Receiving guests is a time-honored tradition in virtually every part of the world. Many cultures have developed entire codes of etiquette around their hospitality customs, as well as elaborate rituals in the form of tea ceremonies and dances. These traditions are colorful and evocative. They’re also a stark reminder of the fact that we can’t always export our own standards for rudeness or politeness into culturally distinct spaces and expect them to land the same way.
Questions about whether to accept food (and how much of it to eat) will always be relevant. There’s also the matter of whether you’re expected to bring a gift, or if there are certain ways you should handle (or mishandle) your utensils when you’re eating. In some cultures, it’s considered rude to not ask someone if you can stay at their house. In others, it might be rude to put someone on the spot if their social norms dictate that they must never refuse a friend who asks for a place to crash.
Assuming you’re someone who cares about cultural competence, these are important differences to know. Understanding the world’s varied hospitality customs is valuable if you’re someone who travels or frequently interacts with people who hail from different backgrounds as you. Even more than that, though? It’s a good way to gain insight into the values that are important to various cultures.
A World Of Hospitality Customs
Hospitality is almost always synonymous with offerings of food and drink, but the rules of engagement tend to vary in different places.
For example, you should do your best to avoid leaving food on your plate in Turkey, Japan and India, because this signals to your hosts that you didn’t like the meal. In places including Iran and China, however, an empty plate is a signal that you haven’t eaten your fill. Your hosts might feel obliged to keep putting food on your plate until you can’t finish anymore.
In China, Japan, and South Korea, it can also be a sign of appreciation to the cook if you slurp your food.
People tend to bond over drinks as well, and this may center alcohol or not at all.
In Poland, be wary of committing a “vodka crime” by either not bringing any to your friend’s house or serving it warm. Guests in Russia are also typically served vodka shots. In Georgia, wine is meant to be consumed all at once during a toast at the end of the meal, not throughout it.
Other countries have entire welcoming rituals built around coffee and tea. In Ethiopia, coffee brewing and consumption is part of an elaborate ritual that can take hours. The beans are roasted and prepared in front of the guests, and the coffee is brewed three times before it’s served. Serving coffee is also a cornerstone of hospitality customs in Saudi Arabia, and this ritual comes with its own etiquette (like serving elders first, for instance).
In Mexico, serving atole has been a gesture of hospitality since the pre-Hispanic times. This is a hot drink that’s traditionally been made with corn flour, water, milk, cinnamon and vanilla.
In other parts of the world, tea is the tradition. Matcha has become popular in the United States recently, but it was originally used in Japanese tea ceremonies that were performed primarily in elite circles and Buddhist temples. These involved prescribed rules for everything ranging from the way guests entered the house to the way things were cleaned up after. Traditional Chinese tea ceremonies are also highly ritualized, requiring specific types of pots, cups, bamboo tools, tongs, tea towels, brewing trays and “scent cups” for guests to smell the leaves before brewing. In Morocco, guests are almost always served Moroccan mint tea, and it’s generally considered rude to refuse it.
Entering Someone’s Home
Americans tend to be more lax about taking their shoes off inside, and for this, they’re probably in the minority. In many parts of the world, it’s respectful to take your shoes off at the door when you’re entering someone’s home as a guest. This is the case in Turkey, most Asian countries, and Russia; in this last case, you’ll likely be given a pair of house slippers to wear inside.
In Russia, it’s also pretty frowned-upon to enter someone’s home without some sort of gift. Typically, people bring flowers, chocolates, dessert or a nice bottle of wine or liquor.
You might also want to check to see how much punctuality is expected of you if you’ve been invited over as a guest. Germans are notorious for expecting 1:30 to mean 1:30, but in India or many Latin American countries, it’s more polite to arrive 15 to 20 minutes late so as not to pressure your host, who might still be in preparation mode.
In some indigenous societies, guests are welcomed by the entire village with ceremony. For instance, Kenya’s Maasai tribe performs a “jumping dance,” which is a warrior rite of passage, that involves a competition at the end to see who can jump the highest.
Depending on how you grew up, you may have grown accustomed to politely declining someone’s offer of hospitality if you don’t need it or don’t feel comfortable receiving that sort of generosity. In these situations, there’s often an unspoken assumption that the other person might be offering help in an obligatory way, and that by saying “no thank you,” you’re relieving them of an additional burden.
But in other cultures, it can be insulting to decline someone’s graciousness. In much of the Middle East, it’s considered rude to not take someone up on their invitation to dinner or their offer to help. If an Iraqi invites you out to eat, they will generally insist on covering the whole bill, too. In Syria and Iran, no expense will be spared to prepare a delicious meal for guests.
Hospitality customs in Greece also have deep roots that trend back toward the gods of ancient times. It was considered a commandment of Zeus Xenios, the god of strangers, to welcome travelers with food and shelter. The guest is also expected to not take advantage of their host’s generosity by staying longer than needed. In modern times, Greeks will often show their generosity by escorting lost travelers and not merely providing directions.