Nancy Napier: When you're traveling, pay attention to the silverware

Executive director of Boise State's Centre for Creativity and InnovationApril 16, 2014 

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Nancy Napier

CARRIE QUINNEY — Boise State University

I was recently in Bangkok and noticed that people use a fork and soup spoon to eat. Not chopsticks. Not a fork and knife. Not their hands.

I wondered why.

The legend goes that one of the early Thai kings wanted to convince Italian visitors that his country was civilized and thus not a target for colonization.

To show it, he required citizens to stop using their hands to eat and start using a spoon, with the fork as a pusher to put food into the spoon.

That alone is intriguing, but it got me wondering about eating and utensils in general.

Why do people in the rest of Asia use chopsticks? Why are chopsticks in Korea made of metal? Why do Europeans eat with both forearms on the table, while Americans slice a piece of meat, put the knife down, switch hands, and put one hand under the table?

All interesting questions (to me, at least). But more important, it got me thinking about why I was even curious to learn about the utensils.

One of the key elements in creative individuals and organizations that seek to have cultures of innovation is that they are relentlessly curious about all kinds of strange things, many that may have little apparent relevance to their daily lives. Sometimes those irrelevant tidbits open doors for opportunities later.

Recall Steve Jobs' famous story about studying calligraphy because he found it interesting and then later realizing its power for computers.

I find that questions about why people eat as they do are useful in international business … in understanding ideas like trust or culture.

For instance, one theory about why Europeans eat with both arms on the table is that in the early days, they didn't trust one another, and to show they had no weapons at hand, they always kept both hands visible. According to this theory, Americans did trust one another (and perhaps wanted to be very different from the English they left, including in how they ate). So they switched hands and kept one under the table. If it's true, it may offer a clue about culture and trust levels of the "old" and "new" worlds.

In Asia, people eat "family style," with food in the table's center. Pieces of meat or fish are cut up before they go into a dish, so no knives are needed. The long length of chopsticks allows people to lean forward and reach across a table to get more food, perhaps bringing them closer together.

The story in Korea is that the metal chopsticks are more sanitary; also, if someone tried to poison the king, the metal might change color, alerting him of danger. Again, is there an element of distrust in the culture?

It really doesn't matter what you become curious about. Curiosity is just a way to practice being open and look for ideas that might sometime be useful.

Who knows, you just might find you have perfect table manners in Thailand when you visit.

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