During the 5 years I lived in Japan I committed my fair share of cultural faux pas. Dressing incorrectly, saying the wrong thing, exposing my misunderstanding of basic social rules… I unwittingly checked all of these missteps off my list. However none were more memorable, or more embarrassing, than those rules I broke at the dinner table. (Never stick your chopsticks point down in your rice. Trust me on this.)
Table manners are a sign of civility and good character everywhere in the world. Unfortunately, “good” and “bad” etiquette is subjective dependent on culture, which can lead to unintentionally rude behavior. There are a few tried and true rules that transcend location (chew with your mouth closed, wash your hands, don’t throw things) but the rest are tricky. We’ve compiled five of the harder ones below. Read on to become a politer you!
Italy – No cappuccino after 12pm
Cappuccino is a morning drink. Indeed, for many Italians it can function as their entire breakfast. Therefore, anyone ordering it after noon is instantly identifiable as a tourist. Older Italians will admonish you for ruining your appetite and upsetting your tummy. Stay on the safe side and order espresso instead.
Britain – Hold your fork in your left hand
For most of mainland Europe, and particularly Britain, the approved way to hold your fork and knife is in the “Continental Style.” (Does that mean Americans use the “Colonial Style?” Need to look into this…) To be correctly continental, hold your fork in your left hand and knife in your right, they should remain in your hands the entirety of the meal.
China – Don’t flip the fish
As with many Asian cultures, Chinese serve their fish with all the bones still intact. This makes for better flavor, a prettier presentation, and a much bigger challenge for tourists attempting to eat the dish. The top layer fish is easy enough to pick off the bone, but the temptation will be to then “flip” the fish over to access the flesh on the other side of the spine/ribs. Don’t do this! The phrase “Flip the fish” is “dao yue” in Chinese and sounds a lot like “bad luck.” Instead remove the bones from the top or just leave the rest on your plate.
France – Bread isn’t an appetizer
In America one of the first things served at the table is a bread basket to tide you through until the main course. Not so in France! Though bread is served early, it’s meant to be enjoyed with the cheese course, not alone. It is also considered gauche to bite directly into the loaf, instead tear off small bite-sized pieces.
Bulgaria – No yellow flowers
It’s customary to bring a hostess gift like flowers or wine when visiting private houses for dinner. However, when visiting Bulgarian households do not, under any circumstances, bring yellow flowers. Traditionally yellow flowers symbolize hatred in Bulgarian culture and will not be received with open arms, to borrow an expression.
There are many other intricacies and etiquette traps in the world, but hopefully these 5 examples will help you avoid some of the trickier ones. To be extra safe, be sure to learn how to say “I’m sorry” in the local language.