English Eating Etiquette

Going to a country with a completely different culture can be daunting at times, if you don't know the local customs. And dining etiquette is one of those particular things that always seems to have a lot of confusing rules. Sometimes, you get so caught up in trying to 'get it right' with the eating etiquette of your new country, you forget that your own country has 'rules', too, which might cause the same kinds of worries for foreign visitors.

Remembering this, though, helps you to relax about making social blunders at the dinner table. While you might have read, for example, that stabbing your food with your chopsticks IS A CARDINAL SIN in Korea, give yourself a reality check by comparing this to a rule in your own country, and asking yourself if anyone would actually give a damn if someone flouted that rule in public. After all, people will always cut you some slack if you're foreign, and let's face it, do natives actually follow their own rules all the time anyway?

I really hate all those guidebooks and internet resources that list etiquette rules in a 'do this, don't do this' kind of way. It makes people worry too much. I mean, maybe it matters if you're going to a fancy restaurant or your mother-in-law's Sunday lunch, but how many other situations call for such strict attention to etiquette? Use your common sense to judge.

So the following list of common dining customs in England is not a list of THINGS YOU MUST DO WITHOUT FAIL if you're a non-Brit visiting England. No, it's just a reflection on how people eat here. What's more, it's my personal reflection. Chances are, other people's parents taught them different things.

1. Knife and fork. As my mum always reminds me, it looks kind of bad to just pick up a fork only, and eat with one hand. People do it all the time, of course, including myself. But in formal company, people hold the knife in their strong hand and the fork in the other. So the table is usually set with the knife at the right, fork at the left, and you're expected to pick them both up at the same time, one in each hand.

2. In a VERY fancy setting, you'll see more than one set of cutlery laid out for you. Hmmm. Puzzling, even for many English people (not the posh ones). This is for a meal that has more than one course, and the rule is to work from the outside in - i.e., use the outermost knife and fork for your starter, then when they're cleared away and the main course comes, pick up the next knife and fork in. Personally, I've laid plenty of tables in this way (as a waitress), but rarely sat down to eat at such a table.

3. Elbows off the table! Is there anywhere in the world where it isn't considered rude to lean on the dining table with your elbows?

4. When you've finished your meal, the custom is to place the knife and fork together neatly on the plate. The knife and fork are never crossed. They are neatly set in parallel, pointing out to the side of the plate. This indicates that you have finished the meal, whereas if the cutlery is crossed, it suggests you haven't finished yet and may want more food. This custom is perhaps the most interesting. Personally, I ALWAYS do it. Even if I'm at home, and I'm the person clearing the plates away, I would never leave my cutlery crossed! It's an ingrained habit.

5. Food sharing. I got used to sharing dishes in Korea - it's much more common there to have dishes in the middle of the table that everyone takes food from. However, on an English table everyone generally has their own plate of food served up individually - no sharing. Of course, it depends on personal preference and what kind of food you're serving. But although I enjoy shared meals, I really CAN'T STAND people taking food directly off my personal plate. BIG NO-NO. Not even if you ask nicely. Once it's on my plate, it's mine.

So, if you're eating at The Savoy, you might do well to follow some of these rules. But if you're eating at Maccy D's with your mates, much better to just ignore every rule possible, and you'll fit right in. If you're English anyway, let me know if you have any different rules in the comment section below. And if you've never been to England, did you know any of these rules already? How do they compare to your own country?


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