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International Dining Etiquette

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Indian and Japanese ladies eating food

You've got your tickets, your money and your passport and all that is lacking is the social polish that will allow you to enter the higher echelons of whatever foreign clime you're visiting. This entry provides some of the essential rules that will make you an exemplary dinner diplomat.

In general, wherever you are, if you conduct yourself with charm and politeness and consideration for other people, and if you avoid offending or insulting your fellow diners, you can't go wrong. In fact, differences in the way different cultures dine makes a good conversation starter.


In Austria, it is considered the height of rudeness not to look somebody in the eye when you clink glasses. If you are just clinking glasses in the middle of the table what's the point of not looking at who you're toasting? When you look at a person in the eye as you clink, you are acknowledging their existence.


In China, if you eat everything you put on your plate, this indicates to the host that he hasn't provided enough food. On the other hand, in the West, we are told by over-doting mothers to 'eat everything up, there are poor starving children in Asia who don't have anything' - a logic that never convinced any child to eat their cabbage.

Some Chinese people can be very superstitious and that even carries over to dining. So it is is with the consumption of fish. In the West, a whole fish is sometimes cooked and placed on its side, and after you've finished the topside, you flip the fish. Basically flipping the fish in Chinese is called dao yue and it sounds similar to another phrase which means 'bad luck' or 'throwing away your luck'. Sometimes, then, the bottom half of the fish is left alone (those who are not so superstitious, as expected, will just flip it over and eat it). The solution to such a problem is to just pull off the whole fish bone after the top half has been consumed (the bone should come off as a whole neat skeleton, assuming that the bones are not broken) and proceed to consume the rest of the fish.

When you've finished your meal, rather than the Western 'middle of the plate' method for placement of eating implements, in China, one puts one's chopsticks horizontally on the table or plate... but in the case of a bowl, never on the bowl.

Chopsticks should also not be pointed either upwards or at people, since this is bad luck. This is similar to the Javanese/Balinese rule of not stepping over musical instruments, since they make a line up to heaven.

In China, the host routinely places food in other people's dishes for them: so don't give them strange looks if they do this to you. In addition, you can reach for things on the other side of the table as long as you stand up to do it.

As in the West, don't start eating before other people, but don't start clearing the dishes while other people are still eating.

England and Wales

One of the most contentious areas of British dining etiquette is just how much food you should leave on your plate. The divide stems from the days of World War II rationing when things like fresh meat were scarce and spam was a delicacy. There was no excuse leaving anything on your plate, because you never knew when you would next get fresh meat or veggies and waste was viewed negatively. People ate everything they could get their hands on - just in case! It would be a very unusual family who did not experience any limitations on food during this time. The richer you were, though, the easier it would have been to escape this. Indeed, as history shows, indifference to waste could even be used to show off your wealth; Louis XVI being a perfect example of this.

In about 50% of traditional British households, you should never totally clear your plate of food. This indicates that you are, indeed, full and the host has given you more than enough food.

In the other 50%, to totally clear your plate indicates how delicious the meal was.

Mealtimes can have different names in different parts of the UK. One oddity is the use of 'lunch' and 'dinner'.

In western and northern parts of England and Wales it is normal to use 'dinner' to mean the midday meal and 'tea' for the early evening meal. In southern England, it is more usual to use the word 'lunch' for the midday meal and 'dinner' for the early evening meal. This leads to the oddity that 'dinner' means either midday meal or early evening meal depending on your location.

This oddity is further complicated because these different words can often have specific meanings in specific settings. Those who use 'lunch' for the midday meal will commonly refer to midday meals provided to schoolchildren as school dinners. In areas where dinner is the midday meal the large 'roast meat and four veg with gravy' Sunday meal can be called Sunday lunch.

This might seem to lead to confusion but in practice everyone seems to be able to work out what meal is being referred to.

To add further to the confusion, the word 'dinner' has different connotations for different people - regardless of location. Some believe that 'dinner' is a meal with other people (eg so and so has invited us round for dinner). This occurs around 7pm and will consist of three or more courses with wine. Others believe that 'dinner' is the big meal of the day, whether that happens around midday or in the evening, lunch is a snack at around midday, and tea is what you have in the evening if you had your dinner earlier. Supper is a glass of milk and biscuits before you go to bed.

