If you’ve ever flown first class or eaten at a fine restaurant, you’ve probably been handed a wet towel. The first time this happens, you’ll probably be confused and look to others for guidance.
Generally, the towel is used to clean your hands. This tradition comes from Japan, where “oshibori” (wet towels) are handed out before meals. In Japanese restaurants, they may be hot or cold, depending on the season. Some people may also use the towels to clean their face.
This tradition has been expanded outside of Japanese restaurants where the practice varies greatly. In Western restaurants, wet towels may be served before and/or after the meal — to clean your fingers and around your mouth. According to Etiquette Scholar, it is not polite to clean beyond these areas, such as your neck or behind your ears, in a restaurant.
Many airlines offer wet towels, particularly in first class. They are sometimes offered immediately after takeoff, which is standard in first class on British Airways, among others. These towels are usually hot, but may be cold if you’ve just boarded from a particularly hot environment or if the cabin air conditioning is out-of-order. At this time, they are useful to clean your hands before eating or to clean the travel sweat off your skin (forehead, back of your neck, etc.). On longer flights, wet towels may also be served after a meal or just prior to landing.
Wet towels are traditionally made from cotton and moistened with water. Lemon juice is sometimes added to the water for its fragrance and degreasing properties. In recent years, pre-moistened disposable towels have gained popularity and are often wrapped in a plastic package. These towels come unscented and in a variety of fragrances. They sometimes contain other cleaning solutions such as alcohol.
If you’re ever given a wet towel, you can tell everyone what it’s for and where this tradition came from.
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