our European clients are sneering at my American colleagues’ table manners

A reader writes:

I have a question which might be classified as an etiquette problem, but as it happened at work I thought you might have some insight on how to handle it. I work in an international business where dinners with our European clients are regular. As I am not a U.S. citizen, I have often been included in jokes from our client where they deride the dining practices of my U.S. colleagues. An example of a recent point of ridicule was the U.S. practice of eating from a fork in the right hand after having just cut the food with their fork in the left hand and how “uncivilized” they appeared in doing so.

Having lived in the U.S. now for some time, I am relatively immune these days to even noticing this sort of thing but I do remember when I first came to the U.S. also thinking that quite a few people had failed to learn basic table manners and cutlery proficiency, and judging them based on that perception.

I mentioned this to my team (containing both those who report to me and those who I report to) and suggested that they perhaps be more aware of how they were being perceived and change their eating habits. This was met with open hostility. Not only did they disagree that there was a need to alter their behavior, they thought it was the Europeans who were being intolerant and rude.

I think the obvious course here is for me to let it go, but at the same time I feel as if, especially when visiting in Europe, it is our team who is being culturally insensitive. These same colleagues have changed their eating and other behaviors to match our Asian counterparts on past projects. Is this something I should press or let it go? And how should I respond when the client makes another joke about it?

I’d let it go, at least for the meals that are happening in the U.S.

I think it was totally reasonable to point it out — once. But you did, it was met with jeering, and I don’t think you’re going to get anywhere by pushing it.

I suspect what you’re running into is twofold: first, a feeling (which might be uniquely American, for all I know) that table manners are guided by the norms of the country where the meal is taking place — so your colleagues probably figure that if they’re dining in the U.S., then U.S. table manners reign; and second, a lack of concern about utensil rules that many Americans perceive as being rooted in snootiness.

However, when you’re talking about meals that take place in Europe, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, “Hey, this is a cultural difference that we should be aware of, just like we do X, Y, and Z when we’re working with clients in Asia.” From there, it’s up to others whether to act on that knowledge or not, and you shouldn’t keep pushing it — except with your direct reports, where you actually do have jurisdiction on this stuff. With them, it’s your prerogative to say “this is part of having a polished presentation when we work with clients in other cultures, and we’re going to adapt to that, just like we do with other cultural differences.”

As for what to say to the clients who you hear sneering about this, I’d go with a mild “it’s actually not considered incorrect here; it’s a different etiquette rule.”

And for the record, the clients are being rude themselves, since it’s rude to sneer about other people’s manners — and even a bit unsophisticated, since the cultural difference on fork-switching is well-known and shouldn’t be so astonishing to them.

{ 554 comments… read them below }

    1. Jamie*

      Exactly the column I was searching for to post a link – thanks!

      And their rudeness in mocking other people certainly trumps any faux pas in not adopting the style of the country they were visiting.

      Table manners are a big deal in my family, both growing up and how I raised my own kids, and thinking back to when I was in Europe I never switched to their method. It didn’t occur to me, but if pointed out I would adopt their practice in their country but certainly not in the US. I wouldn’t care if they maintained their own style here, but I certainly wouldn’t switch from something that is proper and appropriate in my own country because other people think the way we do things is uncivilized.

      And tbh if I was overseas and got wind of people mocking me for eating the American way I wouldn’t even bother trying to change while there – I’m not going out of my way to impress people who are that rude.

      1. EuroAmericanGirl*

        I was born in Europe to American parents and left to return to America when I was still a baby. I’ve visited Europe a few times and have friends there and once I stayed for several weeks. When I returned to the US, I found that I ate the way they do in Europe where I did not switch the fork to my right hand. For me, it’s just more efficient and I’ve been doing it that way for many years now even though I live in America. However, I would not mock or sneer at anyone for doing it differently. Mocking cultural differences is the height of bad behavior in my view.

        1. Jazzy Red*

          My grandmother, who was from an immigrant family in the early 1900’s, used to say that the person who has the best manners is the one who makes everyone feel comfortable. That included not speaking German when there was someone present to didn’t understand that language.

          These Europeans are boorish, ill-mannered louts. But then again, so are many Americans. However, is everyone is using eating utinsels and not dropping food all over the place, what’s the big deal?

      2. Bea W*

        I work with European colleagues and if they are making snide comments about utensil use in the US, it’s not known to anyone. I can’t imagine they are. We enjoy dining together. There’s no need for anyone to be rude even if they think another’s table manners are atrocious. There are polite ways to bring that up if it’s truly any issue.

        My collegues are mostly Dutch. I don’t know if that makes a difference. They are not all Dutch, but i have not had issues with any of them.

        1. Beyonce Pad Thai*

          I’m Dutch. Most of us are pretty open and vocal about well, everything. I’m sure if they had a problem, you’d have known a long time ago :)

          1. TeaGirl*

            I’m American and live in the Netherlands, and I was going to say the same thing as Beyonce Pad Thai. ;) Living here has made me a bit more self-conscious about my table manners, but no one has ever actually commented on them. I think that as long as you’re not making a big mess on the table, or chewing with your mouth open, or doing something else that’s over-the-top rude, then you’re fine. As Alison said, people who mock others’ manners are being rude themselves.

    2. Chinook*

      Having one parent who was born in Ireland and one who was born in Canada, this idiosyncrasy has only been pointed out once – when we visited Irish relatives because they noticed that I, as a 6 year-old, would do both during the meal (still do – just depends on which is more efficient). Frankly, even my very proper Irish grandmother didn’t care as long as we didn’t put our elbows on the table, didn’t talk with our mouth full, asked before we left the table and didn’t interrupt the adults.

      If I had colleagues say something rude like yoru did, would point out that it is more boorish to point out an etiquette faux pas and laugh at the person, especially if they are from a different culture, than it is to use a different hand for your fork.

      As for changing their behaviour with Asian clientele, this is possibly because the utensils are so different that they are super aware fo what they are doing whereas how they use a fork is ingrained because they have been doing it since they could feed themselves.

      1. AGirlCalledFriday*

        I have a different read on why they are more willing to alter behaviors for Asian clients, if you’ll bear with me.

        During my time in Japan (working with many expats, mostly Indian), my coworkers were Australian, European, Canadian, and American. There was a lot of discussion about being culturally sensitive to our Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Middle Eastern clients – absolutely no discussion about the cultural differences between the coworkers. We sometimes did have conflict due to cultural differences, though it was never addressed.

        I think that what’s happening here is that because Europeans can look similar to Americans, cultural differences are not taken so seriously as with an ethnic group that looks a bit different. It does seem like legitimate cultural differences are often not taken seriously.

        1. Bwmn*

          Completely agree with this.

          I grew up hearing all sorts of discussions regarding soup slurping and what hand you eat with vs toilet hand just as general conversation. However, when I went to Germany as a young teen, the notion that there would be any different in table manners was a total shock. At that age, I was completely shamed into changing how I ate.

          The notion that this is no big deal is no different than saying “just because it’s not rude to eat your meal with your hands in Ethiopia means that it’s not rude to eat your meal with your hands in the US”. It does matter, and while in the US I think it’s completely fair to stay with US style – it’s not terribly difficult to adopt a different style when in Europe. Even if you never entirely learn how to use the different hands there are plenty of ways to order to avoid having to do any serious cutting during a meal.

        2. TheSnarkyB*

          Exactly. Or put more simply, cultural differences are presumed when you’re not all white, and often ignored when you are. (Pretty messed up when you think about it)

          1. Jen RO*

            Well, I don’t think so. It’s a matter of culture, not skin color. I wouldn’t think a black Frenchman is very different from me from a cultural POV, but I would consider the cultural differences between myself and a Kenyan… not because he’s black, but because he lives on a continent that is foreign to me.

        3. Artemesia*

          As a teen in a European school I really ran afoul of this idea that ‘we look similar and have similar classes in school and so our general norms are similar.’ I the most inexperienced, unsophisticated teen in the Universe became the school slut because I accepted a date from a classmate to go to a concert. Dating within a class was just not done. Something so ordinary in my US high school. In Germany, the word ‘party’ was used but it had a very different meaning than in the US (this was 50 years ago before ‘party’ meant do drugs) where we had birthday parties, slumber parties etc etc. They just assumed when I mentioned the common practice of slumber parties for birthdays that I was referring to a co-ed orgy and were shocked by the very idea. To them a ‘party’ was a co-ed drinking/dancing social event.

          You expect cultural differences in obviously different cultures but may get more easily tripped up in similar but subtly different cultures.

          1. Maggie*

            Is this the same Artemesia from the Wedding Bee forum who loves discussing etiquette? If so, huge fan!

      2. Abradee*

        My grandparents were from Ireland and they weren’t as strict with their idea of proper utensil usage (although we still had to make the effort) as they were with all of the other dining etiquette rules you mentioned–especially elbows on the table! That one really takes me back to Sunday dinners with Grandma.

    3. Artemesia*

      First thing I thought of when I saw this post. Having lived in Europe I am quite aware of the disdain with which American table manners are viewed. Europeans might be astonished to discover that using the knife to load up the fork and shoveling food efficiently with a utensil in each hand is considered a tad gauche in the US and not as a hallmark of sophistication.

    4. KrisL*

      I’m puzzled by the Europeans. If they work with Americans frequently, I’d have thought they’d have had the culture and education to realize that this is considered the appropriate way to eat when you’re in the USA.

      Apparently these specific Europeans don’t.

    5. Blue Anne*

      YES. Thank you so much for this. I am an American living in the UK, and my Scottish husband has a Very Proper Granny who makes hilarious comments about my use of knife and fork when we go over for dinner.

      I’m going to send this to her.

  1. pizzagrl*

    Maybe I’m missing the point, but I find it completely absurd that anyone cares about how you cut your food.

    1. bridget*

      Right. There’s a difference between doing something against table manners that will affirmatively gross people out (chewing with your mouth open or while talking, making a big mess with your food) but just doing something Differently Than The Observer Is Used To? Those people need to relax and keep their eyes on their own plate.

      1. M. in Austin!*

        Well, I mean your clients obviously do, but this still blows my mind. This is so low on the list of Things That Matter…

    2. Frances*

      Yeah, when I saw the headline, I was thinking that the coworkers were chewing with their mouths open, or were those people who think nothing of helping themselves to other people’s plates without asking, or something truly egregious.

      I used to work at a place that was pretty evenly split between people who grew up in the US and people who grew up in other countries, and we had a communal lunch space. I don’t remember anyone ever making a comment about how people ate . (I did frequently have to explain the reasoning behind US holidays like Presidents’ Day, though.)

