Americans are adventurous explorers and think nothing of doggedly pursuing an authentic experience in search of context. Once we get there, however, traditions and etiquette can be a veritable minefield of rules and customs. One misstep or cultural faux pas can turn new friends into offended hosts.
If you don’t want to be labeled an outsider or worse, it’s important to know the rules. Depending on the country, sharing a meal can reveal a lot about your hosts and the country you are visiting. From things like dietary restrictions and taboos, we get a glimpse into people’s religious beliefs and rituals, tribal codes and customs, history, and gender roles.
The dishes served and the act of breaking bread together gives us powerful clues to a person’s ethnic heritage, superstitions, and the importance of family in society. A little bit of sleuthing in advance can help you understand the different ways people dine and what they expect from you as a guest. Table settings, the use of titles, and protocols for seating arrangements pull back the curtain to reveal class distinctions, caste systems, education levels, racial and ethnic separatism, and hospitality traditions — and the older the civilization or society, the more complex the rituals and dining habits.
Here’s a tip about the etiquette of using knives and forks: In every country that uses knives and forks for their meal, the fork is held upside down in the left hand, the knife is held in the right hand, and when you cut food on your plate you continue to hold the fork and knife in your hand for the rest of your meal. Americans are the only people who cut food with the fork in the left hand and knife in the right and then lay the knife down on the plate, switch the fork to the right hand, and eat the food with right hand.
It pays to know what to expect, so we’ve compiled some of the basic customs to help you put your best foot forward.