The etymology of the word 'lunch' is a little obscure. It could come from the Spanish lonja which means slice. This would have referred to a slice of meat which would have been served with beer or wine as a snack (similar to tapas).

And then tourists go and visit the UK and say: 'Tea? Tea? I want to have a meal, not just a cup of tea!'.

The Meal

Once you've worked out what meal you're eating and when, it's now time to turn your attention to the intricacies of English eating habits.

If you're a group of people going out to eat, or if you've got a dinner party with a few friends, you should never start eating before everyone has been served if your party is less than seven people. If you're more than seven, it's okay to just start digging in as soon as you get your food, because if you don't, it can go cold and that's not something you want. An exception to this rule, though, is soup. You can start eating soup as soon as it gets placed in front of you.

While we are on the subject of the soup thing, tipping the bowl away from you is the correct way to eat soup. Also, you have to dip the spoon into the soup with an action that takes it away from you rather than towards you. However, when eating breakfast cereal you should tip the bowl towards you. The hard and fast rule for spoons is that savoury food is scooped away from you and sweet food towards you.

As a general rule, you use cutlery from the outside of the layout first. So, first you might have a soup spoon (on the right of the place-mat), then you might have a small knife and fork, then maybe a fish knife and fork, then the meat knife and fork, then the dessert cutlery across the top of the setting, the spoon being the uppermost implement. The knife for buttering your roll should be placed on the side plate.

Any 'special' cutlery (eg steak knives) should arrive with the dish they are needed for.

In England, not only is there some confusion about what certain meals are called, there is a more contentious issue - is it a napkin or serviette? For ease of reference, we will call it a napkin. The golden rule is that a napkin should never be used to blow your nose on. This is a major boo-boo; you may actually want to use it for its proper purpose too. Also, napkins should be placed across the lap - tucking them into your clothing may be considered 'common'.

The British are famous for their Sunday roasts and the rules for carving the meat are clear. The person who is carving the joint will carve off a good few slices of meat, then place a couple of slices on each plate and hand these round so that those persons can help themselves to vegetables. In France, however, this is considered a subtle insult, implying that the recipient of the plate will take too much from the communal supply if left to their own devices.

Now we come to a real etiquette treat; how do you eat a banana with a knife and fork which apparently is required by advocates of proper British etiquette - where fingers are reserved only for asparagus?

The method is surprisingly simple. First, holding the banana still with the fork, cut all the way along the inside of the curve with the knife, from one end to the other. Next, fold out the banana skin with the knife and fork, holding it still with the fork, but not removing the fruit from the skin. Then slice the banana into mouthful-sized slices, still held safely in the open skin, so you get circular prisms of banana.

Burping at the table is simply not the done thing. If you absolutely have to, either excuse yourself from the table, or do it as discreetly as possible. Don't belch loudly under any circumstances.

As a final note on English table etiquette, it is unlucky to put shoes on the table, even if they are not attached to your feet (when cleaning), because it is a portent of bad luck for 24 hours, resulting in arguments and potential redundancy from work. Whistling at the table is taboo because it signifies impatience.


The French are notorious for their rules and regulations regarding their food. These are dilutions of the rules imposed by Louis XIV on his court and have infiltrated homes and restaurants. Here are some pointers to help you navigate dining etiquette à la Française.

Most French chefs take umbrage if you add condiments to a dish before even tasting it. It is also a grave insult to ask for ketchup. They believe it hides the taste of the meal. If you do ask, the waiter will bring it but don't be surprised by surly service thereafter. This quirk isn't apparent in Asian cultures. Just look at the way some chefs add chilli to their food; 'a little chilli on food' could be sometimes described as 'a little food on chilli'.

If you go to a restaurant, the cutlery is laid out with the bowl of the spoon and the prong of the fork facing upwards. Yet in a French household this is considered impolite, the bowl of the spoons and the prongs of the forks should be facing downwards.