    3. OP*

      I think as others have mentioned below that manners are drilled into you from a young age and dining (whether out or at someone’s home) is a much larger part of the culture. Therefore these things are noticeable as being “different from the norm”.

      The ignorance of the Europeans, I feel, is that they assume the American way is ill-mannered even in the US. Whereas I think my US colleagues are just obeying their own set of manners.

      1. Kelly O*

        I work in an international field, and quite frankly grow tired of the lazy, boorish American talk.

        Lazy, Boorish American

        1. OP*

          I don’t often hear of the US being thought of as lazy especially when it comes to work. That usually goes the other way with the Europeans’ shorter days and longer holidays.

      2. Artemesia*

        What these Europeans don’t realize is that their way of eating is viewed as crude by Americans.

        The other habit that is trivial but different that I always found amusing is that in Germany at least it was a big deal to have your hand on the table i.e. a hand not being used to eat with needed to be visible on the edge of the table and not in the lap. IN the US kids are taught to keep their left hand in their lap when eating with the right.

      3. Beyonce Pad Thai*

        I think you just met a particularly uppity (and rude) European, to be honest. I’ve lived in a few European countries and no one I know would care about this. (Then again maybe they’re all judging me on my eating habits behind my back and I just never knew about it?)

    4. Colorado*

      I know! I am now trying to figure out how I even hold my fork. I came for the comments on this one!

    5. Bwmn*

      I disagree. There are many of countries in the world where it is acceptable to eat a meal with your hands. That doesn’t mean that if you’re in a steakhouse in the US, that using your hands won’t raise comment. Table manners and the perception of such do matter.

      1. Jazzy Red*

        It does depend a lot on what the food is. Pizza, sandwiches, fried chicken, carrot sticks, etc. are generally eaten with the hand. Messier food like roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans almondine, and ice cream for dessert are eaten with the appropriate utinsels.

        I had a friend who ate pizza with a knife and fork, which caused a little comment the first time we saw her do this, but never mattered after that. I would never be acceptable with someone eating mashed w/gravy with their hands, though.

        And I would rather starve to death than eat a local dish out of a communal pot, with my hands. OK, I’d rather just miss the meal, but you know what I mean.

    6. Purple Dragon*

      I lived in the US for 12 months during my senior year. I ate the European way at first and where I lived it was a big deal, both in private homes and at restaurants where people would stop and stare. So many people commented on it but it had never occurred to me. I ended up eating the American way, just so I could eat without the running commentary.

      People will comment, especially in smaller towns. I didn’t have any issues in larger cities (LA/St Louis) when I forgot and ate “like a snob”. Maybe the clients don’t have much exposure to Americans hence their comments ?

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        I wonder if this is a rural/urban thing. I’m American but grew up with Continental table manners. I never fork-switch. And I’ve never been criticized for it. That said, I’ve always lived in bigger cities and mostly on the west coast.

          1. Anonsie*

            Table manners of this type are significantly more important in smaller American communities than urban areas, yes. They’re stricter with it, even by American standards– I’m an urbanite and when I visit my rural relatives they always have snark about my manners.

      2. cuppa*

        I also eat the Continental way, even though I’m American. No idea why. I didn’t even know it was a thing until a family member pointed it out to me when I was a teen. I’ve been doing it ever since, and no one has ever pointed it out or commented. I couldn’t even tell you how the rest of my family or my friends eat— it’s not something I pay attention to.
        If it helps, I live in a major city in the US.

    7. Linguist curmudgeon*

      And God forbid these people ever have to interact with – the horror – a left-handed person!!!

  2. Mike C.*

    Christ, how petty can you get? Fork in the wrong hand? Really?!

    I suspect that your clients are just jerks.

    1. fposte*

      The real-life hotel manager that John Cleese in Fawlty Towers was modeled loosely on? Confronted Terry Gilliam, the American Python, for fork-switching.

      OP’s clients, do you really want Basil Fawlty as your role model?

      1. Lizabeth*

        Oh…lolololol! Basil Fawlty is one of my heros!!!!! (and the coffee didn’t survive. Note to self: stop drinking while reading AAM)

    2. BOMA*

      Seriously. It’s not even “wrong” by American standards, it’s just what we do. It doesn’t sound like the American employees are being rude or ill-mannered in any way, but the European clients are enjoying feeling superior.

      I don’t work in a client-facing role, but is there any way to gracefully point out to the clients that they’re being rude? I like Alison’s suggestion, but I was hoping for something a little more pointed.

      1. seesawyer*

        I don’t know about graceful, but if it were me I’d condense what’s been said here and then add a zinger: “Actually, in America fork-switching is considered more correct; in fact some Americans think the European way looks rather crude—but at least my American coworkers have had the grace not to mention it!”

        1. Jazzy Red*

          That would be acceptable, without the zinger. That puts you down to their ill-mannered level.

  3. BRR*

    I didn’t even know this was a thing and I am now wondering why I eat “European.”

    I think it’s ridiculous to care about this. That being said if there are other problems with table manners that have more of an impact on others that were not mentioned, I think it would be ok to bring those up. I think which hand you use for your fork is under the “is this the hill you want to die” category. I think there could also be an exception if you were losing clients but I seriously hope their thought process isn’t ,”Their work is great especially for this price, but they used their fork with their right hand.”

    1. Crow T. Robot*

      I’m an American and I cut and eat my food the European style because it gets the food into my mouth quicker. :)

      1. BRR*

        I worry about breaking off into etiquette comments so this will be my last one in the world of fork usage…. but I would have thought Americans would have kept their fork in their non-dominant hand for quickness of eating as a bullet point under obesity.

      2. Koko*

        I’m an American and I eat European style after sharing a cabin with a British friend on a cruise and being told upon our first dinner, “You eat like a savage.” I never fork-switched again and I’ve even got quite adept at smashing and balancing rice and peas and other small items onto the back of the fork, because “prongs up” forks are as much a no-no as fork-switching (“it’s a fork, not a shovel”).

        1. AnotherAlison*

          Back of the fork? That’s ridiculous. The fork evolved from a food-stabbing instrument and a shovel-like utensil to what it is now. Might as well use the handle end of your spoon for soup.

          1. Peep!*

            Amen! I could understand if it made it easier to eat food with the tines down… but seriously, why would you spend ages trying to scoot the food carefully up onto the convex surface of the fork?! It’s going to roll back off, and how do you put a tines-down fork into your mouth and eat off it? To me, that’s like trying to lick off ice cream from an upside-down spoon. With tines-up, it holds everything conveniently on the little shelf, and things don’t fall off.

            1. Jazzy Red*

              Plus, you could do serious damage to your tongue with those prongs!

              Really, this is the kind of behavior the Three Stooges made fun of.

        2. Abradee*

          In my personal experience, my British friends have been the most vocal in expressing their displeasure at how we Americans hold our eating utensils, although they’d never make an issue of it with anyone. It’s usually only ever come up in good-natured conversations discussing the various cultural differences between the U.S. and U.K.

          I actually prefer the back-of-the-fork European style when dining out, but when I’m at home and eating in front of the TV, there’s no better style than American. I’m pretty sure that’s what our Founding Fathers would want…

          1. AnonEnginner*

            This is why, when I have to go out to lunch with a very opinionated British lady I work with, I always aim for a place with chopsticks.

        3. Cheeky*

          A brief history: Europe, with the exception of Italy, adapted tardily and reluctantly to the use of the fork. As late as the early 19th century, some British country aristocrats were still holding out for tradition by declaring, “My grandfather ate with his knife, and it’s good enough for me.”

          Knives, spoons and fingers were the implements of choice to spear, slurp and grab. Only one was needed at a time, so only the right hand was used. When the fork gradually came into European use, it, too, was brought to the mouth from only the right hand.

          This was the correct European way of eating, and European settlers brought it to America, where it remains the correct method.

          1. Cheeky*

            *From Miss Manners, who is exceedingly correct. Europeans eat like the true savages, imo.

        4. Jennifer*

          Note to self: never go to Britain because I am apparently a horrible caveman there.

          (Then again, I don’t plan on going anywhere anyway so it’s no skin off my ass.)

          1. fposte*

            Though I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the UK and never had anybody be rude about my American table customs. It’s really not a common response.

            1. Xay*

              I’m starting to think I have been fortunate in my European travels. I had some odd and at times unpleasant experiences, but no one ever questioned or ridiculed my table manners.

        5. JTD*

          As someone who has lived 42 years split between Ireland and the UK, your British friends were appallingly rude.

          I’d have probably responded with a favourite poem.

          I eat my peas with honey,
          I’ve done it all my life.
          It makes them taste quite funny,
          But it keeps them on my knife.

          1. Christine*

            I love that rhyme! I said it every. single. time. my mother served peas when I was in my tween/teen years, to the point where I was absolutely forbidden to utter it another time because I had taken it way beyond the point of amusing.

        6. Lucky*

          I only realized the different fork-ing styles in the last five years or so, due to becoming close to a European friend. I have tried to make the switch but my hands just can’t get used to it. I may as well try to use chopsticks (used since childhood) with my non-dominant hand.

        7. Artemesia*

          And how is shoveling food as quickly as possible and piling food on the fork with the knife any less barbaric? Seriously? What is wrong with these people? I sort of prefer the European style, but seriously, what is wrong with people who think this is a sign of superiority.

          1. British!*

            So…what do Americans use the knife for? Surely pushing food onto the fork is one of its major functions?

            1. Jazzy Red*

              I was taught to use a small piece of bread, or a dinner roll, to push food onto the fork.

              Go ahead, argue with my mother. It won’t get you anywhere.

              1. Jamie*

                Just because I find this stuff interesting – Miss Manners’ take on using pushers:


                And using bread to mop up sauces:


                I wouldn’t dare to argue with your mother – women have lost their lives going to the mat over such things. :)

                For informal or home dining I’m totally with you and your mom – because I never understood the garlic bread and marinara sauce eaten separately seems like it should be a criminal act.

                1. British!*

                  Oh that link helps. Thank you! Out of interest, isn’t just chasing food with your fork quite frustrating? Why not use the knife to help?
                  Although am fascinated and entertained by the idea of tiny cutlery hoes :)

          2. K*

            I think it boils down to insecurity. Insecure people tear others down in an attempt to feel better about themselves.

    2. AnotherAlison*


      I prefer to do it the “European” way. . .or worse, cut up all my meat at once and eat it with my right hand. At American business dinners, I try to be more civilized use the hand-switching method. I grew up eating meals at Taco Bell with a spork, so yeah. . .

      1. Liz T*

        Exactly: over here, the fork-switching method is MORE civilized.

        PS: Anyone who says you eat like a savage is not exactly civilized hirself.

