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Women's Lifestyle Magazine

International Etiquette

Sep 02, 2018 10:00AM ● By WLMagazine
By Samantha Suarez

If you are what you eat, then are you also HOW you eat? Most of us have the basics down when it comes to American dining etiquette. We keep our elbows off the table, say things like, “Please pass the salt,” and tip ou servers 15 to 20 percent, right? When you travel abroad for business or pleasure, however, things get a little tricky and the do’s and dont’s of table manners begin to change.

Etiquette varies widely from culture to culture. What may be perfectly normal in one country may be considered rude in another. For instance, did you know that sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice is considered bad form in Japan? That’s what chopstick rests are for! If there aren’t any, place them directly in front of you, parallel to the edge of the table. Also, in Portugal, did you know asking for salt and pepper is an insult to the chef’s flavoring talents?

Learning global etiquette rules aren’t just good for saving you from awkward or embarrassing situations, but it can also demonstrate your openness to other cultures, help you make new friends from different backgrounds and facilitate business connections with ease. Sound good? Then let’s dive in!


George Aquino, vice president of AHC+ Hospitality, the hotel management group behind Grand Rapids’ JW Marriott and Amway Grand Plaza, is as close to an international man of etiquette as one can get. His work has taken him around the world, including countries all over Europe and Asia. On a personal level, he grew up in the Philippines and has lived in Africa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Guam. We thought it couldn’t get any more global than that, so Women’s LifeStyle decided to consult him about his experiences dining all over the world.

Women's LifeStyle Magazine: Why do you think people struggle with international etiquette? George Aquino: A lot of Americans find it challenging to take an interest in what’s going on outside the United States. When you feel like you live in the best country in the world, you tend to think that people should adjust to you. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just human nature. So when foreigners come to the United States, and they act differently than what we’re used to, sometimes we get judgmental. We believe that they should know how to eat here and how to behave in our restaurants. We even expect them to dress a certain way! It goes both ways though. Just because one country is a third world country doesn’t mean the locals from that country would feel differently because you come from a first world country. It’s just a matter of mutual respect for the culture.

WLM: Tell us about a time you or someone you know broke a rule of dining etiquette.

GA: I was entertaining a friend of a relative and took them to a very fancy Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles. The server came and gave us hot bowls. This friend drank the bowl like it was soup! Of course, the Japanese servers were appalled, and I explained to her that it was for cleaning her hands. She learned her lesson after that!

WLM: What can people do to prevent making mistakes like that?

GA: Mistakes are bound to happen to anyone, but the most important thing is to be respectful of the other culture and be humble when you make a mistake. Feel free to ask questions if you aren’t sure what’s happening, rather than assuming and being wrong. Observe the people around you, especially if you’re traveling by yourself. Go where the locals go and watch how they’re eating. I recommend traveling with a host whenever you can, so they can be your resource and answer all your questions. And, of course, do a little research beforehand. You have to use common sense, too. Some things you may have read might be considered archaic, and the younger generation of that culture might not even care about those rules.

WLM: Have you ever acted as somebody’s host?

GA: I hosted an American friend, a Dutch friend, a Russian friend and my wife during our trip to Boracay, an island in the Philippines. It’s a popular destination with a lot of beautiful beaches. I wanted them to experience something authentic, so I took them to a traditional Filipino kamayan feast, where banana leaves are laid all over the table, the food is placed on top of it, and you’re supposed to eat with your hands. It was a bit of a surprise for them, but we had a good time and took lots of pictures.

WLM: Was there ever a time that a cultural norm surprised you?

GA: I was in Stanley Market in Hong Kong and decided to eat somewhere rustic. I went past the market to where the locals eat, and it was a total slurp fest! People were burping loudly and feet were up on the chairs. I was appalled at first! Then I learned that burping and slurping loudly is actually a compliment to the food in their culture. It depends on the setting, of course. In a fine dining Chinese restaurant, the expectation would probably be not to slurp. Slurping actually makes noodle soup taste better though, because of the air entering your mouth and enhancing the flavor.