While eating in France, it is always polite to have both of your hands visible. If one or more of your hands are missing, people will assume you're playing with the legs of the ladies/gents next to you. Also when eating at night in a restaurant, always switch your mobile phones off. The French have a clear distinction between work and leisure and if your phone rings, expect disparaging stares.

If you're eating in a French restaurant, it is usual for ladies to sit on the bank/chairs with their backs to the wall and the men with their faces to the ladies and the wall.

You'll find, too, that the French rarely use side plates for their bread; it's perfectly acceptable to place your broken roll on the tablecloth. They have a nifty gadget called a ramasse miettes (crumb collector) specifically for this task. A ramasse miettes is usually a hand-held mini-carpet sweeper for tablecloths but it can also be a blade-like implement. This is increasingly scarce in France as the French waiters hate touching detritus - they'll clear your table so quickly and their hands rarely get in the goo that you've left behind.

If you've finished eating, put your knife and fork on the plate together in the middle. If you intend eating some more, put them one each side of the plate, but still on the plate.

When eating mussels, use an empty mussel shell to use as pincers for the others and put the shells in the lid of the pot that they've come in.

Olive pips are a pest. Put them on the side of your plate and under no circumstances should they be put in the ashtray - the sin of the non-smoker.

In France, it's perfectly acceptable to use toothpicks (cure dents) at the table. Take your spare hand and hold it on your top lip, covering your mouth so others can't see what you are doing, then pick away. Put the pick on you plate, don't drop it on the floor or put it in the ashtray. If there is no plate available, leave it on the table. Don't inspect what you've just extracted from between your molars. It's gross.

Coffee is not commonly drunk after 3 - 4pm in France so don't be surprised if you get funny looks if you ask for one. It's not really a faux pas but useful to know.

In the south of France, the rules are slightly different; you can expect to use the same knife and fork for the starters and the main course. When you have finished one course, place the fork, prongs up, on the left hand side of the plate and then place the blade of your knife in between the prongs.

Also in the south, if you're tossing a salad and some falls out of the bowl, superstition dictates that you will fall pregnant in the next year.


In Cologne, as in Austria, if you are clinking glasses with someone you should make eye contact with the other person. Otherwise you have doomed yourself to seven years bad sex.

Also, in Cologne, the locally-brewed beer, Kölsch, is about as common as water. There are at least 25 brands of the brew and there are big breweries with restaurant/bars attached. The waiters in these breweries are brisk and business-like, as they are not fishing for American style tips, and for the most part are all Richtige Kölsche Junge, a type of 'Good Ol' Boy' or 'One of the Lads'.

Here is one Researcher's experience in Cologne;

I took two British friends of mine to the Früh Brauhaus. I ordered a Kölsch, Rebecca ordered a Radler (disgusting beer/sprite mixture, don't ask), and Colleen ordered a hot chocolate with cream. The waiter rolled his eyes and a few minutes later came back with three glasses of Kölsch. He presented them with flourish. 'Here is your beer' one down. 'And your Radler' two down. 'And finally, your chocolate with cream' and plonked the third drink down.

Moving away from Cologne, in Germany you eat asparagus with a knife and fork which seems a bit heavy-handed coming from Britain where you eat it with your fingers. Asparagus can be served up to St John's day (25 June) and rhubarb is no good after this date either.

The British are usually accused of being precious about their potatoes but in Germany you must not cut potatoes with a knife. It seems simple, but it offends well brought up Germans. The simple explanation is that if you crush your potatoes with a fork it gives a rougher surface to soak up the gravy.

Well brought up Germans cut their rolls in half horizontally with a knife, which is shocking for someone used to French or British eating habits.

As far as cutlery is concerned, leave it on the plate in the right order after finishing the meal, forming an upside-down 'V' to indicate that you are still hungry. Forming a line across the plate as the arms of a clock showing '5 minutes to 5' will indicate that you have had enough.

The definitive German book of etiquette is the Knigge - you pronounce the 'k'.


You must very careful when making the most accepted Hungarian toast (egészségedre!. Mispronounce it (as English speakers usually do) and you wind up saying 'to your arse' instead of 'to your health'. Always ask a Hungarian for advice on pronunciation.