      2. Jamie*

        Shhhh…when eating at home I cut up all my meat at once. I did it the correct way when the kids were little to teach them – but once they were all out of high school I no longer care about hiding this from them.

        I prefer it – but wouldn’t do it in public. It’s one of the joys of eating at home – like putting Italian dressing on cottage cheese or and putting foods with sauce in separate bowls so nothing wet touches anything else…and we’re down the rabbit hole.

        But I’m convinced that food tastes better at home because it’s eaten in comfier clothes while being naughty and breaking rules. However, I wouldn’t chew with my mouth open or make noises if I was the last person on earth and no one was left alive to hear me. Some rules need to be observed even when alone.

        1. Kelly O*

          Come sit by me. I cut all mine at once and then put the knife down.

          I also eat off divided kid plates sometimes to keep things from touching.

          1. Jamie*

            Me and you, Kel. We’re going write our own ettiquette book now that Miss Manners is semi-retired and we’re going to make divided plates the next big thing.

            People would thank us when they see how delicious food can be when eaten correctly.

            1. 22dncr*

              Why, why, why didn’t my Mom think of giving me one of those divided plates when I was little I will never understand. Instead we had the “Uck, it’s touching!” everynight. We even owned said plates for going to the Beach. Of course, this all went out the window when I sat in my Daddy’s lap (he ate later than me) and ate out of his plate. He liked to mix everything all together. It was OK when it was his (;

              1. hildi*

                “It was OK when it was his (;”

                Yeah, what is it with kids? I can offer my 4 year old something and she moans and groans. But if I have it on my plate suddenly it’s highly desirable. I told me husband that we’ll just stop offering her her own food and she’ll probably eat better from ours.

            2. samaD*

              If there’s ever fine china with divided plates I’ve a friend who will order 12 place settings without blinking. Loves dinner parties. Hates her food touching.

                1. Jazzy Red*

                  And a finger bowl.

                  Oh, that makes me think – I have my great-aunt’s china from 100 years ago, and there are nice little bowls in the set. I use one on my dresser for earrings, but I could use a bunch of them to keep my food separate. It would work great, and would look “veddy, veddy” fancy.

            3. The Other Katie*

              My father in law actually bought me divided plates, and I love him for it. Food should not touch.

          2. LAMM*

            I was just telling my boyfriend about how I want to buy like 10 of those so my food will never have to touch again.

        2. NYCPara*

          When I’m at home sometimes I don’t even bother cutting the meat. If the piece isn’t enormous, and it is something soft like chicken, I just spear it with the fork and take bites from it.


          I’m much better behaved in public, though.

          1. Kate*

            I do this too. Reading over this post is making me realize how rarely I ever eat anything that needs to be cut up … as far as meat goes I mostly stick to chicken and fish and make ’em tender enough to flake easily with just a fork.

          2. Ellie H*

            The way I eat when I am at home and nobody is looking is pretty bad. I eat like an animal and use my hands and everything. I do KNOW how to eat politely when necessary though!

        3. Peep!*

          Aaahhh, I hate food touching other things. @_@ I usually end up with a small army of little bowls or plates so nothing touches. I also tend to eat all of one thing before moving onto the next, but I guess that’s more of a style preference. ;D

          1. Felicia*

            I also eat all of one thing before moving on to the next thing! It’s something about not wanting to mix flavours.

          2. Jazzy Red*

            My dad used to say that it all ends up together in your stomach any way. I would reply “but my taste buds are in my mouth”. He would pile up his meat, potatoes and creamed corn and *gasp* eat it that way. Are we even related?


            1. Felicia*

              My dad would say (and do) pretty much the same thing! I would argue that it doesn’t all taste the same in my mouth, so who cares how it ends up

        4. Liz*

          When I’m eating at home I’ll cut up everything at once, but that’s because it’s far easier to read while eating if I don’t have to put my book down to cut the next bite!

    3. thenoiseinspace*

      I eat European style, simply because when I was little, someone told me that Europeans held the utensils the opposite way and I’ve always wanted to be European. But what awful clients!

      1. HappyLurker*

        I did this as a young adult until my then soon-to-be spouse asked me multiple times to change my poor eating habits…after a trip to the library and three etiquitte books later. I abided by his wishes (except when we went to Europe – and I laughed at him the whole time!)

      2. Anna*

        I lived for several years overseas, both on Okinawa and in Spain. On Okinawa, you slurped. I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I had been raised that it was rude. In Spain, I somewhere changed my fork and knife usage to be the “European” style. I cannot tell you when this happened, just that it did. To me it’s not a huge cultural marker, and of all the things you can offend people of a different culture with, this seems incredibly low on the list. If someone brought it up to me before I travelled somewhere, I would wonder why that person was paying such attention to the way I eat my food. Please warn me about things that might actually matter and cause harm if I do them, do not warn me the way I hold my knife and fork might be gauche.

    4. Anon333*

      Are you left handed? I am, so naturally default to European style (with a bit of hybrid on how I hold the fork).

      1. Nancypie*

        Me too! And I never realized until just now as I am reading this that I eat opposite of how others do.

  4. Liz T*

    Well-known? I had never heard of such a thing! (I am an American fork-switcher.)

    I had a whole indignant response penned, and then I reread and saw that the Europeans are *clients*, not colleagues. So I guess I agree with the advice. The clients are being HORRIBLY rude, and catty snobs to boot, but I guess the OP can’t tell them to knock it off.

    1. Bwmn*

      Rude or not – this is not uncommon to these specific clients. While mentioning a breach in etiquette to the offending parties is rude – the point the OP was making is that this ‘snarking’ is happening out of ear shot. So it’s not the case of saying to Grandma “Why are you eating your steak with your hands and not a knife and fork?” but rather commenting to another relative later (who used a knife and fork), “I can’t believe Grandma ate her steak with her hands – what’s up with that???”

      When many Western business do business with Japan, there’s often an effort made to teach colleagues Japanese etiquette. The notion that to teach American colleagues European etiquette regarding table manners, tipping, etc. should be seen as no more ridiculous.

      It’s not about laughing at people for “poor manners” but for creating the best relationship possible.

      1. OP*

        This is exactly right about the circumstances.

        And I agree: The training that went into our Asian project on cultural sensitivity was brief but informative. Absolutely nothing was said about this project.

        1. Liz T*

          Yes, when doing business internationally it’s polite/good business to acquaint yourself with local customs. You wouldn’t want to go to a business dinner with people from another country and, for example, make jerky side comments about bad table manners that aren’t actually bad table manners in that country. That would be ignorant and rude.

          1. Bwmn*

            The comments weren’t made directly to the American staff but rather amongst the Europeans themselves (the OP included as being part of the ‘in-crowd’).

            This insistence that Europeans should not be phased by table manners practiced by Americans when in Europe really does play into the ugly American stereotype. That just because it’s polite and acceptable in America means that it should be polite and acceptable everywhere.

            I think a better correlation of this though would be around issues of tipping. While it may be customary in the US to tip in the 20% range, in the rest of the world this is not the case. While it may seem like a case of no big deal to continue tipping at an American level – in a business relationship sense it may leave a variety of less positive impressions of trying to ‘one up’ a client. Learning these customs is about being culturally sensitive and building the best relationship possible. If one wants to insist on others learning and adopting only their customs – there’s just a harder road ahead.

            1. Jamie*

              It’s nice that the comments weren’t made to their faces, but they are still rude.

              A conversation about how perhaps one is uncomfortable with other customs is fine – but sneering? That’s still horribly rude.

              If someone comes to work dressed inappropriately discussing it and finding a way to bring it up to them is fine. Mocking them for being crude or uncouth – making fun of them for not knowing any better…that’s still a nasty thing to do even if they don’t hear about it.

              I do agree that people should try to learn the customs of the country in which they are doing business – and yes, people should make an effort to adopt those, where they can, because that’s a good relationship builder.

              But I do have to wonder in this case, why care so much about something when they do not adopt the American customs when visiting here. In this instance they are sneering at Americans for following their own customs when they also continue to use their own when in America. If it’s polite to honor the host countries customs why would that only apply to those from the US?

              And if it’s offensive to tip like an American overseas that’s certainly something a company should tell employees before sending them there if it’s a sign of offense. The same as I would hope a European firm would tell their employees traveling here that it’s unconscionable to use standard Eurpoean tipping practices in America. Because either the American will have to go out of pocket to make it up to the server, or worse, the server will be cheated.

              Some customs are more important in the big picture than others – switching forks or not may bother some people but a server being undertipped affects their finances and that’s far worse.

            2. aebhel*

              So? It’s still stunningly rude to sneer about someone’s manners behind their back. I do actually agree that the Americans should attempt to use European table manners when they’re in Europe–but by the same token, the European clients, if they were actually well-mannered, should be using American table manners in the U.S.

              (Also, I’m incredibly uncoordinated with my left hand. Asking me to eat with that hand is like asking me to write with that hand: I can probably manage it, but the results won’t be pretty.)

  5. Crow T. Robot*

    Who really pays attention to this type of thing? I don’t think I have ever taken note of how someone cuts their food. Unless they’re making those obnoxious screeching noises with the knife against the plate, I really don’t care.

    Though I will say that it is important to pay attention to eating conventions of a particular country when you are in that country. Things like clearing your plate or eating with a particular hand can come off as very rude in other countries.

    1. Apostrophina*

      I also wonder who pays attention. I’m left-handed, so I’ve been using my fork “European-style” by a kind of default my whole life among my right-handed, fork-switching family, and I never noticed till it was pointed out to me when I was perhaps 19.

      1. manybellsdown*

        I am also a lefty, but I eat like a righty … except I’ve never done the fork-switching thing either. And I’m American, my family’s been here since the Mayflower, and I don’t think any of us switch the fork. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed how anyone else eats, either, unless they’re spewing food from their mouth or clutching their fork in their fist (my stepson eats like that and it looks really awkward, but he’s only 13 and mildly autistic.)

      2. Jamie*

        I’m a left handed fork switcher. So for those of you planning to invite me to a dinner party please seat me on the end so I don’t have an angry righty bumping elbows with me.

      3. Elizabeth*

        Lefties for the win! That said, I’ve never noticed the switching thing among my righty friends because, well, cutting one’s food is a relatively inane task. Unless they’re stabbing/sawing into their food with gusto, I’m pretty oblivious.

      4. Sydney Bristow*

        I American and apparently eat like a left-handed European. I’m right handed although I’ve been told I was ambidextrous as a kid, which I don’t remember. I’ve had Americans comment on the fact that I don’t switch hands and before those comments I’d honestly never noticed that I ate differently than anyone else!

