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Proper toothpick etiquette?

(1) Is it ever OK to use a toothpick at the table?

(2) If it is, what's the proper way to do it?

As to the first question, my understanding is that most Americans find it rude to use the toothpick at the table, but many Asian cultures have no such taboo. True?

As to the second question, some say the way to use a toothpick at the table is to cover up with the free (non toothpick holding) hand. True?

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  1. I would never purport to speak for all Americans, but I think it is inappropriate to use a toothpick in public, especially at a table. We wouldn't floss our teeth at the table, so why would we use a toothpick?

    1 Reply
    1. re: glutton

      i work in the restaurant business and have seen people floss at the table. ack.

    2. And that from a self-proclaimed glutton. I agree.

      1. I remember the day I graduated from college, my parents and my future husband (who my parents loathed) and I went to a Sizzler for lunch. (Hey. We were in Conway, Arkansas. Not a lot to choose from.) We were all tense and silent. Until we looked over and noticed a rather rotund gentleman digging into his teeth with a steak knive. Utterly disgusting, but talk about an icebreaker!

        But I was raised that in company, not only do you not clean your teeth with a steak knive, you don't use a toothpick either. You use dental floss in the privacy of your own home. And if you absolutely HAVE to do something about dental hygiene, you excuse yourself from the table and go to the rest room.

        There is probably a reason that toothpicks are not offered in nicer restaurants. At least not any I've been in.

        1. Good question.

          There are a number of old movies in which a major tough character has a toothpick that he's menacingly twirling in his mouth. That's a long time ago.

          Now, as you pointed out, the only restaurants at which I've been provided a toothpick have been Japanese. Ant they're nicely carved, and served in a nice round toothpick holder. This goes right up the classiness spectrum to Urasawa, where the toothpicks were carved and served in a smaller container than the toothpick holders at other restaurants I've been to. So it would seem they condone toothpicking.

          I have also received toothpicks in some chain barbecue restaurants. Less frenquently than I used to.

          I seem to remember I received them more often a long time ago. I remember always getting them at steak restaurants. Now I don't see them much.

          Great observation and comment. I don't know the answer and I'm looking forward to others' comments.

          2 Replies
          1. re: lil mikey

            I find public dental care & noseblowing to be disgusting. So does my girlfriend who is somewhat traditionally Japanese.

            1. re: Leonardo

              The "snot-rocket" is what I find offensive. Too cheap to buy tissues or a handkerchief? Apparently, this projectile release is very common in some cultures. I find it disgusting.

          2. My older Chinese relatives do it all the time. Finish dessert, pass around the toothpicks and pick away while you wait for the bill. I usually decline. They probably think I'm the dirty one.

            In the US, I feel like at the very least using a toothpick is something you do as you are out the door at a restaurant. That's why they're by the cashier with the bowl of mints, right?

            But now that you mention it, I see toothpicks less and less in restaurants now. Better to do it in private.

            1. True---ok in Asia, not in north America or Europe.

              1. To question #1: never, ever appropriate. It's disgusting to watch someone pick his/her teeth. That would be a deal breaker for me on a date, if I still dated.

                1 Reply
                1. re: bryan

                  For myself, a corollary of this is who the #@$% wants to use one of the toothpicks out of those communal bins?

                  Have we not seen enough newsshows featuring the legions of bacteria swarming all over the things thanks to the disgusting patrons (at all levels of classiness) who decline the basic hygiene ritual of post-toilet hand-washing?

                2. It's fine in Asia (and, as a corollary, in places that might as well be Asia, like Monterey Park or Flushing), and in point of fact is encouraged in Asia.

                  That said, you do it DISCREETLY and you cover your mouth with the other hand (it looks a bit like you're playing the harmonica).

                  In America? Not in public.

                  On the other hand, you'd put people off their feed if you blew your nose at the table, even discreetly, in Asia -- but it's OK in America, apparently.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                    Ugh. Not with me. I'm really not that squeamish, but still. There are many reasons to excuse yourself from the table for a trip to the loo, and that's just one of them.

                    1. re: Andiereid

                      "Excuse me, will the one-nose brass band back there PLEASE go get rid of his snot in the BATHROOM?? SOME of us are trying to EAT here."

                      1. re: Andiereid

                        OMG, I love hot and spicy food, but one of the unfortunate side effects of all that heat and spice is that it makes my nose run.....if I had to excuse myself from the table each time I blew my nose, I would end up having to eat my dinner in the rest room.

                        1. re: mshpook

                          I can understand -- it's one thing to dab politely and discreetly, but playing the nasal orchestra at the table? Ick ick ick.

                      2. re: Das Ubergeek

                        "put people off their feed"... classic statement.

                      3. How's this for class? When toothpicks were not readily available at our table, an ex (he's Anglo) would use the sharp corners and sides of a Sweet N' Low packet to remove any food particles between his teeth. The couple of times I politely commented were met by responses of, "No one can see me." He erroneously thought that it was acceptable to floss his teeth with a packet of Sweet N' Now packet, apparently, because he had shielded his activity with his free hand.

                        Needless to say, we are no longer together.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Pamela

                          How long did he have the mullet?

                          1. re: Pamela

                            Did he put the packet of Sweet N' Low back in the sugar holder? ;)

                          2. I think the rules are: no toothpicks in the Western/Northern worlds; and you all have to put up with hawking in S Asia and teeth sucking in SE Asia (sounds like a birds' nest filled with cheeping hatchlings).

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                              Random anecdote: one time in Hong Kong I was with a friend and we were walking the halls that connect the buildings in Admiralty. In one of them was a big sign that said "No Hawking", with some Traditional characters I didn't recognise.

                              Right underneath it was someone getting rid of a big loogie right on the ground.

                              "Disgusting," I said, "obviously they can't read."

                              Turns out in Hong Kong "hawking" means "selling things illegally" and that the Traditional Chinese said "Do not vend in hallway".

                              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                Well, I think the spelling for that is hock, not hawk. Blegh. Great visual image huh?

                                1. re: Andiereid

                                  But isn't "hock" what you do with valuable when you need money?

                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                    Obviously as DUG knows and was right, the sign referred to hawking, which is selling on the street (as in the street hawkers' area of Singapore). "Hawking " in American English is also used as in "hawking a loogie" the theme that disgusted us in the first place.

                            2. See it all the time with Asian clients, hey whateverr works.

                              My father used to finish every meal with a camel non-filter and clean his teeth with the matchbook cover.

                              I wait til the car ride home in worst case or the water pik when i get home.

                              1. in Brazil there are toothpicks at every restaurant, on the table through the whole meal (though they're also often used to eat with, as lots of food comes in small pieces for group eating). You just cover your mouth with one hand and pick with the other. I always felt funny doing it, but it didn't seem to be a big deal. I'd never do it here though, I'd just take one and go to the bathroom if it was an emergency.