How to master international meal etiquette
Part of our series on how to be a better traveler
Business trips inevitably involve a host of lunches or dinners — and more often than not, rounds of drinks. Indeed, it's often over that breaking of bread and pouring of wine that relationships and deals can sizzle or fizzle, particularly in cultures that value personal relationship building.
It can be a very, well, foreign experience to dine in a foreign country. And knowing and following the local norms and etiquette — even something as simple as how to properly hold your utensils — can make the difference between offending and showing respect. Here are some major dining etiquette must-knows for some of the most popular business destinations in the world.
- Remove your shoes. This is particularly important if your table is low to the ground.
- Wash your hands. Most restaurants serve a wet towel to wipe off your hands — not your face or neck — at the start of the meal.
- Use chopsticks mindfully. It is considered rude to rub them together or point them at someone. If they're used to serve food, it should be done with the thicker ends of the sticks — but food shouldn't be passed with them.
- Be sparing with the soy sauce. It should be poured into the little dish provided, not doused on food, and you should only serve modest amounts as you go. When eating sushi, the fish should be what's dipped into the soy sauce, not the rice.
- Slurping is good. Slurping soup or ramen conveys enjoyment.
- Know your silverware. The butter knife is the one above the plate, and when there is more than one set of utensils, they are used from the outside in as the courses progress.
- Hold utensils properly. The knife always stays in the right hand, the fork in the left, tines down. Once you start eating, they should stay on your plate and not return to the table. (Rest them on each side of the top of the plate.) Placing them parallel on the right side of the plate signifies you're finished.
- Pass to the left. Reaching over someone for food is considered rude. Pass properly!
- And just generally, behave. Open-mouth chewing and placing elbows on the table are definite no-nos.
- Take your time. The meal might not get going until 30 minutes or more after the slated start time. Sit back and enjoy it, because anything else sends a message that you're not appreciative.
- Follow the host's lead. The host is the boss of the meal and everyone takes their cues from him or her. They'll usually invite everyone to sit and give the go-ahead to eat with a "Buen provecho!"
- Use your hands. Keep them above the table throughout the meal, and you can (and should) eat with your hands for foods like tacos. Otherwise, Mexicans follow Continental dining style, just as the Brits do.
- Sip that tequila. Tequila isn't consumed like you're at a Cinco de Mayo college party. Mexicans go for quality (100 percent agave) tequila that is usually served in a glass of the non-shot variety. Lime and salt usually won't be served, and the tequila is sipped and savored. And traditionally, men are the ones who give the toasts.
- Observe seniority. Sometimes this involves serving those who are oldest. In business meals, it can translate to deferring to those who are more senior at the table, whether with greeting or serving.
- Don't flip the fish. Dining in China usually involves a multitude of dishes that fill the table. Often, one dish will be a whole fish. The fish shouldn't be flipped once all the meat has been taken from one side. Instead, the skeleton should be removed.
- Use your chopsticks properly. Many chopsticks practices are universal, including those mentioned in the Japan section. One big one to avoid: Sticking your chopsticks upright in the rice is an omen of death.
- Respect the host. The host is the one who orders all the food and makes the first toast. Don't finish your plate, lest your host think he or she hasn't fed you enough. And while the host will always end up paying, guests should put up a fight to pick up the check and offer multiple times.
- Eat the right way — with the right hand. In India, using the left hand at the table is almost certain to offend, and there are no excuses for lefties, either. Decorum calls for utensils to be held in the right hand and food to be passed with the right hand. Just to be safe, keep the left hand under the table the entire meal — other diners will be doing the same.
- Watch what you touch. While the occasion might call for grabbing roti with your fingers, directly touching others' food is thought to contaminate it. Washing hands right before and after dining is considered necessary, too.
- Don't offer to share. Just as others will refuse food someone else has touched, no one is going to want to try what is on someone else's plate. It is considered rude and unhygienic to offer someone food from a dish someone has already eaten from. (In this same vein, don't serve or suggest leftovers.)
- Avoid talking about vegetarianism. Vegetarianism for Indians is not perceived to be a lifestyle choice, as it is in many other parts of the world, but simply how it is. Though not all Indians are vegetarians, a majority are, and prying about how or why that is could potentially be taken as culturally insensitive. Also important to keep in mind: Pork is forbidden for Muslims, and Hindus do not eat beef.