In Iceland, it is considered rude to give your host a gift when staying with them.


For real tea one must actually travel to India, or at least an Indian household or restaurant... the secret is to skip the water altogether and boil the tea leaves in milk... that makes for strong tea.


The British confusion over what to call which meal has even spread overseas as this example highlights.

Tea in south east Ireland means high tea about 4 - 5pm when tea is served with scones and cakes - dinner will follow at about 8pm. No one up north tends to eat quite that late, preferring around 6 - 7, as a rule, possibly due to the short daylight hours in winter.


When one is in Israel, anything goes. Apparently.


Long gone are the days of Roman feasting where the rules were to eat as much as you could, visit the vomitorium and start eating all over again. Eating habits are now refined to a point where eating is an art form.

It is perfectly acceptable to eat a peach with a knife and fork. It's an extremely complicated affair which involves sticking the fork deep into the peach until it hits the pit. Then with a very sharp knife and a great deal of steely determination, you cut through the flesh to make bite-size pieces. When all the peach is cut, remove the fork from the pit and then eat the fruit.

When eating spaghetti, you will often just be served with a fork and no knife or spoon. You use the bowl to twirl the pasta around the fork instead of a spoon.


In Japan, to express delight at the meal, you are supposed to eat noodles as loudly as possible, slurping all the way. The chef takes it as a compliment that you like their food so much that you're slurping it all up. This also has to do with the fact that you're eating the food while it's still hot. To eat hot noodles, you have to make a cerain 'O' shape with the mouth and the resultant space in the mouth cools the food as it is vacuumed up. This renders the whole process extremely noisy.

To Westerners, chopsticks can pose more problems than they are worth when learning how they work. There are many modes of using chopsticks. The two most common styles are the 'scissors' and the 'proper' method. The scissors method involves the crossing of the chopsticks where the hand is. The proper method is where the chopsticks don't cross but are held apart (on the same hand) and then the chopsticks meet at the end (food grabbing hand). In some circles, how far up the sticks you grasp shows your skills with the chopsticks... if you hold them near the food grabbing end, you would be considered a novice, while if you hold them right at the other end, you would be considered a chopstick master. However, these circles are shrinking, with the youth of today no longer caring much for such issues.

Never pass food to another person's chopsticks from your own chopsticks, this is very, very bad etiquette. Always pick up your rice bowl when you eat from it for the simple fact that picking up dishes and holding them while you eat is really convenient and comfortable and is acceptable in all circles.

If you have a full bowl of rice you should never stick the chopsticks in it and leave them standing upright. This is how rice is offered to the dead at funerals and to do so at the dinner table invokes bad luck.

It's considered exceptionally rude to spear your food with one chopstick. Also, Japanese chopsticks are tapered, and Chinese chopsticks aren't.

When raising your glass and toasting your hosts in Japan, never make the mistake of shouting 'Chin chin!'. Chin-chin is a Japanese colloquial word meaning 'penis'. Here's what one Editor has to say about his efforts at diplomacy:

When I was working in Kawasaki city, I spent a lot of my early days getting a little bit drunk and emotional with my bosses after work. After a couple of Kirin lagers, cultural differences tossed aside in a spirit of global warming, I'd always end up looking them straight in the eyes, whereupon I'd raise my glass and scream into their faces,'Penis! Penis! Penis!'.

That's what you call a cultural cock-up.


On the island of Malta, food is taken very seriously. Always check how many courses are being served. It is quite likely that you will be given a small appetiser, followed by a large pasta dish. This is usually followed by meat or fish. Don't be fooled into thinking that because the pasta dish is large it is the main course. The amount you eat will be noted and commented on once you have left. Also, beware of the bread you are offered at the beginning of the meal; it will fill you up fast and leave you without the appetite you need to complete the rest of the meal.

The Middle East

In certain Arabic and Middle Eastern states women are not supposed to eat with men. Dining will usually take place in the same room but the women and younger male children will eat in a separate area. A traveller to the Middle East will not find this a problem if staying at hotels/resorts but it can cause huge resentment if you are at a family house. If you are a female guest of a male from the house, then the family will sometimes accept you as a western prominent and you may eat with the men, but most of the time it's unlikely. If you are invited for a meal it is important to subtly check the family's religious standing.

