable to eat more noisily, I don’t take an elitist position and declare my own manners better than those of everyone else at the table (as that is the most “piggish” thing one can do). Cultural variety is a good thing!

  16. I am glad that I am not the only one hating this aspect og Asian culture. I study Chinese at the university, and have lived both in China and Taiwan. I must say that the noises Chinese (and probably other Asian people) make when they eat, is one of the most life destroying, horrible, infinitely disgusting things I have ever experienced.
    I try to embrace every culture from all over the world, I have been to 23 countries, and I consider myself very open. I really love China and Chinese culture, however, the cultural impact I bring with me from my home country in Europe, is so deeply imbedded in me, that I cannot stand, let alone concentrate when a Chinese person is eating near by.
    I feel like telling the person, that the sound they are making is disgusting, but on the other hand, who am I to come to their country and tell them how to behave. It’s extremely frustrating. I have no right to impose my culture on other people in other countries. That does not, however, stop me from being eternally disgusted by it.
    On a more investigative note, my experience is that in China, this phenomenon is taking place in all layers of society. I have met hundreds of Chinese persons, and all of them smacked when they ate. All of them. There were sometimes when I couldn’t restrain myself, and had to tell them to close their mouth when they ate. This served for some embarrasment on their side.
    However, in Taiwan it is slightly different. Here, you are much more likely to meet people who close their mouths when they eat, probably due to the elitary culture originally brought to the island by the nationalists in 1949, but also due to significant westernization.
    Taiwanese culture is much, much more western, and not nearly as savage as that of Mainland China. That being said, I still encounter smacking people every day in Taiwan, so unfortunately this aspect is still very evident here.
    I don’t know what to do about it, as the only solution seems to be the gradual impact of western culture, but I don’t see the aspect of smacking disappearing anytime soon. Culture will be culture.
    On a side note, I don’t in any way see how not closing your mouth, and making loud noises when you eat, should express a higher degree of satisfaction, than eating silently with a closed mouth. I would think that silently tasting the different flavours, would serve for more intense enjoyment of a given meal. Just my opinion.

    1. Thank you for commenting.

      My sense is that if we start pointing fingers, then no culture and country in the world will be spared.

      I think the smacking sound is fundamentally due to the size and material of the food Chinese people are eating. For example, it is very hard to refrain from making any noise when one is eating a delicious bowl of beef soup noodles. I would just focus on the food without paying much attention to how other people eat, although I understand it is hard.

      However, I agree with you. It does look bad when one is talking with his mouth full.

      If you live in China longer enough, eventually eating noises will no longer bother you: either more and more Chinese will be westernized and become quiet eaters, or you will just accept it.

  17. We host an international student from Hong Kong. He is a lovely young man. We have hosted his parents at our home as well. We are fond of all three of them. BUT, they all make so much noise when they eat I lose my appetite. I have positioned the young man at the dinner table so that he is beside me so I can’t see him while he is chewing since to watch AND hear him would cause me to miss most meals (although I could stand to lose a few pounds). My husband is lucky in that he is hard of hearing so he misses most of it. This young man will be with us for several years while he completes his education. I really don’t know how I will get through it. I would never want to hurt his feelings or offend him but it’s getting to the point where I’m seriously considering making up an excuse to have him go to another host family. I understand that it’s a cultural thing and am not trying to be disrespectful. I simply don’t understand how he can not notice that he is the only one at the table making all that noise. I’m actually feeling a bit of nausea just thinking about what I will endure at the dinner table tonight.

    1. If you still have this young man in your home, I think you are more than justified in explaining tactfully to him that the way he is eating in YOUR home is unacceptable. As a guest, he is the one obligated to adapt to your table etiquette.

  18. I think it is too bad that people have so little tolerance for the behaviour of others. I am a white North American and when I first ate with an Asian I was surprised by her manners ( or my perceived lack of manners). But upon a little investigation learned that this was how she was raised and that she meant no disrespect. I took the time to learn about her. Food is one of the pleasures in life and who am I to dictate how someone else should express pleasure in it. Isn’t my friend’s personality and morals more important than her eating habits? I wonder if North Americans ate with as much zeal and gusto if we would be thinner? ;). So sorry to see such negative comments on such an unimportant topic.

    1. I think table manners are of utmost importance. Smacking and slurping your food is hostile, repulsive , offensive and possibly aggressive. If I eat with someone I will show respect and restraint by not eating like a wild animal. Civilised societies depend on basic decent manners if they are going to work.