        1. Lore*

          I eat like a left-handed European too! We actually did live in Europe for a very brief period when I was about at the age to learn how to use a knife, so maybe I picked it up there, but otherwise I have no idea. The switching hands thing just seems so awkward and, if you’re fairly clumsy me, infinitely more likely to lead to a knife ending up in your lap.

      5. TAD*

        Same here! I’m left-handed so have always eaten the European way. What WOULD be barbaric would be me trying to use my fork with my right hand. There would be food everywhere.

    2. Cheeky*

      Trust me, people absolutely do pay attention, especially in work settings. I will not eat with people with terrible table manners, myself.

      1. Crow T. Robot*

        Oh, I agree about not eating with table who have terrible table manners. I guess I just don’t see the fork-switching thing as a matter of manners so much as it is just a cultural difference. I’m more aware of lip smacking or not placing a napkin in your lap.

      2. aebhel*

        …and you would consider eating with the fork in the ‘wrong’ hand terrible table manners? Seriously?

  6. amaranth16*

    The only thing ruder than a breach in etiquette is pointing out a breach in etiquette. Your European contacts ought to step off, though I get when they’re clients it’s not as easy as that.

    1. PEBCAK*

      Exactly. The bottom line is that etiquette is to smooth social transactions, not add friction to them.

      1. Cajun2Core*

        PEBCAK – You took the words right out of my mouth and said it better than I ever could have.

      1. inigo montoya*

        This reminds of an athletic banquet in college. A group of soccer players from Europe were making snide remarks about the ill mannered eating habits of Americans when the football player that I was sitting next to said “what I find appalling is the american habit of beating the $#*& out of snobs making fun of american manners”. Not another word was said.

  7. Joolsey woolsey*

    As a Brit I have to admit that I am sometimes secretly appalled by how some people eat, especially the infamous ‘holds knife like pen’ however, as a Brit I keep it bottled up inside, I would actually consider it a million times more appalling to comment on how another adult eats – and of course most people are aware that there are different rules in different countries. I once had my French flat mate invite her friends over to watch me eat because she found it strange that I would keep hold of the knife and fork all the way through and only eat food off the back of the fork, even peas!

    1. Various Assumed Names*

      The French flat mate comment makes me more confused than ever, as someone who has never thought about fork habits until this very day.

      Just curious how holding a knife like a pen might work?

      1. Joolsey woolsey*

        It’s really weird! Some people literally hold their knife the same way you would hold a pen, between their thumb and first finger, and usually quite high up the knife, so you can’t put much pressure on the knife to cut. Because of this they then end up holding the food still with the knife and tearing at it with the fork. My guess is that they think it looks more dainty or something but as far as I’m concerned it’s just plain weird and inconvenient.

        1. GigglyPuff*

          I might totally do this, never thought about it, but I’m definitely aware of my table manners depending on the situation, which I thank Girl Scouts and being raised in the South, everyday for my manners when I watch people I know.

    2. Penny*

      I honestly do not understand how it’s possible to eat food off of the BACK of a fork. Forks are curved – at least the ones I use. Wouldn’t the act of getting something to balance on the back of the fork draw unnecessary attention?

      1. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

        It mostly involves mushing the food onto the fork so it stays, or mixing different foods together. My mom, who spent 18 months in England and never changed back to the American style of eating, is a master at this– spear the roast beef with your fork, dip it in the mashed potatoes and gravy, then mush a bunch of peas into the potatoes. Voila!

        Actually, I eat with my fork in my left hand more often than not because my mom always did. But I can and do switch to fork-switching when I’m in a swanky restaurant instead of with my family around the dinner table.

    3. DC*

      I’m curious. How do you balance food like peas on the back of a fork? Don’t they roll off? I may have to try this just for curiousity’s sake. Though, honestly, I have no idea whether I am a hand-switcher or not. It honestly never dawned on my to pay attention one way or the other, but now I’ll be paying attention and never know if I’m doing it a certain way because of this discussion or because that’s the way I do it! :)

    4. BeenThere*

      This, I never understood the pen holding position. What I’ve seen more often (aussie living in the states) is the hold the knife and fork like you are going to stab something. Then do the fork switch and continue stabbing. It’s really off putting but I bite my tongue and never ever say something to anyone except my spouse and in a comment section like this. It’s a confessional here sometimes :)

  8. Elizabeth West*

    The employees may have been resistant because the European clients were rude about it. Nobody wants to change the way they do a thing because someone is giving them crap. It makes you feel like you’re giving way to someone else when you shouldn’t have to. I think the OP should give the employees something to say to them if it comes up again, like what Alison suggested–something polite that deflects the criticism and maintains the relationship (if they’re that desperate to keep nasty clients).

    I used to eat in the European style a long time ago, but it gradually gave way to (as the Slate article author puts it) the “Star-Spangled Fork Flip” (I love that). Probably because I eat alone most of the time, with a book, so who cares? But I’ve been practicing the European style again. It always seemed to me a much more efficient way to eat–once I became aware of it, I wondered why the extra step was necessary. Plus, you can’t shovel it in with one hand and hold a book or tap the keyboard with the other; it forces you to focus on your food. You really enjoy your food more when you’re not gobbling it.

  9. Liz T*

    PS: I agree whole-heartedly that you go with the etiquette of the host country, not the guest country. Traveling abroad and insisting things be done your way is typically the purview of the Ugly American–glad to know there are Ugly Europeans, too.

    Maybe the Americans should take offense at how the Europeans eat: You’re not putting your knife down–that’s a threat! You’re eating too quickly–that’s inelegant!

      1. LBK*

        You’re not alone – it’s infuriating to me that someone would come to another country where etiquette rules are different and then laugh/jeer about how they aren’t the same. The location of the meal dictates the rules, that’s how it is and how it should be.

        Maybe it’s less obvious because the same utensils are used? Like, if this were an Asian country where chopsticks were used it would be pretty clear that you were supposed to use them, since you wouldn’t even be provided a fork/knife. Maybe it’s easier for the European clients to assume that their cultural habits are correct/universal because they can still eat in their normal manner with the utensils provided.

    1. ExceptionToTheRule*

      I managed to spend a week eating at the same table as Australians and Canadians and if anyone noticed that we held the utensils differently, it was certainly never brought up.

      We focused on more trivial differences… like religion in public schools.

      1. Cheeky*

        I’m sure people noticed, but were polite enough not to bring it up. Even if the person you’re dining with were eating with their hands, you wouldn’t mention it (unless it was your child).

        1. aebhel*

          Really? I actually couldn’t tell you off the top of my head whether or not my husband switches hands when he eats, and I’ve eaten across the table with him almost every day for the past eight years.

          Some people really, honestly, do not think that this is something worth paying attention to.

          Also, I generally think that in a non-professional setting, people should eat however they’re comfortable unless it’s really egregiously offensive to their dining partners.

    2. J-nonymous*

      I got the impression from what the OP wrote about differences in cultural training that this meal did take place where the European style of eating is the norm, not the American one.

      It’s still pretty rude to talk about one’s vendors behind their backs, particularly to be so snide, though.

  10. EngineerGirl*

    Rude is using your left hand to get the food at a middle eastern dinner. Do your European clients make fun of chopsticks at an Asian dinner?
    It’s perfectly reasonable to have client facing staff follow the norms of the guest country. Part of the American staff push-back may be due to the fact that they are unfamiliar with European dining norms. Hire a consultant and have a required class on country specific etiquette. Then make behaving appropriately in that country be a part of their performance score.
    If your euro partners make fun of the Americans when in America then you need to gently remind them that the host country rules have dominance.

    1. LBK*

      It’s perfectly reasonable to have client facing staff follow the norms of the guest country.

      I don’t agree at all. You come to a country, regardless of the reason, you follow the etiquette norms there.

        1. LBK*

          I guess I read it the other way – I thought she was saying from the perspective of the OP, who is a client-facing employee, that she should consider it reasonable to adopt the norms of the guest country, ie the norms of whatever European country the clients are from.

          If she’s agreeing with Alison, I don’t understand why the American coworkers would need to be taught European etiquette rules by some hired culture coach, unless they’re also going to Europe for business meetings.

          1. Jamie*

            That’s how I read it – and imo you only need to learn the other norms if you are in their host country.

    2. Hlyssande*

      I should never go to a Middle Eastern dinner, then, because I’d be wearing more food than I manage to eat if I had to use my right hand only.

      1. Artemesia*

        It is however a really big deal in the Middle East; you really do have to learn to not use your left hand for interaction s with others or for eating. Even sophisticated Middle Easterners who KNOW no insult is meant are likely to be squicked out by it as it is such a strong cultural taboo.

        1. fposte*

          Is showing the bottom of your feet/shoes as big as issue there as I’ve been led to believe? I can actually get that one, but I also don’t sit in a way that observes it, so I’d definitely need to be aware of it if it’s a thing.

          1. Henrietta Gondorf*

            Yes, emphatically a thing. It’s actually part of the training deploying military members get so as not to cause friction.

          2. Katie the Fed*

            Yes, but most Arabs are incredibly hospitable and will bend over backwards to make you feel comfortable and welcomed, so I can’t imagine anyone saying anything to you about it.

            They might judge you later, but I doubt anyone would make an issue of it in the moment. They know there are cultural differences.

        2. JB*

          My father gave up a Middle East job transfer when I was a child because of this. I am left handed and trying to switch caused so many issues that he decided we were not going to move.

          My parents thought it wouldn’t be a big deal because we (the kids) would mostly be around other Americans. The transfer officer said that it would created problems with household help, which you apparently were expected to have.

        3. Katie the Fed*

          yeah it’s kind of like nose picking – some parts of the world it’s normal to pick your nose openly but I’d be totally squicked out by someone doing it in front of me. Ick.

  11. Ellie H*

    Raised with American table manners, I think eating with European table manners (holding on to the knife and fork continuously) looks bizarre and it does honestly looks like bad table manners to me – like you are planning to shovel everything in as fast as possible without taking a break, though I know it’s normal there so I wouldn’t be censorious or anything. I just don’t get how can you eat with a fork in your left hand if you are right-handed? I find it impossible to understand, just as I’m sure those raised with the other table manners find our way impossible!

    I wouldn’t expect people to change their table manners while guests in my country, though, because these things are so ingrained. In general, I think it’s polite to be tolerant of the standard etiquette of the country you are in, and of the etiquette of guests in your country who are from elsewhere.

    1. Liz T*

      I agree that it can look gluttonous, and vaguely aggressive, to continuously have the utensils in your hands.

      Though to be fair, I don’t know that I’d ever have noticed before this, because it is SO DUMB to go around criticizing whether or not people put down their knives. Now it’ll be all I can see. Thanks a lot, douchey European clients!