The reason for this is that no man may see a woman unveiled except for her husband.

It is often the case that the males eat in one room while the females remain in the kitchen and cook and serve. They get what's left. It doesn't seem much different to a rushed Western household when the football is on.


When eating a whole fish you must not turn it over but rather remove the bones when you get to the middle, then continue eating downwards... this is because turning over the fish turns over the fisherman's boat.

This rule can be applied to most European countries.


Russian celebratory dinners go something like this. First you 'make a table' which is something akin to setting the table, but which also means making it look extra pretty for a special occasion, and implies all the food preparation too. There are no hard and fast rules about how you set the table, what to include and where, but you shouldn't expect to find any knives, except maybe a few cutting knives in case someone wants more bread or another slice of cake. You eat everything with a fork or your fingers as the occasion arises. In fact, this is general practice. Watching others eat liver or trying to attack a roast chicken with gravy is a sight to behold.

Food consists mainly of salads, cold meats, cheese, pickled stuff, caviar which is usually red, and takes some getting used to, or black, which is expensive. All this is put on the table before you begin. If you don't pig out too much on this 'first course' it could be followed by a hot 'main course', but not always. For afters there is usually fruit or cakes or both. And of course the drink of choice is vodka, closely followed by champagne, which can be served at the same meal, though there is usually an extra glass for soft drinks at each setting.

No entry on Russian etiquette would be complete without a few words on how to drink vodka. Drink it neat. That is why small shot glasses were invented. Never mix it. Never drink it without eating something immediately afterwards. Even the hardest drinking session will always include a pause after each 'round' while everyone chomps on something salty. Gherkins are popular although anything at all is acceptable. You don't necessarily have to go at it downing glass after glass, one after the other until you fall over. Vodka is part of perfectly respectable celebrations.

Here are the simple rules to create the perfect Russian toast:

  • Vodka is only drunk after a toast. Sipping is what the champagne or juice is there for.

  • Glasses are raised throughout the toast, which will not be short, and then chinked.

  • If you chink your glass you must neck the liquid (but if you don't want to neck it, just don't chink).

  • Try not to cough, and, of course, eat something straight after.

And that's it.


This is directed specifically at young Australian travellers who are travelling through Scandinavia. When Scandinavian person says 'Skül' (pronounced 'school') do not assume they mean 'skull' - Australian slang for downing the whole glass at once. If you do this, expect to be looked at most strangely. 'Skül' is the traditional toast, similar to 'Cheers'.


Yet again we come back to the great 'lunch/dinner debate which has infiltrated the northern borders of England. In Central Scotland dinner time is around midday and tea time is when you get in after work in the evening unless:

  • You are eating in a restaurant where you get lunch menus at midday and dinner menus in the evening.

  • You come from Morningside (Edinburgh) or Kelvinside (Glasgow) where they speak a totally different langauge to the rest of the UK.

'All joints on the table will be carved' is the warning from one Researcher, so keep your elbows off the table, at least until the feeding has ended. Napkins go in your lap and you ought to use them to wipe your mouth before sipping your wine, or you leave food on the glass. To remove something from your mouth, use the napkin.

Smoking is a no no until after dinner and, if at a formal do, after toasting the Queen.


In a tapas bar in Spain all the detritus - pips, crumbs, disposable napkins, cigarette butts et al are thrown on the floor. This breaks years of conditioning but is in fact a part of the tapas culture. The detritus is swept up at the end of the evening.

Sub-Saharan Africa

The food will often be a starchy substance of ground mealies (a maize plant) or rice and a bit of meat in a runny sauce. What you do is roll up a ball of the mealies and dip it into the sauce, grabbing a sliver of meat and popping the resultant ball in the mouth... all with the right hand only. If you feel you might forget then sit on your left hand. It will avoid a considerable offence.

Using the left hand is a major insult, the reasoning behind which is cloudy. Lefties should practice wielding a spoon in the right hand just to avoid giving offenses. However, it is acceptable in some cultures to remove bones from your mouth with your left hand.


