A Seat at the Global Table: Dining Etiquette from Around the World

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 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’s fine to dig right in with your hands. South Korean 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 diner 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 to 20 percent tip is standard in North America for good service, but some countries throughout Asia view tipping as rude. In Europe and Australia, leaving 5 to 10 percent is sufficient, but keep in mind that 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 — 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 experienced and adventurous eater. Experiment, order something you can’t pronounce, and enjoy!

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Kristina Todini, RDN
Kristina Todini, RDN, is a nutrition trends and communications expert at FoodMinds by day, and writes about food and travel at ForkInTheRoad.co by night. She serves as the Incoming Director of PR & Marketing for the Nutrition Entrepreneurs DPG and is also President Elect of the California Academy Bay Area District. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.