Dining out while traveling can be an adventure—and a learning experience. Table manners differ from country to country, and what is considered polite in one may be the height of rudeness in another. It’s best to be aware of a culture’s dining etiquette before traveling to avoid the embarrassment of committing a major eating faux pas. To save you from a dining disaster, I consulted foodies from around the world to learn more about what is considered tacky at the global table.
To fork or not to fork, that is the question
A fork and a knife are standard utensils in western cultures but using bread, leaves, or even hands is the norm in many areas of the world. Food may be scooped with roti and naan in India, banana leaves in Malaysia, or in tortillas throughout Central America. South American countries like Chile and Brazil always use utensils—even for what we consider finger foods, like fries. Forks and knives are used in Thailand’s high end restaurants, but you’ll find chopsticks and hands used for its famous street food.
A show of hands
In childhood I was taught to leave one hand in my lap while eating, but after marrying an Italian and eating at tables across Italy I learned my seemingly very polite habit was considered rude! Having your hands below the table is considered shifty in many European countries, and implies you have something to hide—like a weapon. While most Europeans no longer bring swords to dinner, the medieval practice of resting forearms on the table has persisted. But one norm crosses most cultures: no elbows!
All in the family-style
From tapas in Spain to the injera topped spreads of Ethiopia, large portions of sharable food are a common across the world. While family-style eating is a practice many countries share, each may have different rules governing what is considered rude when serving yourself or others. In China it is unsophisticated to use your own chopsticks to pick up communal food, but in Central America and Mexico it is fine to dig right in with your hands. In South Korea food is shared among all guests, but only after the elders have been served first. And don’t think about pouring yourself another drink—it is the duty of your fellow dinner to refill your glass in most Northern Asian countries. Make sure to return the favor!
Tipping & Service
One dining practice travelers find frustrating is that each country has different social norms for gratuity. A 15-20% tip is standard in North America for good service, but some countries throughout Asia may view tipping as rude. In Europe and Australia leaving 5-10% sufficient, but keep in mind many restaurants add an automatic service charge. It’s also important to remember that service expectations should not be high when traveling. One reason American tipping percentages are higher is we expect and generally receive good service—and you will find this will not always be the case when traveling abroad.
The best practice for dining in a new country is to be aware of its customs and not be afraid to ask questions. Some things may seem odd—like why salad is served after the main course in Italy and why asking for salt is considered a slight to the chef in Germany—but experiencing new foods and dining customs will make you a more a more experienced and adventurous eater overall. Experiment, order something you can’t pronounce, and enjoy!
Global Dining 101
I consulted foodies from around the world for a crash course in table manners.
“If you’re eating family style with people who are not your family, use the communal chop sticks to serve yourself and not your own. Also, when someone is pouring you tea it is customary to tap two fingers on the table in place of saying thank you.” –Tara Condell
“My family is from El Salvador, but many of these habits are a mix of different Central American cultures. First, elders always eat first! Second, it is considered rude to refuse food from an elder or someone who has cooked for you. They usually serve more on the plate than you can actually eat, so you end up eating more than you can. This is normal. Also, eating with your hands is totally ok because you will use your tortilla as a fork, scraping the last tidbits of food off your plate.” –Kelly Ortega
“People from India traditionally eat without cutlery and consider eating with their left hand rude because it is “unclean.” Food is more of a sensory experience and is why Indians eating breads like roti and naan with curry and rice is done with your hands. Even soups like daal (lentil soup) are eaten with hands by scooping it with Indian bread. The majority of Indians are Hindu so they are vegetarian and beef if prohibited because the Lord Krishna was a cow herder. Even McDonald’s in India doesn’t serve beef! Eating is a social experience and is meant to be a time spent with family.” –Seema Patel
“Appetizers first, then pasta, then the main course, then salad, then dessert/fruit, then after dinner drinks like limoncello, and then espresso. No one asks for a box for leftovers, it’s considered tacky. In Italy, and many other European countries, it is considered rude to put your hands in your lap. Also, don’t ask for parmesan cheese unless it’s offered, and never put it on seafood. Use a spoon to twirl your pasta, and there is no need to switch your fork to your right hand when cutting meat…just use your left hand to take the bite. And finally, alfredo sauce does not exist in Italy and Italians never eat spaghetti with meatballs. It just doesn’t happen.” –Anna Rita Cippicia
“Asking for salt and pepper to flavor your meals implies that the chef did not properly season the food. Only order as much as you will eat, ordering too much food means you have no self-control. Leaving food on your plate is an insult to the chef, and in Germany the food servers do not clear away empty plates until everyone has finished their meals.” –Anja Voth
“Malaysians usually eat family style and have long meals with friends at restaurants outside. We also eat a lot with our hands and in casual settings will use banana leaves in place of forks.” –Shiryi Tay
“In Peru everything is served in larger portions and the host expects you to finish them, as it’s a sign that you like what they served you. Burping or other eating noises are considered rude, and you shouldn’t leave the table until everyone is finished eating. One of the biggest differences between Peruvian dining culture and North American culture is that Peruvian meals usually last hours and have many courses. Drinks are served throughout dinner and friends can stay at a table in a restaurant all night long.” –Dessire Oriana
“If someone offers you a drink and you don’t want it, it is better to lie and say that you cannot because you are taking antibiotics, for example, because if you just refuse it can be seen as a sign of disrespect. Also in Russia it is common to have many courses and most every Russian meal with include potatoes. We really love potatoes.” –Nadiya Tolstikhina
“My family is very traditional and we never start eating before my dad picks up the spoon to start eating. If you are drinking with someone and their glass is empty, you should pour their drink without asking. If someone offers to pour a glass for you, you should hold the glass with both hands. Also, the fight over paying for the check can go back and forth many times. No one will back down, but someone will physically pay it before the other has a chance to. “ –Joohee Hong