In Thailand, meals are a communal affair, an opportunity to get together, to chat and relax. Food is often eaten at a low table, with diners sitting on the floor. One thing to remember with this arrangement is that it's incredibly rude to point the soles of your feet at anybody, at any time - the feet being the most ignoble part of the body.

Conversely, the head is the most revered part of the body, and touching it is absolutely taboo. Remember not to touch the head of your host's children, and keep your head lower than the head of any images of Buddha, other religious figures and the King. You shouldn't stand over a seated Thai, but instead bring your head down to the level of those at the table if you do have to stand.

If you're invited into a Thai home to eat, also bear in mind the following:

  • Remove your shoes before entering
  • Don't step on the threshold

If you bring your host a gift it should be wrapped. Your host won't open it in your company. It's a good idea to leave the price on the present. This may seem like an alien concept to Westerners, where it's often important to hide your generosity or your meaness, but in Thailand, where there is so much gift giving, your guest will certainly reciprocate and it would be embarrassing for them if their gift wasn't of equal value to the one you've given them.

In a similar vein, when dining out at a restaurant, the inviting party foots the bill. In return, guests will then invite the host out to dinner on another occasion.

It's an honour to be served the first bit of food. Rice is seen as the main component of the meal, the side dishes bringing flavour to the rice, in contrast to the West where we see carbohydrate as a sub-plot to the flavour of the meat and vegetable dishes. So little emphasis is given to protein that you may be served quite bony chicken parts. Given this fact, and the hotness of Thai food, the experience is a finger licking and lip burning one! In polite society, at the end of the meal the last morsels of food are left in the serving dishes.

A note about cutlery; in the 19th Century, spoons and forks were adopted by Thais. Knives are not used at the table as these implements are thought of as a symbol of aggression. The edge of a spoon is used to cut food, while the fork is used to push food onto the spoon. Unlike much of the rest of South East Asia, the use of chopsticks is limited - they are usually only presented when noodles are served.

When taking your meals in Thailand, don't pile your plate up with a bit of everything, get through it and go back for a second helping. You will be given a plate of rice and you should take single spoonfuls from the dishes in the centre. Remember you will be using spoon and fork. If serving spoons are provided with the various dishes, you should use them.

Likewise, if you are in the north east and eating sticky rice with your fingers, you should use the spoons provided with the dishes. If there aren't any, go ahead and dip the rice into them with finger support as necessary. But don't lick your fingers.

In the north, food is often served with sticky rice, which arrives in a small bamboo basket with a lid (one basket per person). You eat with your right hand. Once you've finished, put the lid back on the rice basket.

If separate drinking vessels are not provided, use the communal cups or drinking bowls.

At the end of the meal it is polite to leave the table/eating vicinity. Don't stay to chat - although you may carry on your conversation from a distance.

In southern Thailand, food is normally eaten with a spoon and fork. Hold the fork in your left hand and spoon in your right, and don't put the fork in your mouth. As mentioned above, You should use the fork to put food on your spoon and then put the spoon in your mouth.

Generally in Asia, once food has touched your plate it is unclean from everyone else's point of view. If you've ended up with too much food on your plate, the food is wasted as it would be unthinkable to give it to another diner who is still eating.

If you are a foreigner, don't worry. Thais do not take offence easily and are more likely to be amused at any difficulty you have.


The States are, of course, a varied place, and rules vary from person to person. There are only a few hard and fast rules that everyone must observe... the rest are considered optional:

  • Don't reach over anyone else's plate, and don't lunge for anything that isn't within easy reach. Your neighbours will be only too happy to pass things to you.

  • Eat over your plate. This one's more of a fashion tip than a politeness one.

  • Don't be disgusting. Rude noises, nauseating discussion topics, and wind are just plain unacceptable.

  • Left-handers must take precautions to ensure they don't sit to the right of a right-handed eater. Nobody likes to play elbow jousting with a fork in their mouth.

  • Don't be a miser when the bill arrives. If someone offers to pay, that's okay, but otherwise, lay out the price of your meal, plus some extra for the tip. People who try to freeload don't get asked out again. Don't get anal over change you're due to receive, either, if it's only a couple of bucks.