  19. The noise has nothing to do with the size or type of food eaten. I’ve been living in China for several years and I can eat a Chinese meal quietly while my Chinese friends will eat the same meal very noisly. Most of the noise is caused by the fact they chew with their mouth open.

  20. We are hosting a Chinese exchange student – our second one-, and this time, rather than just ignoring table manners, I decided to explain to him (privately) that there is a difference between what is considered good manners in China and good manners in America, and that smacking or slurping is not considered good manners here. I was able to put that in the context of other differences in table manners between Europe and America. Since he is living with us and will be in America for a while (high school and college), I feel that it is my responsibility to teach him the proper way here, without judging any culture as better than the other. I think I am able to show him in many other ways how much I admire the Chinese culture and the long history China has. After my private talk with him, I now remind him during meals about our conversation, but never more than once at each meal. An ingrained habit like this is not easy to break. He does not seem to be offended at all, seems to appreciate that I teach him the Western way of eating, and in fact, we can joke about it together. Once he has mastered the keeping-your-mouth-shut-while-eating, I might address the bending-down-over-your-plate, although that bothers us much less than the noise-making…
    I can see that this would be harder to do with a collegue or any adult, but maybe they would appreciate to know that there is a difference in eating culture, as long as it is done in a positive way.

  21. The comment “It is not expressing joy, it is expressing low breeding and lack of concern for others. I have heard pigs make less noise” expresses low breeding and lack of concern for others.

    1. The comment is far less offensive than someone smacking and slurping their food in an offensive manner.

  22. Admin is thoroughly incorrect. The size, texture, etc of food has no bearing on the unfortunate noises that the Chinese, and some other Asian cultures, make when eating. There is no reason to make chewing, smacking, and popping noises when eating pudding. They arise from the person “playing” with the food in their mouth.. May God help you if you run into a Chinese person chewing gum. I completely agree with thinkweird in that they are not conscious of the noises they make. It’s cultural, ingrained, and taken for granted, so to speak. This, however, in no way justifies the behavior outside of a Chinese cultural context. For a people so deathly concerned about outsiders coming in and respecting and participating in their cultural idiosyncrasies, they are averse or even loathe to extend the same courtesy when visiting Western cultures, which given the rising Chinese middle class and the lifting of certain travel restraints, is becoming increasingly prevalent. In fact, many of the Chinese I know who have come to live in the Western world, some as my own roommates, have not even made an attempt to get to know European culture. It implies an inherent, perhaps unconscious, hypocrisy, ignorance, and disinclination to step beyond their own culturally self-interested experience.

    What I consider to be a prominent trait of many Chinese people, especially mainlanders, is a weak theory of other minds. That is, they completely lack social conscientiousness. It is as if they cannot grasp how their actions carry consequences that extend beyond themselves and their own isolated pursuit of self-assertion and self-interest (I am not referring to economic self-pursuit here). Basically, China needs to come down from whatever cultural power trip it is on.

    To conclude, I think the Chinese have many noble virtues, and some rather unflattering ones. This can be said of any culture, of course. However, when Chinese leave China or any satellite territory, they need to abandon their cultural dogmas (as they demand of anyone who visits China) and respect the dispositions of other cultures. I should not have to be subjected to their, from a Western point of view, animalisms. Their government is right to urge them all to respect the etiquette of other countries. Aside from population numbers, there are definitive reasons why the Chinese live in a state of unmitigated pollution, waste, shit and piss, human rights violations, resource depletion. My current roommate, a Chinese mainlander, will leave lights on when they are not needed or not turn them off when he goes on a three day excursion. On a daily basis I am constantly reminding him to turn the faucet off when he is done using it. This is especially important in the location in S. California where I am currently located, which is in a monumental drought. He doesn’t care whatsoever. Easy for him, he will be leaving in a year, so what does it matter that he flippantly waste resources like they are infinite. Sometimes I want to shake the stupidity out of him. They have no natural or social conscientiousness and it will frankly take its toll on the rest of the world rather quickly. My opinion, while it cannot be substantiated, is that China and the Chinese need to modernize. They think they have, but they are not even close. They are not a fully developed country, however much they pretend otherwise. Their economy is completely dependent on peddling trinkets to the developed world. This by itself will not lead to economic and political independence, but dependence on the west. Their development is held hostage by our buying power.

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