There are plenty of ways to connect with a new place you visit, from stopping by a famous landmark to learning the language so you can chat with the locals. If you’re looking for an authentic experience to remember, one of the absolute best ways to get to know a new culture is by immersing yourself in its cuisine. (It’s also the most delicious.) When you visit restaurants around the world, you not only get a tasty tour of a new place — you also get to build your language skills, like talking about your favorite dishes in Spanish or putting your French food vocabulary to good use.
But being mindful of dining etiquette around the world is key. If you want to make it through a meal without making a major misstep or offending other restaurant patrons, it’s worth it to brush up on restaurant customs and traditions in different cultures. You don’t want to risk making someone bitter, salty or sour because you didn’t know you were supposed to use chopsticks and opted for a knife and fork.
Keep reading to learn about the most important elements of restaurant dining etiquette for your next international culinary crusade.
When it comes to learning how to use utensils around the world, you don’t want to cut corners. The first question is which utensils are the go-to tools of choice. It would be a misstep to whip out European cutlery in a land where chopsticks reign supreme or to dine with your hands when the custom calls for a knife and fork.
You might know that it’s rude to cross your chopsticks, leave them upright in your bowl of rice or lick them. But do you know where to use them in the first place? Chopsticks are the standard in most Asian countries like Japan and China to eat rice, meat and noodles. But you’ll rarely use chopsticks to do much besides serve food in Thailand, which is more partial to the spoon (and sometimes the fork).
Using your hands to scoop food from your plate or dish to your mouth is more the norm in places like Africa, the Middle East and India. But it’s no free-for-all. There are rules that govern your hand dining etiquette, like how you must make sure to wash your hands thoroughly before eating and how you shouldn’t let food touch your palms. And eating with your left hand is considered unclean, so you should always opt for the right. People in these cultures often use flatbreads like naan or injera to scoop up rice, meat and vegetables, and in Mexico, tortillas serve much of the same function.
Most of Europe is more predisposed to the knife and fork, and so is the United States, with the exception of finger foods like pizza, fries and sandwiches. You’ll also find these utensils in most of North and South America, too. (In Chile and Brazil, they even use utensils to eat things like burgers and pizza, as using your hands is considered ill-mannered.) Though they serve much of the same purpose everywhere, the way they’re used can vary widely. In France, you’re encouraged to use bread, a staple of the French diet, to push food onto your fork. Plus, it’s a great way to make sure no delicious sauce goes un-sopped-up. In Thailand, the fork is used mostly just to push food onto the spoon.
Sharing plates is not unheard of in the United States, but for the most part, menus are designed for each person to have his or her own dish — and some places even charge for splitting a meal between two people. But in places like Thailand and India, these meals, what Americans might call “family style,” are meant to be shared.
And while we’re talking about splitting, you’ll want to avoid splitting the bill in France, where the custom is that you either pay for the meal in full or you let someone else do it. It’s considered uncouth to even suggest it! But the concept of “going Dutch” is no source of stress for many cultures and countries, including the actual Dutch, for whom splitting a check is a nearly quotidian practice. (The phrase traces back to the 17th century seafaring Dutch traders who, according to their English counterparts, were notoriously stingy and selfish when it came to trade routes.)
So you’ve finished the meal, and you expect to be finished navigating the minefield of dining etiquette, right? Not so fast — it’s time to think about tipping! We have a whole article on tipping culture around the world, so we won’t spell it out in full here, but the gist is that knowing whether or not to tip — and how much — can go a long way when it comes to not provoking the ire of your server and generally staying culturally conscious.
In the United States, the vast majority of restaurants expect that you tip your servers anywhere between 10 and 20 percent of your bill, with more for exceptional service. Wages in the food service industry are often skimpy and meager because tipping is so ingrained into American dining culture. But in a place like Japan, tipping can be a social faux pas, considered insulting in many contexts because service is expected to be good as a standard. In many European countries like Germany, Italy and Spain, you can get by with a 5 or 10 percent tip. And some like Switzerland and Denmark have laws to protect service workers so that tips are always included in the final price or not necessary at all.