After that, anything goes. Put the napkin on your lap? If you eat over your plate, you won't need to. Elbows off the table? As long as you don't set them in a puddle, you're fine. Besides, if God didn't want our elbows on the table, then why did he make tables a perfect elbow-height?

If you are a Brit who wants a good cup of tea in the USA ask for a cup of hot water and take your own tea bags. They never make it strong enough for the British palate because they never use boiling water.

In the southern United States, a surprising number of foods can be fried and eaten with your hands. Non-local diners may wish to observe whether their hosts use cutlery before jumping in themselves. In fact, a good assumption to make is that if you don't see any cutlery on the table you should go ahead without it. It is generally considered impolite to ask for, or use, silverware when none is needed, as this is a sign that you judge the food too distasteful to eat with gusto.

While forks and knives are often eschewed in this manner, spoons are particularly popular in the South for stirring sugar in tea. In fact, a surprising number of diner patrons compete in a silent contest to see who can absorb the most sugar in their tea without any over the side of their glass. Various methods to compete include stirring very rapidly to increase friction, shifting from clockwise to counterclockwise in an attempt to get grains of sugar to collide, and raising the spoon slowly up and down while meditating upon the tea for apparently metaphysical reasons.

The fact that all these practices ignore the basic precepts of chemistry, ie saturation point, never phases the contestants one whit. Never, ever comment upon the staggering amount of sugar in the bottom of a Southerner's glass of tea.

Because Southerners so often eat fried foods and spill their tea, it's considered perfectly fine to use any number of napkins. Simply leave the pile of used napkins to either side of your plate. Do not, however, expect anyone to clean up your pile of napkins for you.

Try not to look concerned if you enter a Southern eatery and are seated at a table with several piles of napkins, a number of clean spoons, and no forks or knives. This is perfectly normal and has no bearing on the quality of the diner.

The West

At formal dinner parties in the Western world the host and hostess sit at either end of the table, giving it two 'heads'. The gentleman whom they wish to honour most, or whom they consider most important because of rank, position or interest, sits on the hostess's right; the lady of greatest honour or importance on the host's right. The places on the side of both host and hostess are assigned to the next most important people and so on to adjoining places down the table. The sexes are placed alternately and men face women across the table if it is an equally mixed guest list, which is what most people aim at. Nowadays, if entertaining privately, formal precedence will give way to the host or hostess's opinion as to who would most interest whom as conversational partners across the table or to the side.

At official banquets the rules of rank and diplomatic precedence should be followed. This places the guests of 'least importance' in the centre of the table, farthest from the host and hostess. In private, it is usual for members of the family or close friends of the hosts to be placed among other guests in the centre.

In medieval times, in the household of a king or great Lord, the host and his most important guests would be seated at one table, and lesser ranks sat separately. The ceremonial salt cellar, a symbolic rather than a purely functional salt holder, was usually a fine example of the goldsmith's or silversmith's art, was placed at the nobleman's left. The most important guests sat on his right, although sometimes with quite a wide gap between him and the first guests, especially if there was a big difference in rank. Guests of lesser rank sat on the host's left, below the salt. They were served by a lower grade of servant who did not carry napkins and the gap before their places was greater. Thus 'below the salt' came to indicate those not considered important or worthy of a great man's attention. An example of this medieval etiquette was when Princess Mary (the future 'Bloody Mary') was rendered illegitimate by Henry VIII, her role at state banquets was to present the napkins to the king and his consort as a mark of her lowered rank. It has to be noted that she never did this to Anne Boleyn, her mother's usurper.

It is surprising how much still applies. For example, break your bread to eat it, don't bite chunks off the loaf, as this will afterwards be distributed to the poor. In those days one brought one's own knife and cleaned it on a cloth when finished. It was also not polite to say rude things about other people or to make too much of a mess.

Anyway, back to the present, if your guest commits a faux pas, do not draw attention to it... this is itself a bigger faux pas. If it looks like a scene might happen regardless, join them in doing whatever it is and take the flak yourself.

