Sit up straight. Use your napkin. Chew with your mouth closed. Don’t put your elbows on the table (too much), avoid slurping and burping … you know your table manners. But those refinements you’re so accustomed to may be insignificant or even offensive in other parts of the world.
In Japan, for example, slurping is actually encouraged. It’s considered a compliment to the person who prepared the meal; it shows you like your food.
Which other etiquette pitfalls should you be aware of while traveling? Read on for a few dos and don’ts at tables across the world.
Thailand: Don’t Eat with a Fork
Technically, you can use a fork, but only if you’re using it to put food on a spoon. You can’t put the fork in your mouth when eating a meal with rice, as it’s considered offensive in Thailand; use your spoon instead. If the meal isn’t rice-based, a fork might be acceptable, depending on the circumstances. (We recommend observing your fellow diners before digging in.) As for knives, they’re off the table — literally. Thais typically eat with forks and spoons only.
Chile: Don’t Eat Without a Fork
It used to be barbaric to eat food with your fingers in some parts of the world, though some countries have since warmed to the idea. In Chile, however, the old-fashioned rule remains. It’s customary to use both a fork and spoon at the table for any type of food, no matter how finger-friendly.
Italy: Don’t Cut Up Your Pasta
If you want to live the dolce vita in Italy, don’t offend the locals by cross-cutting your spaghetti or any other type of pasta into bite-size pieces. Instead, use your fork to twirl the strands against the side of your bowl. (Spoons should also be avoided.)
China: Don’t Finish Your Entire Meal
In some countries, it’s nice to wipe your plate clean — it shows you truly enjoyed your meal. In China, that’s not the case. Leave some food on your plate to show the chef generously provided you so much that you couldn’t finish it.
Egypt: Don’t Refill Your Own Glass
If your glass is half empty, it will be refilled in Egypt — just not by you. You should never refresh your water or tea yourself; instead, another person at the table is expected to fill your glass, and you should return the favor for him or her.
Spain: Don’t Dip Bread in Your Soup
It’s tempting (and delicious) to dip a slice of bread into a bowl of soup, but don’t do it while dining in Spain. Sauces are off limits for dipping too. It’s considered rude, and you’ll get some funny looks.
Japan: Don’t Pass Food Between Chopsticks
There are numerous taboos when it comes to using your chopsticks in Japan. One of the biggest no-nos is passing food from one set of chopsticks to another; this evokes a Buddhist funeral rite involving the transfer of cremated bones. On a similar note, you shouldn’t leave chopsticks upright in your rice bowl — another practice you’ll see at funerals. Finally, never lick food from your chopsticks, and don’t cross them when you’re not using them. Put them in a holder, if available, or place them parallel to each other on the table.
Tanzania: Don’t Smell the Food
In many cultures, sniffing a piece of fruit at a market or breathing deeply to take in the delicious aroma of a dish fresh from the oven wouldn’t raise any eyebrows — but this isn’t the case in Tanzania. Sniffing your food or commenting on how it smells implies that the food is rotten and shows disrespect for the cook.
Philippines: Don’t Use Your Left Hand
Eat with your right hand, and keep your left hand off the table and at your side. Also, use your right hand to pass food. This rule applies in other countries as well, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, since the left hand is considered “unclean” in Muslim tradition.
Portugal: Don’t Ask for Salt and Pepper
If there are salt and pepper shakers on the table, by all means help yourself — just don’t request them. In Portugal this is offensive to the chef, who will think you don’t like the taste of your food without additional spices.
South Korea: Don’t Start Eating Before the Oldest Person
Respect for one’s elders is very important in South Korean culture, and this translates to the country’s table manners. Diners generally allow the oldest person at the table to begin eating first as a token of courtesy and appreciation.
–written by Amanda Geronikos