    2. Elizabeth West*

      I actually found it easier, because I didn’t have to awkwardly set my knife down to switch, but some foods are difficult to scoop onto the fork that way. It just takes practice, I guess.

    3. De (Germany)*

      Well, you pretty much only have to not miss your mouth ;-)

      Nah, it’s actually a bit more complicated than this, but switching just looks wrong to me by now – something only small children do, until they learn to eat with both hands. While not switching looks bizarre to you, switching looks the same way to me.

      1. Buffet the Vampire Layer*

        That’s so interesting, because I’ve always looked at the European way as childlike.

        Point being, this is possibly the stupidest thing these people could have chosen to criticize.

    4. Barney Stinson*

      American fork-switcher here. I’m not sure I *could* spontaneously change that on demand. That’s a long-standing habit…

      1. De (Germany)*

        Same on the other side of the Atlantic. Although at least that switch is probably a bit easier, no learning to use the fork with your left required. After all, if we don’t need the knife for a meal we usually also use the dominant hand for the fork.

        1. Jamie*

          No, but if the video I just saw on youtube is correct it will go against some solidly ingrained rules of etiquette.

          I was curious about this whole fork down thing, because I’d heard of it but haven’t seen it in action and I was curious as to how one ate that way. Apparently you use a knife to push food on the back of the fork?

          See, in my family pushers (bread, knives) needed to go by the wayside before kindergarten. That was the height of eating like a baby – and fingers to push? That was never okay and trained out of all of us as quickly as possible.

          I’m fully in favor of adopting the customs of the host country – but that would be impossible for me so I just wouldn’t eat anything you couldn’t spear with the tines. And customs of some countries where you eat with fingers – as accommodating as I’d like to me there is no way I could do that.

          Not because it would be different or I’d feel silly – I’d feel silly eating pizza with a knife and fork but I could do it if it was the custom (although in Chicago I believe that’s illegal) but in that I just would not be able to eat with my fingers from a bowl and I could never eat from a bowl where others put their fingers.

          I guess I can never leave the country – because while I wouldn’t care personally and would chalk it up to custom, I would notice people pushing food onto forks with knives and no way could I do it myself.

          1. British!*

            But…what do you Do with the knife then?? And do you just shove food around with the fork until some of it stays on the fork? /confused

            1. Ellie H*

              No, you either spear it with the tines of the fork, or you scoop some of onto the fork, or both (some speared, some scooped onto it) – mostly scooping. It stays on very easily. I had to think about it to figure out how it happens. It really does work without the knife!

              1. British!*

                I need to see this in action! :) I can manage minus a knife when sitting on the sofa, but at a table I just can’t manage it. No idea why!

                Thank you for explaining so nicely! :)

    5. Arbynka*

      Where I am from, you are allowed to set utensils down. In fact, as my American husband found out, we have two ways of resting fork and knife againts the plate to signalize our intentions. If you rest them at opposite sides, it means you are not done eating. If you rest them next to each other on one side, it means you are done. Husband, back then friend, set them next to each other and got a shock when a waiter came and took his plate away without one word :)

      As far as sneering or mocking someone for the way they use their utensils – just rude. I know some people who have it as a hobby to put down Americans – oh, they are so fat, stupid, uncultured and don’t know geography…. ( always fascinates me when they do it in front of me and sometimes they expect I join in. Ehm, my husband, kids, in laws and friends are American) but most people are polite and nice.

      1. LBK*

        Re: your first paragraph, I just realized I actually do this but not intentionally. If I put them down on opposite sides it’s so I can easily pick them back up to continue eating. If I put them down next to each other, it’s usually stacked on the plate so it’s easy for the server to clear it without having to touch my dirty silverware. How odd that this is actually considered an etiquette rule in some places!

        1. Artemesia*

          Putting knife and for at a sort of 4 o’clockish position together is the etiquette requirement for signaling you are done.

      2. Joolsey woolsey*

        Oh yeah, I never even thought about this until I went abroad but it’s ingrained into us when we’re small that when you put the knife and fork together in the middle of the plate it signals that you’ve finished eating. I also find it a bit disconcerting that my American friends will stack all the plates together in a restaurant when they have finished eating, which I would consider to be more inconvenient to the waiter.

        1. Ellie H*

          I’ve never seen anyone do this in a restaurant! That would be incredibly weird. I usually put my napkin on my plate to signal being done eating, or the silverware together in the middle – I think that is fairly universal.

          1. Various Assumed Names*

            Nope. New Yorker here. Never seen anyone put the silverware together in the middle. That sounds slightly crazy to me (unless I’m just not picturing correctly what you’re trying to describe). It is pretty common, however, to move the plates to the end of the table to get them out of the way and closer to the waiter. Occasionally, we will stack them if there are a lot of plates.

            1. fposte*

              I think Ellie’s saying not that everybody puts their silverware in the middle of the table (which would be weird to me too) but that you would put your knife and fork across your own plate, bisecting it through roughly the middle at an angle.

            2. Ellie H*

              Exactly, I meant the silverware together on the plate (like a radius line on the plate).

        2. fposte*

          Wow, I’ve never seen anybody stack plates at a restaurant table (save for maybe getting a bread plate out of the way), and I’m American. That would actively bother me–it would make me feel like I’m eating off the counter in the kitchen.

        3. LBK*

          I might put my bread plate or soup bowl on my main plate after I’m done eating, but I’ve never seen anyone in the US start stacking all the plates on the table together…the one exception is maybe if the table is really small and there’s more courses coming, like if we got 2 giant salad plates and there’s no space for my entrée plate.

        4. Ellie H*

          Actually, I take that back – I have seen people do it sometimes with the bread/appetizer plates at the beginning. If you’re done eating bread or whatever and there is more food coming and not much room on the table, we’d sometimes put the bread/appetizer plates back together in the middle (stacked), especially if they were stacked in the middle to begin with (which happens sometimes even in nice places) so they are quicker to pick up all together.

          1. Jamie*

            This – although when my kids were very little and we’d go out on rare occasion I would start to out of habit – then stop myself.

        5. fposte*

          The American/UK restaurant difference that really floors my Scottish friend is getting your leftovers boxed up to take with you. A norm in at least my part of the US; utterly not done in her area. (Granted, that’s self-defense here in light of the size of some US restaurant portions.)

          1. OP*

            This amazed me too when I first moved to the US. Where I’m from many restaurants refuse to do it… it apparently breaches food safety laws that it’s been sitting unrefrigerated on the table for some amount of time!

          2. OP*

            Oh, also illegal in Ireland (and possibly other places): asking for your burger any way other than well done.

            Menus regularly apologized for that law… although I’ve never heard someone outside the US ask for their burger to be undercooked.

      3. Ann O'Nemity*

        The resting position for American vs. Continental dining styles are different. But for both styles, you put the utensils side by side to indicate finished. The difference for resting is that Americans rest them on opposite sides of the plate, while Europeans cross them at a right angle. (Internet search for pics.)

      4. Anon*

        I’m in the southern US and we signal with utensils the same way. I never realized this was a regional thing. Huh.

      5. samaD*

        fork & knife position – that’s the way I learned too! together (preferably in the centre so they can’t slip off) means you’re finished, apart or set at an angle to each other means you aren’t.

    6. Cath in Canada*

      Well, to be fair, you don’t hold on to them continuously – you put them down many times during the meal, to pause for a sip of a drink, or a conversation.

    7. Girasol*

      I was taught that eating with a fork in the left hand was rude (it shows that one is too lazy to switch hands and eat with it properly in the right.) So I was quite surprised to meet a lovely lady in Australia who chided me for switching, saying, “If you do that you’ll never be allowed to eat with the Queen!” European style is much more efficient but I’ll stick with eating the way I was taught was proper, at least until the Queen invites me over.

    8. bearing*

      Now I want to go rewatch the dinner scenes in “Gosford Park” to see if Altman had the American movie producer hold his cutlery differently from the Brits.

  12. CoffeeLover*

    Quiet a few people are saying its uncommon for someone to care so much about something so small (that it’s petty). But as a European that grew up in Canada, I have to say that this is something you should be aware of when dealing with European culture. Not all people obviously, but I find things like proper table manners are a way bigger deal in Europe than here in Canada. Europeans generally stereotype Americans as rude and uncultured, and the (in their eyes) poor table manners reinforce that “uncultured” view. You can bet they’re not the only Europeans sending judging looks if your coworkers aren’t, i.e., holding their utensils properly. I’ve had friends and family comment about the poor table manners of North Americans, and growing up proper table manners were grilled into me as being extremely important. Note: I don’t find North Americans have overly bad table manners, but I do think it’s not as valued.

    1. CoffeeLover*

      I’ll add the fork switching thing is ignorance on their part, since that is considered the proper way to do it here.

      1. KerryOwl*

        But fork-switching isn’t bad table manners, it’s DIFFERENT table manners. It’s not ignorance, it’s a different culture.

        1. fposte*

          Right, that’s why I was opting to call it customs and not manners. This wasn’t about Americans talking with their mouth full or chewing with their mouth open or breaching any customs that exist here and in Europe–it was about Americans practicing American table customs in America. I think I’d have resisted changing too. (Or set the table with all chopsticks next time.)

        2. CoffeeLover*

          It’s the Europeans I’m saying are ignorant for not knowing its a cultural difference and making assumptions about the Americans. Sorry, I don’t think I was clear there.

        3. BRR*

          I second different table manners. That is a great way of putting it.

          I was looking at the Emily Post Institute’s top ten table manners and I think that’s a great list of universally appalling things like chewing with your mouth closed and remembering to use your napkin.

          1. De (Germany)*

            I admit, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop finding it weird – I have thirty years of knowing it as the way children eat and not having it be acceptable for adults to eat like that behind me, after all. But commenting on it? What the hell…

            1. BRR*

              Out of curiosity is it near the top of your list. I am 27 years old (American and my mom was born in Europe) and have never even really noticed it or knew it was an etiquette thing. So I feel my point of how is this even noticed by people let a lone offending them is at least semi-objective.

              1. De (Germany)*

                I suppose I would notice it, yes. Switching hands all the time sounds hectic and noticeable to me.

                1. BRR*

                  I don’t do it and I guess I have known a couple people who do it but I always thought it was because it was their dominant hand. Like they use their right hand because they might not have good control with their left.

                2. fposte*

                  De–I think it’s like automatic vs. manual transmissions. If you’re used to manual, it’s no big deal, but if you drive automatic, manual seems like a whole lot of moving around for not much gain.

