Few things are as wonderful as traveling the world. You get to see new sights, learn about other cultures, and experience your everyday in entirely new ways.
And when you go overseas, you typically try to avoid doing anything that would earn you the label of an “ugly American.” Unfortunately, one of the easiest places to accidentally earn it is where we let our guards down and relax: the dinner table.
Nations around the globe have surprisingly different rules for table etiquette. Though disobeying these rules may not get you kicked out of town, breaking them is fairly disrespectful.
Thankfully, we’ve rounded up the biggest food faux pas from around the world. Whether you’re traveling to Paris or Zambia, you’ll know how to eat like a local wherever you go.
Note: The following tips are a cheat sheet, so to speak—your destinations, though, may change the test entirely. Countries are large; not everyone acts the same from coast to coast. Before following any of these tips, observe the habits of the locals around you.
First: if you’re traveling east, get to know chopsticks.
Throughout the eastern portion of the continent, make sure you have a little familiarity with chopsticks before you travel.
Chopsticks have been the primary utensil in China since around 400 B.C.E. Back then, meat was chopped into small pieces to speed up the cooking process and conserve energy, according to The Smithsonian. Chinese philosopher Confucius continued the anti-knife crusade when he said “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.”
By 500 C.E., chopsticks were popular all over Asia (except Thailand) and have remained the primary utensil ever since.
Most East-Asian restaurants won’t offer cutlery, so make sure you aren’t lost without a fork in hand. Even if you’re not a pro, avoid one thing: laying chopsticks across your rice bowl. That’s considered rude. You’ll probably be given a chopstick rest, so feel free to put them there, or place them on your plate.
Now, for etiquette in…Japan:
In addition to not setting your chopsticks in the rice bowl, definitely avoid sticking chopsticks upright in the rice. It’s not just rude; it insults the dead.
Japanese funerals have a bowl of rice for the deceased next to the coffin. Part of the ritual involves sticking the chopsticks in the bowl of rice of the dead. So, unless you want to remind everybody of death at dinner, avoid this at all costs.
Also, be careful with your soy sauce. Cory Varga, founder of You Could Travel, says that you should never dip your sushi rice in soy sauce.
“This is considered bad manners in Japan, and it’s an insult to the chef,” Varga says. “The itamae (sushi chef) puts a lot of care in making the rice perfect. Adding soy sauce to it means the rice is not tasty or too dry.”
Only dip the fish side in soy sauce—or leave the sauce out completely—so you don’t accidentally insult your host or chef.
Once again, chopsticks are key. Use them for everything, including breaking up fish or meat. Though it might seem a little rude to poke at meat or fish with the sticks, it’s the prefered way to eat, according to Etiquette Scholar.
If you’re eating noodles or soup, go ahead and sip right from the bowl. If you really like it, slurp and burp as much as you want. Yes, understated burps after a meal are totally fine. They’re considered a sign that you’ve enjoyed the food, so don’t hold them back.
Unlike the surrounding countries, it’s perfectly fine to use a fork during your meal in Thailand—just don’t put it in your mouth.
Though that might sound impossible, this is how the Thai do it: Use the fork to grab some food, then push that food onto a spoon, then put the spoon in your mouth. It seems a little complicated at first, but it’s a much more respectful way to eat when you’re visiting Thailand.
Unlike many other Asian nations, chopsticks are not used and are considered fairly “tacky,” food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu told CNN Travel. So, eat your rice with a spoon and fork and save your chopstick skills for another day.
Much of the nation is Hindu or (to a lesser extent) Muslim, so you won’t be eating beef—and sometimes pork—in India. Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, and pigs are forbidden to Muslims, so even at McDonalds, you’ll only get chicken, fish, and veggie options. Asking for beef in a Hindu establishment—or pork in a Muslim establishment—would be considered rude.
Shy Bredewold, world traveler and owner of Odyssean Travel, told FashionBeans that men and woman should be careful of their interactions in Central Asia.
“If you’re a man, talk to the men first, don’t even look at the women. You may get the social cues that it’s OK to engage with people for conversation, but certainly watch that you don’t say anything inappropriate, suggestive, or that results in physical contact,” Bredeworld says.
“If you’re a woman,” Bredeworld continues, “you’re going to have a trickier time of gauging the social norms in terms of engagement, but don’t take it personally …”
Case in point: if a woman touches food that’s being served to men in Hindu or devout Muslim establishment, that food is now considered “impure,” according to Etiquette Scholar.
Know that while the treatment of women may be disrespectful, it’s a part of the cultural and religious beliefs. Try to respect the rules of the country you’re visiting, even if you don’t agree. You can always talk to the men and women you’re traveling with and make—all the eye contact you want!
Any predominantly Islamic nation will typically eat according to rules of the Sunnah (the record of Muhammad’s teachings). This includes much of the Middle East and large parts of India.
Per the prophet Muhammad, Muslims are advised to eat only with their right hand and say the name of Allah before every meal. The left hand is considered dirty, since it’s typically the hand you use for toilet time. So, don’t even pass things with your left hand—it’s considered pretty gross.
The good news is if you can’t resist licking your fingers after a good meal, that’s okay. Muhammad advises licking your fingers clean before wiping your hands on a napkin to leave no morsel of food for the devil to steal.
“When a morsel of any of you falls, he should pick it up and remove any of the dirt on it and then eat it,” reads The Book About the Etiquette of Eating, “and should not leave it for Satan nor should wipe his hand with towel until he has licked his fingers, for he does not know in what portion of the food the blessing lies.”
Try not to refuse food when visiting Lebanon (if you’re sure it’s safe, obviously). Even if it’s not to your taste, you’re full, or you just aren’t hungry at all, it’s considered incredibly rude to turn down food.