WLM: What else can people do to immerse themselves in another country’s culture, especially if they don’t have access to a host?

GA: I recommend tours. There are so many good ones run by entrepreneurs, and you can learn a lot from them. I think it’s an excellent investment, whether it’s a food tour, museum tour, a cooking class, or a shopping tour, depending on what you like. I’ve done all the Philippine tours, and one of them was the Chinatown tour in Manila. I loved that tour because it talked about the history of each food item, how to eat it and how it’s made. Fun fact: the Chinatown in Manila is actually the first Chinatown outside of China!

I’ve also done a pizza tour in Florence where they show you how it’s made and how to appreciate it properly. I really believe it’s worth investing the time and the money in those tours. They’re a lot of fun, and you get to meet other people who are well-traveled and learn from them.

WLM: Do you think that, overall, people are starting to get better at appreciating other cultures?

GA: Absolutely! For example, many American expats end up doing well abroad. The ones that don’t, however, the reason is usually that they or their spouse weren’t able to adapt to the culture. They were expecting the locals to adjust to them. I’ve seen this happen a lot. Many of our expats that we send to the Caribbean don’t make it past a year! I think that’s starting to change though. The millennials now are different. They’re generally more adventurous and more versed when it comes to ethnic food, especially if they live in a bigger city.

WLM: Any last piece of advice for our West Michigan foodies?

GA: I would challenge the people of Grand Rapids to go and try different types of food, whether it’s Ethiopian, Lebanese, Asian or something else entirely. Unfortunately, there’s no Filipino restaurant here yet, but I think many of you will find that exploring different types of food can be more enjoyable than what you’re accustomed to.


Every culture has spoken and unspoken rules of dining etiquette. Will not following these rules get you into trouble? Only in rare cases. However, we do believe that following them does set you apart as someone who respects other cultures and has taken the time to learn about it. This knowledge can often lead to conversation, business connections, a dinner invitation, and possibly even friendships! In contrast, ignoring them can lead to hilarious and awkward silences. So why not be informed, right? Below are twelve traditions of global dining etiquette that may surprise you.

1. When dining in Muslim countries, don’t eat with your left hand. “For the most part, you will be expected to eat with your hands, unless you’re in a fine dining restaurant,” Aquino explained. “There are two schools of thought as to why you shouldn’t use your left hand. One is because the left hand is largely known as the bathroom hand so it would be unhygienic to eat with it. The other is that Muhammad said that’s how you’re supposed to eat. Thank God I’m right-handed!”

2. In Korea, if someone older than you offers you a drink, lift your glass with both hands to receive it. Doing so is a sign of respect for your elders, which is very important in Korean culture. After receiving the pour with two hands, it is traditional to turn your head away and take a discreet sip when drinking.

3. In France, splitting the bill is considered unsophisticated. Either offer to pay the full bill or allow someone else to do so. You can always Venmo your portion to them afterward! Thank goodness for technology.

4. In Thailand and the Philippines, eat with a spoon and fork, especially when having rice-based dishes. “Thais and Filipinos don’t usually use chopsticks, but a spoon and fork instead. I think it’s the best way to eat, especially if there’s rice,” Aquino said. “ You utilize the spoon as leverage and push a little bit of the rice, protein, and vegetables with your fork into the spoon. With one bite, you get all the flavors! The food is designed to be enjoyed that way.”

5. When eating nigiri sushi (the standard sushi with rice and piece of fish on top) at an authentic Japanese restaurant, don’t mix the wasabi in the soy sauce. The sushi chef has already placed the proper amount of wasabi for the fish in the nigiri. While we’re at it, dip your sushi fish-side down into the soy sauce. This is mainly to prevent the rice from falling apart, but it also just tastes better that way!

6. Tipping is not expected in some countries, including Australia, Brazil, and Denmark. In other countries, like Japan, it is even considered an insult to do so. To them, excellent service is standard and expected regardless of tips.

7. In Italy, don’t ask for extra cheese. It is a massive faux pas to put more cheese on your pizza. An even bigger sin would be to add it to seafood dishes.