                3. Windchime*

                  I guess it would be if the person was trying to eat very quickly. I dunno, it seems to be that grasping utensils in both hands and pushing food onto the fork with a knife seems like something I would notice. But despite the tendency for others to think of Americans as rude, I would never dream of pointing it out to someone who was eating that way.

        4. Anx*

          To me, it’s like knitting or crochet differences. Some Americans use the English way, but most use American. It’s literally just a different orientation of the utensils.

          1. Jennifer*

            I got taught continental style (by an Alaskan) and periodically knitters will actually notice and be all, “That’s so weird!” I took a knitting class during the winter and apparently I knit REALLY weird…. But hey, it’s more efficient and less hand motion, so what’s the big whoop?

            1. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

              Yeah, the English vs. Continental knitting debates are epic! I learned Continental from my aunt because I learned how to crochet first and you carry the yarn in your left hand when you crochet, so it was easier for me to pick up. But a couple of years later I learned how to knit English and boy, did it seem like a bunch of wasted motion! And so much slower, too. Seed stitch in continental is no big deal, but a MAJOR pain in English.

              1. Windchime*

                I knit English and I am very, very fast. It all depends on what you’re used to. I started out crocheting, too, so I definitely know how to hold my yarn in my left hand. I just find knitting English to be much easier and faster (for me).

                1. AnonEnginner*

                  But if you fall asleep in the middle of a stitch in English, the tension from your hands dropping onto the bed doesn’t unravel your work….

      2. Liz T*

        What I don’t get is, how can fork-switching be BAD table manners? Something quirky and unusual maybe, a “why the heck to Americans do that?” But are Europeans and Canadian children explicitly taught NOT to fork-switch?

        1. CoffeeLover*

          Yes, it was grilled into me :P. And with table manners, it’s all in the details. As someone who grew up across multiple cultures, I don’t find it as big of a deal. Just something to keep in mind if you get invited to dinner by your European coworker :P.

        2. De (Germany)*

          Yes, we are. It’s only allowed while you are little, after that you learn to eat the grown-up way.

            1. CoffeeLover*

              I think kids don’t really cut their food for themselves when they’re young, so they just go at it with fork in right hand. When you start cutting your own food, you start learning the “right” way to do it.

              1. De (Germany)*

                For me, I think there was about a year or so (maybe more?) where it was okay to first cut my food, then eat with the dominant hand, until I figured it all out.

                I am still a bit baffled by the American way, though? Do you switch after each bite? That sounds like such a hassle, always putting the knife down, switching, picking it up,…

                1. Kelly L.*

                  According to strict etiquette, if I understand it right, you’re allowed to cut off two bites at once.

                  (I find it fascinating that lots of formal table etiquette is based around trying not to look eager to actually eat the food! I wonder how much of it is rooted in class distinctions and wanting to not look “hungry,” though it’s usually explained as not wanting to look more interested in the food than in the company.)

                2. Ellie H*

                  I really just can’t get past why you would you eat with the non-dominant hand, given a choice. It just seems insane to me, plus seeming rather unrefined to hang onto the silverware the whole time, as I said above, like you are deliberately trying to scarf everything down as fast as possible before somebody snatches your food away from you. Putting the silverware down and switching hands adds some nice, natural pauses into eating, which is good for not eating too fast. I’m really amazed that this would strike people as the more “boorish” or un-cultured way to do it as it seems to me (American) to be naturally, completely opposite.

                  I thought I had a lot of exposure to international customs but this is REALLY fascinating to hear about what totally different perspectives people can have on something so ostensibly minor!

                3. fposte*

                  @Ellie–I think it’s one of those backward engineering things. We don’t choose our customs out of logic, but we then find benefits in the way we do things; we therefore can’t imagine doing without those benefits the way people who do something differently must.

                  My house version of this is being unable to imagine working with any other kind of sink configuration :-).

                4. Zillah*

                  It’s worth pointing out that there are many, many foods that don’t require a knife at all. It’s not like you’re switching for every bite. I’m a vegetarian, and I virtually never use a knife.

                5. Ellen Fremedon*

                  Zillah– This! I am an enthusiastic carnivore, and I still rarely use a knife at the table. Most of what I cook is either tender enough to cut with the edge of the fork, or cut into bite-sized pieces before cooking. Even when I roast a whole chicken or something, usually I’ll only make one meal out of large slabs of meat– the rest gets turned into sandwiches, soup, casserole, enchiladas, pot pie, etc. I’m a little boggled by the idea of eating enough steaks and chops– the only things you really have to cut up bite by bite– for meat-cutting to be an everyday occurrence.

                6. Nea*

                  Chiming in late to say that according to the strict letter of American etiquette, you should cut one or two bites at once, switch, eat, cut again. In practice, people cut between 4-6 bites to everything – although I did once have another American point out that it was technically rude of me to cut half my meat, switch, eat it, then cut the other half.

            2. De (Germany)*

              I wouldn’t really call any way of eating with knife and fork “natural”. It’s just the easiest way for kids before they learn a bit more coordination with their non-dominant hand. The progression is usually “just fork, dominant hand”, then “cut with dominant hand, eat with dominant hand”, then “use both”, from what I gather.

            3. CoffeeLover*

              I’ll add I actually find the American fork-switching to be more unnatural. You have to put down the knife, then switch forks, then eat, then switch forks again and pick up the knife to do it again.

              1. LBK*

                If I’m going to do left-hand fork, right-hand knife, I just cut all my meat at once and then switch the fork once to use to eat for the rest of the meal. Although in terms of etiquette, apparently that is on par with using your fork to stab the host.

                1. TheSnarkyB*

                  For the sake of curious European readers, though, it should be clarified that cutting all of your meat at once is not strictly considered polite American table manners. As someone above said, you cut one or two pieces at a time and yes, switch back and forth.
                  It doesn’t feel like a lot of motion or work to us.

                2. Jamie*

                  @TheSnarkyB – absolutely correct. That’s one of the sinful pleasures reserved for dining at home where no one can see you.

                  Huge bone of contention when I was growing up since I prefer to get all the work out of the way first (and hate hot food.)

            4. fposte*

              I think that’s a bit of a stretch, though, and I’d say there’s no particularly natural way of eating with a knife and fork, which is a profoundly unnatural–and therefore civilized–way of eating.

              1. Katie the Fed*

                I prefer chopsticks. You can do anything with them – cut food, pick up food, etc. Just NEVER stab the food with them.

                I also like the Indian way of eating with your fingers, although it takes a bit of getting used to.

                1. Jamie*

                  Do anything with them…

                  Try to use them once and flip a piece of sesame chicken in your eye and flinch and then the chickn falls down your shirt so you have to go to the bathroom and dig chicken out of your bra while trying not to go blind from a cornea coated in sticky sauce…

                  Or so I’ve heard can happen. Chopsticks are not for the uncoordinated.

                2. Vancouver Reader*

                  Not to mention that with chopsticks, you never have to worry about using the wrong one at the wrong time (unless you lick the communal chopsticks, then that’s gross!)

              2. Liz T*

                I didn’t say it was a natural way of eating. My point was, if you are tasked with using a knife and fork, it seems the “American” way is the one more people will use unless taught otherwise.

                But I should’ve said “more natural,” not “most natural,” because we’re only talking about these two ways.

                And now maybe I’m off topic.

        3. Mephyle*

          I grew up in Canada and I switch the fork like an American. I thought it was a general North American thing. I don’t recall people ever seeing people switch forks in my circles.
          I don’t think I could do it the European way – it would be like trying to eat left-handed (being a strongly right-handed person). It’s hard to believe that the resulting clumsiness would be more polite than continuing to eat in my accustomed way.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      “Europeans generally stereotype Americans as rude and uncultured, and the (in their eyes) poor table manners reinforce that “uncultured” view”

      Yep. That’s a lot of why I prefer to spend my travel dollars in places other than Western Europe (at least the big cities). I’m very polite and respectful of all cultures, but I get really sick of the comments about Americans. France was the worst in this regard. You don’t like us? Fine. I’ll go elsewhere.

      1. LBK*

        Yeah, I unfortunately experienced the very stereotypically anti-American jeering and rudeness when I was in Paris. It was better in the suburbs and even in smaller cities – Lyon was fine – but they had no qualms mocking us openly for being from the US. Sorry, you live in a tourist city – yes, I’m going to find the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre exciting to see. I don’t walk past them every day like you do.

        1. Felicia*

          That’s a really weird attitude to me (though I believe it), because don’t they ever visit other countries/cities and want to see unique things there? I ran into a bunch of tourists today who were asking directions to things I walked passed every day, and I gave them directions politely and told them I hope they have fun, because I love having tourists :) Though my experience with Paris was everyone was really nice, though I’m Canadian, which they don’t seem to have negative feelings about.

          1. LBK*

            I really think it’s just towards Americans – I’ve actually heard people suggest that if you’re an American visiting France, you should pretend you’re Canadian and they’ll be less rude to you.

            1. BethRA*

              I’ve heard people suggest all sorts of things. doesn’t make them true. And FWIW, that was not my experience in France at all. A few folks were rude in Paris, but then I’ve had people be rude to me in the US.

              I do find it ironic that some folks are objecting to the unfair stereotyping of Americans…by stereotyping other countries.

            2. GrumpyBoss*

              This. European travel became a lot more pleasant once I started telling people I was from Toronto.

              I know that there are some Americans that are just flat out embarassing when they travel. But we haven’t cornered the market on “ugliness”. I’m always amazed at the behavior of some Europeans who are traveling within the continent, and wonder how it is that Americans are the ones who got a bad rap. I’ve seen some bizarre stuff. Once I was at a restaurant in Zurich, and at a community table. There was a French couple next to us who were also traveling – their guidebooks gave them away. They were drunk, loud, and insulting to everyone else at the table. Then they drunkenly knocked over their cheese fondue – breaking their dinnerware and creating a gigantic mess where nobody could get up from the table without traversing broken glass and hot, bubbly cheese. Their response? Toss down their napkins and left, without notifying anyone that it needed to be cleaned up. And also without paying.

              It would be ridiculous for me to judge all of France on this couple. Yet it seems to be a sport for some to do this to Americans.

              1. Artemesia*

                I spend a lot of time in Europe and pay particular attention to American travelers as well as other tourists. It is simply not true that ‘Americans are the worst’. Yes I can recall a number of embarrassing compatriots, but most of the extreme examples of boorishness have been from other countries. I have seen Italian and Japanese tourists cutting lines in the ladies room as if they were entitled to always go to the head of the line. The worst tourist on an airplane every was a Saudi man who was so boorish that when my work colleague asked the FA if they had a vegetarian meal (he had forgotten to order one), she gave him the Saudi man’s meal. (we knew this because a bit later we got to hear him bellowing about how he had ordered a special meal and how could they not have it. LOL. Boy did he deserve that and my colleague’s meal was delicious)

                The worst children ever? A school group of French elementary school students who ran amuck in the Chagall Museum in Nice. A tie perhaps with the eastern European kids who ran amuck on an Alitalia flight.