No matter where you are, it’s best to give any food a try. Many Americans like to stick to familiar foods and turn their heads at things that seem “weird,” but it’s only polite to try a local food at least once—especially if it’s offered to you. You might like the regional fare! Even if you hate it, you’ll get to brag about your adventurous eating to all your friends.
In Chile, it’s considered rude to show up directly on time if you’re visiting someone’s house for dinner. Being fashionably late is not only fashionable, but polite. Good news for anyone who’s always running behind!
Just because you can be late, that doesn’t mean all etiquette is out the window. It’s considered rude to eat anything with your hands. So, whether you’re eating french fries or rice and beans, you need to use a fork or spoon.
Brazil obeys the customs that are true for much of South America. Always keep your knife in your right hand and fork in your left—don’t switch back and forth. At the end of the meal, lay the knife and fork down horizontally on your plate without crossing them.
Also, make sure to keep your hands in sight during the meal. Keeping your hands under the table is seen as deceptive—like you have something to hide. That doesn’t mean set your elbows on the table, just keep your hands on your utensils or by your plate at all times.
Dinners are usually eaten communally without utensils, according to Awaze Tours. Typically, you’ll tear off a piece of spongy bread called injera and use that to eat your food. You likely won’t get your own plate, as it’s considered a waste. Since resources are less plentiful, there’s no need to waste water and washing on something as unnecessary as an individual plate.
If someone goes to put food in your mouth, don’t worry. It’s a custom called gursha where another person will gently place food in your mouth. It’s a gesture of respect, so though it might feel a little strange, it would be rude to refuse.
In Zambia, they do eat meat, but much less often than we do in America. If you’re offered a meal at someone’s home and they’re serving chicken, it’s a big deal. Make sure to thank them and enjoy the extra protein they’ve provided.
If you ever help a family cook, you might end up looking silly. Zambians are skilled at cutting greens by holding the stalks in one hand and slicing their knife through the greens mid-air. It’s a technique that’s hard for Americans, but in Zambia, “only children use cutting boards,” according to the Food Traveler’s Handbook. It won’t be considered rude if you can’t master their mid-air cutting techniques, but don’t be surprised if you get a couple giggles thrown your way.
In much of Europe, it’s considered an insult to ask for condiments. When you ask for salt, you’re accidentally accusing the chef of not making your meal properly. If you see salt at the table, feel free to use it, but if you don’t see the condiment tableside, it’s best to go without.
In Southern Europe, food usually takes time. Be prepared to take an hour for a meal in a restaurant, if not more—don’t try to rush the servers. Patricia Hajifotiou, traveler and author of Travel Like You Mean It, says that waiters in Greece won’t clear a single plate until everyone at the table is finished. Don’t expect them to hover over your meal and give you constant attention.
In Greece, France, and other Southern European countries, the servers may seem rude compared to their American counterparts. This really isn’t the case. Servers take their job seriously, but they don’t feel compelled to have a constant smile.
“Do not misread a stoic face as not being good and capable at their job,” Hajifotiou says. “I have seen Americans all of the sudden get rude with a waiter that they thought ‘did not like them’. This is the way they act with all the customers, not just with you. Hold them accountable for their service, not their bouncy personality.”
France gets a bad rap for disliking Americans. In reality, the French are perfectly friendly, though some American customs do get on their nerves. Travel expert and blogger at The Compass is Calling, Cat Holladay, found there’s always one way to spot an American at a French restaurant: their volume.
“The next table should not be able to hear your entire conversation, let alone the table on the other side of the restaurant,” Holladay says.
Just by lowering your voice, you’ll blend in with the crowd and make a lot of French people happy.
When in Rome, drink coffee like the Romans do. In Italy, you should only have a cappuccino before noon, according to Lauren Birmingham Piscitelli, Italian native and creator of Cooking Vacations.
Piscitelli also finds that American have tastes in cheese that Italians find unusual. Italians don’t mix acid and dairy, yet Americans love to put balsamic vinegar on their mozzarella cheese.
Americans, too, often ask for cheese with their seafood pasta. In Italy, seafood pasta and cheese never mix. Now, if you do ask for parmesan with your linguine with clams, no one will scream at you—they’ll just think you’ve got gross taste.
Maybe you want to raise your glass to honor your host? Well, in Sweden, don’t do it. Unless you’re giving a formal toast, it’s vulgar to clink glasses, according to Lonely Planet Sweden. If you aren’t sure whether a toast is “formal” or not, just wait for someone else to clink before you initiate.
You might assume British and American etiquette would be nearly the same…and it is, except for one quirky passing rule. In Britain, you must always pass port, a fermented beverage, to your left, and you need to keep passing until the carafe is empty. If the carafe stops, a person might say “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich? He’s a terribly good chap, but he always forgets to pass the port.”
This sounds a little like something out of a Monty Python sketch, but it’s real. The Telegraph devoted a whole article to the origin of this practice. They found it might originate from naval traditions, or it was possibly started by knights to keep their sword hands free. But the main reason for the passing is simple: port goes bad quickly. Once it’s decanted, it needs to be imbibed, otherwise the leftover port will be wasted.
So, in Britain, don’t let the port go to waste. If you do, at least you won’t be confused by the out-of-the-blue Bishop of Norwich reference.
Overall, the most important thing to do at the table, wherever you are, is to be gracious. Always try what’s given to you, be polite, and thank everyone involved. Don’t assume things are done the same way they’re done in America, and never expect anyone to change their customs to serve you.
Be observant. Notice how other people are doing things, then try to match their manner. If you’re trying to learn and be a part of their culture, locals will overlook little faux pas.
Respect is the most important table manner, and that’s appreciated worldwide.