Five Cultural Faux Pas To Avoid

Five Cultural Faux Pas To Avoid
vermininc @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Eating in restaurants where the common language is not English can be hard enough: having to figure out what the food is, then comprehension difficulties with the waitstaff, and the background noise being hugely distracting. As if that weren't bad enough, it's easy to cause offense because a different set of cultural norms may be in effect. Here are five common and easily-avoided cultural restaurant faux pas. Learn them; commit them to memory; go and sin no more.

She's foreign, not deaf.
She's foreign, not deaf.
rileyroxx @ flickr.com CC BY 2.0

1. Volume does not encourage comprehension: If you're in a restaurant and the staff don't really speak English, it doesn't mean you need to try again in English, only louder. If you truly are stuck and gestures and pictures aren't working, see if you can attract a translator to help, or simplify your speech. Sounding like you're shouting isn't going to get you any closer to what you want. And if you're about to reply with some neo-conservative English-only rant, save it: I don't care.

2. Chopsticks do not get left in dishes: There are a number of Asian superstitions that can trip up the newbie to the food of the Far East (flipping fish to get to the meat on the other side of the spine, for example, is a big no-no), but the single biggest mistake is leaving chopsticks in a dish, particularly a rice bowl. It looks like incense sticks sticking out of a rice bowl honoring a dead person--the equivalent of using a funeral urn as a wine decanter. Lay your chopsticks to the side (on a rest, if you have one) or across the bowl.

...even if it IS the texture of natto.
...even if it IS the texture of natto.
svenstorm @ flickr.com CC BY-ND 2.0

3. Snot and Japanese food do not mix: While slurping your soba noodles is well-known to be a compliment to the chef and a total breach of etiquette in the West, the simple act of blowing your nose will put Japanese dining companions right off their sukiyaki and cause a round of tight-lipped not-a-smiles. The Japanese consider nose-blowing a function only done in private, like farting in America. Excuse yourself to the restroom if you need to expel some brain lubricant, and wash your hands afterwards.

4. Waiters are not your children: Many things divide us French speakers (you should see people roll their eyes at my first mention of septante), but few things in a French restaurant grate on our nerves more than some bloviating hot shot deciding to show off his fluent command of our language. "Garçon," he intones, "more vin, sill voose plate." I'm sad to say that this happens at least once every time I eat in a French restaurant. Garçon means "boy". You might as well snap your fingers in his face. Call the waiter "garçon" and that decanted $100 Châteaunneuf-du-Pape is going to be Château Craché Dedans. If you need to summon your waiter in French, a polite, "Pardon, monsieur," is the way to go--and s'il vous plaît is pronounced approximately "see voo pleh".

Five Cultural Faux Pas To Avoid
jondissed @ flickr.com CC BY 2.0

5. Watch the orders of five anything: "How much baklava you want?" asks the waiter at the taverna, and you hold up five fingers. Suddenly, the pad is on the floor and the cook is out at the table and shouting angrily in Greek. What happened? The act of pushing your palm with fingers splayed is called the moutza (μούντζα) and is the Greek gesture for rubbing excrement in someone's face. If you'd like to order five of something, make sure you face your palm toward you so as not to give them the equivalent of the one-finger salute.



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