                In all my travels, I have not yet run into nasty Australians and only once run across boorish Canadians. But Germans, Americans, Saudis, Dutch, French, Italians, Chinese and Japanese — they all have their embarrassing representatives — and of course we always remember the awful people rather than the majority of perfectly lovely folks from every culture.

                1. fposte*

                  Yes, confirmation bias absolutely rules this kind of thing. Disruptive people are exponentially more visible than going-with-the-flow people.

        2. OP*

          I agree that you can find rude people with a superiority complex in Paris… but you also find them in New York… and Houston… and Sydney and Tokyo and every other big city too. Many people in many countries think they live in the “best” place in the world and sneer at the tourists.

          1. LBK*

            I’m curious if/how you’ve experience a superiority complex from people in NY. I usually see people being more taken aback by the extremely fast pace of life there, as well as the general Northeastern US culture of not engaging with strangers. I haven’t heard much about NYers being snooty.

            1. OP*

              I’ve met quite a few NYers who think anyone not living in New York is someone to be pitied… plus the usual healthy dose of the “USA is the best country on Earth” crowd.

              I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact shouldn’t everyone live in the place they think is the best place on Earth for them?

              1. Jamie*

                I think where it gets grating is when people forget about the “for them” part.

                Same with religion, it’s great if everyone finds what works for them – but assuming it’s universal is the problem.

                It happens even locally. I work with people who are so happy living in the city they cannot imagine why I chose the suburbs – I am so happy to get home at the end of every day I can’t even tell you.

                I’ve lived in Florida, California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and did a semester abroad in high school in Europe.

                The Chicago burbs are the best. Better than all those other places, better than any other place anywhere.

                For me.

                Because it’s home.

                People just need to remember that if everyone thought their place was the best then they’d all move there and that would suck. Let people think they are happy elsewhere – keeps us from being too crowded. :)

              2. Liz T*

                Tangent time:

                I’m a native New Yorker, and once I saw written on a wall in the subway, in big letters, “TOURISTS GO HOME.” I still wish I’d had a marker to write with, because I wanted to respond, “They do, that’s what makes them tourists.”

                I will say that most native New Yorkers are happy to give directions to tourists, because we like showing off how New York we are.

            2. ExceptionToTheRule*

              Depending on where you’re from, that lack of engagement with strangers can come off as a superiority complex.

            3. Felicia*

              I like the culture of not engaging with strangers, because I am from Toronto, and we have the same culture in regards to strangers. Sure if a stranger asks me for directions or the time or how the subway works or something, I’ll tell them politely, but small talk with strangers is just not done. So finding that is a thing in NYC too made me feel comfortable there :) But from what i’ve heard from people talking about Toronto, not making small talk with strangers is considered a snooty behaviour to them so maybe that’s it.

              That’s why it’s important to both learn what’s polite where you live, and also learn that it’s not universal if you’re going to travel. Like in the Southern US you call all adults sir and ma’am, but in the Northern US it’d be considered weird if you did that, and is considered more polite to call adults you know (other than teachers) by their first name, while sir and ma’am is reserved for strangers. Neither way is actually wrong (although there are people that will argue both sides), they’re just different understandings of what being polite is, depending on your region. I think it’s important to understand what aspects of manners are cultural and not even close to universal.

              1. Helka*

                It was interesting to me to read how not engaging with strangers is actually an adaptive way of creating privacy in crowded conditions. In more spread-out areas of living, like the suburbs, you have more physical space so there’s less need to create social space — when you enter someone’s “interactive” space, it’s more often by choice, and you have the ability to withdraw when you’re done interacting. But when you’re crammed in close, there’s no real way to escape being in other people’s interactive space, so you shrink the sphere of what constitutes interactive space.

        3. Cath in Canada*

          Parisians hate everyone, though, even French people who aren’t from Paris ;)

          (my parents are both retired high school French teachers and when we visited Paris from England when I was a kid, we got the famous Parisian attitude every single time, despite their fluency in the language and obvious British accents)

          1. Felicia*

            My grandmother is a french speaking person from Quebec and they mocked her French even though they understood it perfectly .

          2. Artemesia*

            I have spent about 8 months over the years in Paris in trips lasting anywhere from 10 days to 2 months and have found Parisians as a rule to be lovely helpful people. I can count on one hand the number of unpleasant shop people or others we have interacted with who have not been pleasant to deal with. They do have some quirks. ‘Have it your way’ is not a French restaurant slogan. But in our experience, nasty or superior has been rare.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              That might be what especially scarred me in Paris. I got a sandwich at a cafe – nothing fancy but it was really dry. Needed something. I asked politely for some moutarde. Oh good god, the fit that was thrown. It’s not like I asked for ketchup, for chrissakes.

      2. Yogi Josephina*

        As an American who lived in France for three years, went to high school there, spent a semester in college there and then later on worked over there for another year, has many, many French friends from childhood and now lives in a French-speaking household, I have to say that the irony of French anti-Americanism KILLS me. I actually laugh at it. Why?

        Because in my experience, the only country in the world who gets a worse rap than the US, especially while traveling abroad? Three guesses.

        France, you may not like us, but guess what? No one really likes YOU, either. :-)

    3. ella*

      Europeans have been doing this for hundreds of years, though. I can’t find the source to cite it right now, but as far back as the 1830s European visitors were mocking Americans’ coarseness and roughness. Charles Dickens had plenty to say about our lack of manners when he visited in the 1860s. I believe they were also fairly appalled at the amount of responsibility that children shouldered from an early age, especially outside of the cities, where kids did plenty of farmwork and helped support the family. The answer back then was that we had different things to worry about than Europeans did in Europe, and so we behaved differently. I think Europeans expected Americans to act like cultured Europeans for a little bit longer.

      1. fposte*

        Frances Trollope thirty years before that, too.

        Heck, that’s pretty much the comic point of Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln…didn’t get to see the end of.

    4. Artemesia*

      ‘Proper’ table manners defined as the way WE do it is the height of boorishness. A European who thinks Americans are not eating the ‘right way’ is a provincial prig.

  13. Anonypants*

    Wait, what?? Years ago, my parents recounted the story of the time they were eating meat in England, and some snooty snootface remarked “you *must* be Americans” because of the way they were cutting and eating their meat. My parents then went on to explain to me that in England they switch hands, and in the US you don’t. So, assuming the British way was more refined and stuff, I got in the habit of switching my fork from my left hand to my right one.

    And now, y’all are telling me, 10+ years later, they got it backwards and I’ve been eating meat wrong my whole life?? Gosh darnit!

    Maybe we have so many rude people running around because snooty people have made manners all about appearance, rather than consideration for others.

    1. BRR*

      “Manners all about appearance.”

      Exactly! Etiquette needs to have a reason, not just be a test.

      1. Elysian*

        Honestly, as someone with a working class upbringing and who had to work hard at good table manners later in life, I’ve always thought of it as a test.

        1. Kelly L.*

          Some of it was originally designed to be a test, I think. So people could tell if someone didn’t “belong.” It’s evolved into more “trying to make people comfortable,” but a lot of it started as a way to exclude rather than include.

  14. Katie the Fed*

    Yeah, I’m kind of over European disdain for Americans – and I hear this kind of stuff a lot. European culture (which is far from monolithic anyway) is not superior to American – it’s just different. In China it’s polite to eat as loudly as possible, slurping and so on. I find it disgusting but it’s just not what I’m used to. I’m certainly not going to assume they’re all gauche for it.

    I would have defended my colleagues the first time it was mentioned, like Alison says. “Actually that’s considered proper in the US.” And done.

    1. KerryOwl*

      I spent one term in England in college (or should I say, whilst at university) and it was a little draining (not to mention infuriating) to be told that I was doing things “wrong” all the time. In particular I remember saying the word “tuna” and being told I was pronouncing it incorrectly. Tuna (and “tube,” and anything else tu-) should be pronounced with a “ch” sound. (Even, though, you know. It’s not spelled with a ch. It’s spelled with a t.)

      When I protested that it was just a DIFFERENT way of pronouncing things, the retort was always “the language is called ‘English,’ not ‘American.'”

          1. Katie the Fed*

            Ha, I KNEW someone was going to bring that up :)

            We have a British colleague here – we all enjoy ribbing each other.

            1. fposte*

              It’s a quote from the tv show Fawlty Towers, Purr; the guy saying it in the show is the butt of the joke in the whole series for being a stiff-necked idiot, and the Germans actually come off very well.

              1. fposte*

                Oh, apparently it’s more widespread than that, though I guess “us” has been applied to a variety of nationalities.

                1. Felicia*

                  Yeah, fposte, I’ve heard that quote used in Canada, with the “us” referring to Canadians, and things along those lines in other tv shows/movies (generally the person saying it is meant to be seen as ignorant).

                2. fposte*

                  Yes, I overextrapolated from the Fawlty Towers discussion, but I think it’s usually parodically uttered, hence the quotes in KerryOwl’s use.

      1. KerryOwl*

        And actually, the bigger thing about table manners, which I’m surprised hasn’t been mentioned yet: in America if you’re eating using your fork (with your right hand, natch,) you’re supposed to put your left one in your lap (I think.) But in Europe it’s rude to make your other hand disappear, they should both be resting on the table at both times. Obviously this is directly related.

      2. fposte*

        And that’s not even right–they’re trying to get at the diphthong of “tewna,” which can sound like a “ch” but isn’t. Plus that’s a recent vowel change (post 1950s-’60s) that’s basically a hypercorrection, so you could have argued you were avoiding nasty language fads :-).

      3. Katie the Fed*

        That’s a silly argument. Unless they’re speaking like Chaucer, their own language has evolved just as much as American English has (except for maybe Appalachian English, which is apparently close to Colonial English). Languages change and adapt.

        1. KerryOwl*

          Right, this wasn’t an intense academic debate, it was a dude making fun of me in the middle of Tesco instead of just telling me which aisle the damned tuna is in.

          1. Amanda*

            I’m late to the party here, but seriously if someone is going to be correcting your pronunciation they should at least have the grace to do it in Waitrose. :P :D

      4. Zillah*

        Oh, god – I actually even experienced a fair bit of this going to undergrad in a different part of my state, and by the end I was thoroughly tired of being corrected when I said “soda” or “on line” or pronounced something ‘wrong.’ I can’t imagine how obnoxious it would have been for you in a completely different country. So much sympathy.

