Do table manners change in different countries?

So you love eating. We get it. We do, too! 

But what’s a meal without some really good company to share it with and unexpected table manners we didn’t know we had to follow? That’s right! Today, we explore table manners across the world, how to be respectful at different points of the meal, and what unites us all when it comes to eating in the presence of others. 

Tighten your seatbelts, and let’s travel! 

Multi-Generation Family Sitting At Table Making A Toast Whilst Eating Thanksgiving Meal At Home Together

Wishing others a good meal

If there is one point that unites several cultures across the world, it is that we like starting a meal by wishing others well. Curiously, expressions will not change drastically from country to country in Europe. In Portugal, you might say “Bom apetite”. In German, “Guten Appetit”. You can also use “Bon appétit”, “Buon appetito”, “Gero apetito” and “Buen provecho” in French, Italian, Lithuanian and Spanish, respectively. Of course, the further away you go from Europe, the more the expression will change

Happy smiling friends enjoying lunch together at home. Mature multiethnic people celebrating happy occasion while eating healthy food. Group of senior couple and african couple talking during meal.

Do you start without the others?

Is there any culture in which you can start eating before others are served? Or would you start your meal before everybody sat at the table? You might be surprised to know that in Germany, even starting your drink without the others can sometimes be seen as disrespectful. This table principle unites us all around the world: it is considered rude for guests to dig in before the host or oldest person at the table is served and starts eating, especially in countries like Korea, China and India.

Young friends having fun drinking red wine at balcony penthouse dinner party - Happy people eating bbq food at fancy alternative restaurant together - Dinning lifestyle concept on warm vintage filter

Eating with your hands

In Ethiopia, Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India) and in some countries in the Middle East, using your right hand to grab the food directly is not only common, but important. The left hand is often associated with toilet hygiene, so it is best to avoid using it to eat. Make sure you use only your fingertips to grab food and take it to your mouth, rather than your entire hand. Eating burritos and tacos in Mexico? Use your hands. Nobody uses a fork and a knife for these delicious foods! Here’s a handy guide to using your hands to eat around the world.

Close up of hands making vegetarian rolls food. Healthy food. Vegetarian food. Nutritious food. Female hands making vegetarian rolls. Food. Vegetarian rolls. Making food. Healthy food lifestyle.

To burp or not to burp? 

In India, Turkey and China, burping is acceptable and even a sign that you’ve enjoyed your meal. In Europe, it is considered extremely rude, as is licking your fingers, making too much noise with cutlery or slurping (in Japan, slurping your noodles means you’re just loving it!). On a different note, you might want to avoid blowing your nose at the table in South Korea. It is considered disgusting, while relatively normal in Europe – if you’re discreet about it.

The incredible science of chopsticks

One of the most misunderstood tools among Europeans and Americans, chopsticks have their own etiquette. First of all, they’re not used all over Asia (Thailand, for instance, does not use chopsticks – the spoon is the most important piece of cutlery). Secondly, the position of the chopsticks and the way you handle them can make or break the success of your meal. In China and in Japan, make sure you don’t place the chopsticks on your plate or on top of your food, but rather next to it. Never point at someone with your chopsticks or play with them (drumming, separating them, etc). Most importantly, never leave your chopsticks stuck vertically in food or pass food to someone with your chopsticks. Both of these invoke serious images of Chinese funeral rites. 

Multiethnic business man with colleagues having chinese take away food. Friendly businessman and casual businesswoman eating noodles. Mature latin man eating lunch meal while talking to creative team.

The drama of salt and pepper

Salt and pepper are a must-have at most European tables. However, you may find that in some countries adding salt to your food is considered an insult to the chef, as you lack faith that the dish and feel the need to change its flavour.

The chef preparations spaghetti and pasta, salt water, against a dark background, the concept of cooking. Woman salting water before cooking pasta fusilli

Leaving food on your plate: yes or huge no?

Growing up in the US or Europe, you might have heard that it’s rude to leave food on your plate. It’s considered disrespectful towards the host, but also to people around the world who are hungry and would give anything to have access to your food. In China, however, it might be a good idea to leave a little food on your plate to show the host they served a filling portion. 

Dirty empty plate with fork on the table. Leavings of food on a plate and a fork after the party in the restaurant. Close up.

Don’t run away

The world shares this table rule! Leaving the table immediately after eating is perceived as rude and insulting, almost as if you’re bored or too busy to spend time with your guests. Whether you’re supposed to wait for the host to leave the table or enjoy a good moment of sobremesa in Spain, relax – don’t run!

Who pays for what? 

One of the most confusing aspects of eating out with someone is who gets to pay the bill. In Southern Europe, unless you’re extremely comfortable with your guest (best friend, family member), you’re expected to argue about who is going to pay and insist that you pay. If you were the one inviting the guest to eat out, you’re mostly expected to pay for the entire thing yourself. In Germany and the Netherlands, however, it is common for everyone to pay for their own meals, even if they’re meeting for the first time or just visiting. 

Waitress Holds Credit Card Machine As Customer Pays Bill In Bar Restaurant

And you? 

Were you familiar with these rules? What were the most surprising table manners you’ve ever encountered? Share your experiences with us!

If you’d like to learn more about the culture behind the language you’re learning, head over to the Lingoda website and sign up for your free 7 day trial. You can learn English, German, Spanish or French with out native speaking teachers.