If soups and desserts are served cold you are expected to wait until everyone is served. Only if hot does the rule of soups apply.

Always ask before smoking at the dinner table when others are eating.


  • The plain one is for water.
  • The shorter, rounder one is for red wine.
  • The taller, thinner one is for white wine.
  • The small, odd-shaped one is for schnapps.
  • The tall very narrow one is for champagne, and is called a 'flute'.
  • The short round/square one with no stem is for whisky and other spirits.
  • The pint-sized one is for beer.
  • The round ones that sit on your nose are for reading the menu.

The bulbous one is for brandy - to see if you've got the right quantity, gently tilt your glass so that it rests on the table, the liquid should come up to the lip of the glass. Warm the brandy in the palm of your hand. For the real connoisseur, place your hand over the glass and swirl in the other hand. After a minute, remove your hand and smell the drink.

Do not serve champagne in those small, shallow glasses. They make the champagne go flat more quickly (bad thing). Use a glass with some height to it; a flute or, in a pinch, a white wine glass with a long stem. The stem is important because it keeps the heat of your hands away from the bubbly and the height of the bowl is also needed so the liquid doesn't spread out and flatten. It also gives the bubbles someplace to travel, which looks cool.


A natural phenomenon that occurs after filling up your insides, burping, is considered impolite in the modern West. But this used to signal, in certain corners of the world, that the host had provided enough food and if the guests didn't burp at least three times, they were clearly not satisfied and the host was poor, or just plain cheap.

Many believe that in Germany it is polite to burp. This idea comes from the religious reformer Martin Luther, allegedly, who said:

Warum pfurzet und ruelpset ihr nicht, hat es euch nicht geschmecket?

Which roughly translates as:

Why don't you farteth and burpeth, didn't you fancy the meal?

Many Germans know this phrase and use it frequently. It might be a handy phrase to know to divert the attention from an unwanted sound or smell to historical/cultural topics at a German dinner table.

It is actually considered a compliment in some parts of the Southern United States to burp during a meal. For some reason, though, men are expected to give this compliment and not women. Women who burp are deemed to be uncouth, just as they are in the rest of the United States.

Generally speaking, men around the table smile and laugh at the burp. Women are expected to feign annoyance, even if they also find it amusing. This behaviour rarely occurs outside the home, but that could just be due to lack of opportunity.

It's actually considered an honour to the chef to burp as a sign of enjoying a meal in some parts of Turkey.


Many of us grew up being told that chicken is the only thing you are allowed to eat with your fingers in a restaurant and it is rumoured that in Gainesville, Georgia, USA there's a local law that states that it is illegal to eat chicken using a fork. The issue of what you can pick up with your hands is a thorny one.

Boneless chicken calls for a fork... unless it's in the form of chicken strips. Confused? Basic rule of thumb is that if it seems appropriate to use your hands, use your hands. There's a whole slew of things that need picking up, from tacos to chicken strips to crab legs to french fries to sandwiches to...

There are some foods that require fingers, here is one Researcher's perspective on eating crab claws.

I've never found much use for the cracking tool, myself, since the shell would have to be much more brittle than it usually is to make itself useful. I snap apart the joints with my hands, and then use a fork to split the shell along its length. This procedure cannot be performed with any measure of propriety and decorum, so it is best to fling these onto the same plate you place your discarded shells. Newcomers to shellfish will inevitably spray meat bits into their hair, and make rude sucking noises on one end of a particularly stubborn section.

In Asia, many countries don't use cutlery as the West do. That is what nan bread and the like are for. So if you want to truly experience curry as it should be experienced, throw away your knife and fork and use your fingers and bread instead.

Salt and Pepper

Always sample food before applying your salt or pepper. The logic behind this is to avoid upsetting sensitive/bad cooks by assuming that their food will not be good enough without extra seasoning or condiments.

Always pass the salt and pepper shakers together. If someone asks for one, you pass them both. This seems to be a Western thing.

The best explanation for this is if you pass them separately, they'll get separated, and in the case of multiple sets, you could end up with salt at one end and pepper at the other. This is all besides the aesthetic argument that they're supposed to go together.

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