International Dining Etiquette Tips

08/01/2017 10:59 am ET
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Tips for a Successful International Dining Experience

While the occasional slip-up of dropping your spoon in your soup or forgetting to pass the condiments counterclockwise happens to everyone, certain crucial dining rules have fallen by the wayside. Proper dining technique demonstrates modern manners and common courtesy for one’s cohorts, and makes the meal more enjoyable for everyone. Each culture has their own unspoken dining etiquette rules. Before making reservations in Ravenna or dining in Dubai, read these tips for a successful international dining experience!

In Asia, avoid pointing at anyone with your chopsticks because it is an insult.

In Italy, don’t ask for extra cheese, especially Parmesan, unless it’s offered. Many Italian dishes made with pecorino, won’t taste good with different cheeses. Asking for cheese on seafood is insulting. If it’s not offered, don’t ask.

In the U.K., tilt your soup bowl away from you.

In India, the Middle East, Asia and the Arab world, the custom is to use the right hand to eat and pass items, never the left hand. The left hand is used for personal body functions, in the bathroom, and considered to be dirty. Sorry lefties!

In Mexico, eat a taco with your hands. Otherwise you look snobby eating with a knife and fork. Would you eat a cheeseburger with a fork and a knife?

In France, the bread is placed on the table, and not on a bread plate. It is not eaten as an appetizer. It is consumed with the meal, or afterwards with cheese and is used to help place food on the fork. Knife and fork, is as bread and fork.

In France, the well mannered don’t cut their salads with a fork. Instead, fold the lettuce leaves onto your fork.

In Europe, France and Russia diners don’t rest their hands in their laps; instead they keep hands above the table. Rest your wrists on the table and not in your lap. This custom arose as a way to demonstrate to your dining companions that you weren’t hiding a weapon.

In France, never split the bill as it’s seen as the height of unsophistication. Pay the bill in full, or allow someone else to do so.

In China & Hong Kong, when cooking or eating fish, don’t flip it over. It’s dao yue in Chinese, or bad luck. It signifies the fisherman’s boat may overturn. The most superstitious leave the fish bottom untouched, while others will remove the bone to get to the bottom meat.

In Chile, use utensils for all meals due to the desire to identify with European culture. Don’t use your hands to eat food, (French fries or pizza) because it’s considered ill mannered. Helping yourself to a second portion is offensive. It’s important to wait for the host to offer a second helping.

In Tanzania, arrive 15-30 minutes late (after the appointed time) and you are timely. Arriving at the exact time is rude.

In Portugal, avoid asking for salt and pepper if they are not on the table. It is an insult to the chef’s flavoring talents. Instead: enjoy the meal without adding seasoning.

In Thailand, don’t put food in your mouth with a fork. Instead the fork to put food on the spoon; place the spoon in your mouth. Some Thai dishes are eaten with the hands. Chopsticks are considered tacky.

In Japan, chopsticks are not used to pass food.

In China and Taiwan, historically, it was polite to lightly burp at the meal’s end as a compliment to show enjoyment. The Chinese government’s 2013 etiquette guidelines have discouraged this practice.

In Asia, when accepting a drink, always use both hands. When drinking tea or coffee with the Bedouins, shake your cup when finished, so they don’t continue pouring more.

In Korea, wait to begin eating until after the eldest male at the table has started. Wait until the eldest person has finished eating before leaving the table. If an older person offers to pour your drink, lift your cup or glass to receive it with both hands as a sign of respect. Turn your head to the side to take a discreet sip.

In Russia, drink vodka straight and pure. Don’t add ice or mixers or you dirty the purity. Unless you add beer, and then this formidable beverage is known as yorsh.

In Russia, always accept an offer of vodka, which is a sign of trust and friendship. It’s a good idea to accept even if it’s 8 am, because declining is a faux pas.

In Asia, avoid placing your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice as this is associated with funerals. Instead, chopsticks are placed together right in front of you, parallel to the edge of the table.

In Japan, when eating soup and noodles, slurping is polite and shows appreciation to the chef. You may also drink soup from the bowl. Soup spoons are rarely provided.

In Cambodia, China, Egypt, Korea, the Philippines, finishing all the food on your plate indicates to the host that they didn’t order enough food. Always leave a small amount of food on your plate to acknowledge that you’ve had your fill and your host’s generosity.

In Japan, U.S., and some other ‘clean plate’ cultures, finishing all of the food on your plate signals that the food was good and you enjoyed your meal.

In Asia, it is rude to refill your own glass or cup. Refill your neighbor’s glass and wait for her to reciprocate.

In Canada, the Inuit people will fart after a meal to indicate their appreciation and pleasure with the meal.

In Georgia, at a traditional feast (supra), it is important to wait for a toast before consuming wine, because this is the only time wine can be drunk.

In Italy, drink a cappuccino before noon. After 3:00 p.m. drink an espresso. Many Italians drink a breakfast cappuccino as a meal. Doing otherwise brands you a tourist.

In Germany, don’t cut potatoes with a knife as it indicates they aren’t done. Instead, smash them with your fork which provides for better gravy coverage.

In Britain, always pass the port to the left. Many say that it’s a Navy tradition (associated with the ship’s port side on the left when facing the helm). Passing to the right is a gaffe. If someone fails to pass, ask, “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” If they reply “no,” say, “He was a great guy, but he always forgot to pass the port.”

In Brazil play your tokens wisely. At Brazilian steakhouses (churrascaria) dining room servers circulate with cuts of meat, and diners use tokens to place orders. A token with the red side up means no more. Green side up orders more, so watch closely.

In India, food is considered contaminated once it touches your plate, so don’t offer anyone a taste, even your spouse.

In India, be sure to finish all of your meal, because wasting food is seen as disrespectful.

In India, wash your hands both before and after eating, paying close attention to the fingernails. Licking your fingers during the meal shows the host how much you enjoyed the food.

In India, don't say "thank you" to your host at the meal’s end; it's considered a form of payment. Reciprocate by inviting her to dinner.

In Bulgaria don’t bring yellow flowers to dinner as they symbolize hatred.

In Ethiopia, individual plates are considered to be wasteful. Food is shared from a single plate, without utensils, by using hands.

In Ethiopia, the tradition of gursha is practiced where the people hand feed each other as a gesture of hospitality to build trust and social bonds between those sharing the food.

In Greece, hosts insistently offer diners 2-3 helpings of food. Guests should accept as a compliment to the host.

In the Middle East, if you drop bread on the ground, pick it up, kiss it, raise it to your forehead and put it back on your plate. This shows respect for the food, and the hard work that went into making it.

Wherever you sit down to dine, keep these food and drink etiquette rules in mind for a memorable, mannerful meal!

Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture (formerly Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide). In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE centre, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, and the National Business Journals. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.

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