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On average, UK residents make over 96,000* trips abroad every year. Why? Because travel gives us the chance to experience cultures and cuisines that are different from our own. But, given there are vastly different dining customs around the world, even the shrewdest traveller can trip up when it comes to understanding the dining etiquette of a particular country. Food is essential for our nourishment, but meals are a social ritual no matter where you go.

If you delve back into history, you’ll find dining in Europe became much more refined during the 18th Century. High-backed chairs (which forced diners to sit upright) and the mass manufacturing of silver-plated utensils added a gloss to proceedings. New meals and customs – most notably the concept of afternoon tea – were also invented to reflect this. Even today, there are rules to observe when enjoying an afternoon tea, many of which involve the humble teaspoon. For example, when stirring your tea, the spoon shouldn’t touch the sides of the cup. You should never leave the spoon in the cup either, but place it on the saucer instead.

Today, continental dining styles are still most commonly used across Europe. In England, as in most other European countries, we hold forks in our left hands with the prongs facing downwards and knives in our right. Elbows should also remain off the table; guests should begin eating at the same time – and slurping is a no-no!

This drastically changes when you reach Asia, though; the Japanese custom is to slurp and burp – it signifies you’re happy with your meal. The majority of dining customs across Asia, however, relate to chopsticks. Never point at your food or a fellow guest with them. (It’s considered one of the rudest things to do at a dinner table!) Similarly, you shouldn’t gesture in the air with them. Oh, and never ever leave your chopsticks stuck vertically in your food; it’ll remind your fellow diners of a funeral ritual, whereby incense sticks are burned as offerings to the dead. (This is true in both Japan and China.)

Religion also affects table manners, as well as what people eat. In predominantly Muslim countries, for example, it’s custom to eat with your right hand; the left is considered un-hygienic. As such, you’re expected to wash your hands before every meal. ‘Halal’ means ‘permissible’ in Islam; vegetables, fruits and grains are all halal foods that Muslims enjoy. Meat can be eaten, providing that it’s been slaughtered in a certain way, as determined by Islamic law. ‘Haram’ foods – like pork and alcohol – are ‘forbidden’. (Remember that if you’re ever dining in a Muslim household!)

And gesturing for the bill is another thing that tourists must learn to navigate whilst they’re away. If you’re not able to pick up the standard phrases people use to beckon a waiter over, it’s worth knowing how to signal you’re ready to pay instead. In many countries, simply pretending to write a cheque in the air is sufficient. If you want to get the bill in Tanzania, though, you should say ‘pssst’ whilst gesturing; in Cameroon and Nigeria, the local custom is to hiss. Such differences highlight how varied manners – table or otherwise – are around the world. Taking the time to learn and understand these is crucial if you want to save face on your travels!

*Travel data collected from the Office for National Statistics. Data from January 2015 to June 2018.

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