    2. Jamie*

      I’m over it too – I don’t like to leave my house, but there are certain discussions online where I just know it’s going to be a rinse repeat of how awful we are and how infinitely superior everyone else is and I don’t even read it anymore.

      Knee jerk reactions aren’t worth reading – but apparently easier than nuance. And a lot of times the worst offenders are Americans. I’m not saying we don’t have issues and absolutely I am interested in factual and reasoned debate on certain topics – but the self loathing we suck and everyone else is awesome strictly because they aren’t us sentiment is just weird to me.

      1. hildi*

        The self loathing is a good way of putting it – I see that happening in a lot of different areas in our culture right now and it drives me bananas.

    3. Zillah*

      Ditto, and the number of Americans who seem to be deeply bothered by it is kind of sad to me. You don’t need their approval!

    4. Cat*

      While we’re at it, I’m also tired of the common European assumption that Americans are the only people who ever fail to adjust abroad. I can promise you, the European package tours I used to see in Egypt did no better a job adapting to local norms than Americans in Europe do.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        Ha, true.

        I always like to ask tour guides in various places what they think of different nationalities who visit. They have a LOT to say, that would probably be improper for me to share here. But they usually like Americans because we tip well, so we’ve got that going for us.

      2. De (Germany)*

        Or,, you know, the thousands of Germans who retire in other countries, often Spain, and don’t even bother to learn the local language. We all have these flaws.

    5. Artemesia*

      I can’t claim loads of Chinese experience, but I have spent a few weeks there eating with Chinese in restaurants and work events, in a couple of homes, and also on my own with my husband in restaurants surrounded with only Chinese diners. I never noticed any loud smacking, slurping or other enthusiastic noisy dining.

      1. Ann*

        My coworkers are all Chinese (and I do mean “all”—I’m the only one in the company who’s not originally from China), and each day at lunch, it’s all loud slurping, all the time, no matter what the food is. (I can’t figure out how they manage to slurp cookies and pretzels.) Maybe it’s a regional thing?

        I can’t say that I care for the sound, but I’d never raise the issue, of course.

    6. Yogi Josephina*

      100% agreed. There is this snide, seething European arrogance that just sets my teeth on edge, probably exacerbated that they go out of their way to say they’re NOT arrogant and instead, WE are.

      You know what? Yes, the US is arrogant. Totally. I don’t argue that.

      But here’s the rub: we own the fact that we are, instead of walking around all condescending and patronizing about how we SO KNOW that we’re not the best, and would NEVER PRESUME to say that we’re better than everyone else in the entire world even though WE SO TOTALLY THINK WE ARE BETTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.

      I found so much of their culture (granted, the majority of my exposure to it was French) steeped in this attitude. They were just SO ABOVE everyone – those awful people of color (especially if you happened to be Muslim – Heaven HELP you if you were, especially in the south of France) “invading” “their” country, those “filthy gypsies,” those ridiculous Germans, those uncivilized Americans. And they were never going to let you forget it. Ever.

      Oh, but Americans are just SO ARROGANT! Please. Give me a break.

      1. Yogi Josephina*

        And on that note, don’t even get me STARTED on the downright rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, and the like that I witnessed not just in private conversation but in public policy as well – having to attach a photo to your CV so that they could see what race you were, and then commenting on it during a phone interview? (True story – this happened to the older sister of a friend of mine from high school over there).

        Look, the US has a TON of problems, including all the ones I mention above. But let’s just get clear that all things Europe are touched with little flecks of diamond and gold.

        1. Jen RO*

          So… European thinking American is uncultured because of a custom = bad. American thinking European is uncultured because of a custom = good.

          Makes sense.

            1. Jen RO*

              Putting a photo on a resume is not sexism/racism/homophobia. One interviewer being a dick does not reflect over an entire continent.

              Oh wait, actually I remembered a group of obese American tourists being very loud in a restaurant the other day. Clearly, all Americans are obese loud people.

              1. Yogi Josephina*

                I disagree. I cannot see any reason whatsoever why you would ask someone to put a photo on their CV, along with their marital status, whether or not they have children, age, and other similar characteristics unless that information is going to be used in the screening/hiring process in a discriminatory manner.

                This is not a one-off story that only happened “that one time to my one friend.” This is a systematic process. Your analogy comparing it to a group of loud Americans in a restaurant is not sound.

                Look, I was very clear that I also find many, many things problematic about American culture, too. This is not me saying that Europe is teh suxorz and America rocks. This was me saying that Europe also has problematic systems, arrogance and attitudes AS WELL and just like we are not better than them, they are not better than us, therefore neither culture should really feel “disdain” towards the other.

                1. Cath in Canada*

                  Does employers looking up candidates on LinkedIn create the same problems, do you think? genuinely curious about why this would be different – I know LI is opt-in, but for se jobs it would look very strange not to have a LI profile with photo.

        2. LondonI*

          This is not a custom in the UK. Different European countries have very different customs and traditions.
          I was shocked to see a job advertisement in Brussels sellotaped to a shop window requesting a ‘vendeuse’ (i.e. a salesWOMAN) aged between 18 and 30. Such advertising is illegal under EU law so the shop was in breach, but I can’t imagine coming across such a blatant ad the UK.

          1. Cath in Canada*

            I worked in a job centre in Yorkshire one summer in the late 90s, taking job descriptions from employers and entering them into our computer system. In the 3 months I was there I had a couple of people call in asking for “a cleaning lady”, and I had to counsel them about the law and start official discrimination investigations. In both cases I was 95% sure it was a language/cultural barrier issue from ESL small business owners – I’m sure if they’d advertised in-store rather than through a government agency, their ad would have looked like that Belgian one!

  15. Betty*

    I keep my fork in my right hand and my knife in the left. I never think about manners nor has anyone ever commented on how I eat. I just do what feels natural. I can’t believe people care about this stuff. I think you need to tell your colleagues to respect each other’s cultural differences and leave it at that.

    1. Jubilance*

      I do the same – I never switch. I didn’t even know this was a thing! I’m also right-handed, but it just feels natural to cut with my right hand and pick up with my left.

      1. Windchime*

        If I’m eating a steak, I’ll cut with my right and eat with my left, but I don’t use my knife to shovel my baked potato or vegetables up onto the back of my fork. That just seems weird to me. But again, not so weird that I would mention it to my dinner companion if I saw them doing that, because I’m not rude. Yes, it’s true–a polite American. We do exist in the wild.

  16. Jen S. 2.0*

    Personally, I’m well aware that many countries consider it boorish to switch hands. I plan to keep switching hands, and I’m fine with it, even though I know there are whole swaths of people who think I’m inefficient and tacky.

    Why? Because if I try to bring spaghetti to my mouth (even neatly twirled) with my left — non-dominant — hand, it’ll end up in my lap.

    Moreover, as long as you chew with your mouth closed and I don’t hear you smacking and slurping and chomping, I don’t care if you eat with your toes using a plastic sand shovel.

    There are plenty of customs in any given country that other countries think are crazy. If this is one of ours, I’m okay with it.

    1. robot chick*

      Which brings me to the question, how do you eat spaghetti? Because when eating something that requires ONLY a fork, that certainly does go in the dominant hand in Europe.
      If we’re talking about using a soup spoon as a “crutch” to get them twirled, that is perfectly acceptable in the left hand (although some particularly pretentious individuals, especially in Italy, will frown upon using it at all).
      But nobody is expecting you hold on to a knife throughout the whole thing! Unless of course I’ve been grossly misinformed, which might be, as I also didn’t know about the switching being an American thing (and likely would have commented, though hopefully not as rudely o.O )

      1. Episkey*

        It’s not pretentious, most Italians really consider using a spoon to aid twirling of pasta ill-mannered. My mom used to call it “gavone.”

        1. robot chick*

          apologies, that came out harsher than intended – but making a fuss about spoon usage (which I personally find pretty silly looking, too) really is a bit inconsiderate, seeing as it’s less a matter of diffrent customs as of different motor skills, so to speak. Asking for a fork in a Chinese restaurant for instance would be the same to me, surely not the best of form, but way more dignified than having only every other bite go in your mouth….

          and outside of Italy it’s in my experience so widespread that it’s just eye-roll worthy to be very judgemental of it. IN Italy I suppose you should be at least apologetic about butchering their customs, I’ll concede that much.

          1. Jamie*

            In the interest of what is customary in America – it is considered bad form to use a spoon for this here. People can and do whatever they want in their homes, but people going to a business dinner where people are evaluating you (or a date, or meeting someone’s family) this is looked upon the same as if you tucked your napkin into your shirt collar.

            There is utility in not wanting to make a mess on your tie – but it’s just not correct and you shouldn’t do it in front of others.

            If you can’t eat something neatly without going outside the commonly accepted practices you should really order something else. Substitute mostaccioli for the spaghetti and it’s easier to handle.

            I know where of I speak – I accidentally ordered something that turned out to be bouillabaisse during my first big deal business dinner and left the beautiful crab legs untouched as there was no way for someone as uncoordinated as me to crack those without collateral shrapnel injuries.

    2. Jen S. 2.0*

      Beats me how they do it. But in general, I understand that the concept in Europe is that the knife lives in the dominant hand when you are using it to cut (i.e., during your entire steak). That puts the fork (tines-down) in the non-dominant hand, and you leave it there for as long as you are using the knife. If you aren’t using the knife, the fork can go in the dominant hand. I think.

      So, it seems that the European custom is that the utensils stay in whichever hand requires the least movement of utensils between hands at all times. That means your fork CAN go in the dominant hand, as long as you won’t need to be moving it any time soon to use the knife. Whereas the American custom is that the utensil requiring more dexterity — knife when cutting, fork when eating a bite — goes in the dominant hand, even if that requires moving the utensils between bites.

      I have NO idea how they get peas to stay on the back of the fork, though.

      1. OriginalEmma*

        By eating mushy peas (like Bachelors, nom nom), not fresh or frozen ones!

        To explain the eating-on-the-back-of-the-fork thing, you pretty much keep piercing and pushing up whatever item you’re eating like skewering a kebab. Or mashing a gob of it into the tines (like mashed potatoes).

        Source: Irish parents and left-handed, so never had to deal with hand switching. I grew up eating backwards and upside-down ;).

      2. Harriet*

        It’s generally considered gauche to cut more food than you are about to eat in the next mouthful. You would hold your knife and fork during the whole meal because you’re always about to cut your next mouthful. I would not ever use my fork with my dominant hand if I were eating a formal meal. Of course, at home, I’m lazy and have no manners and do whatever’s easiest!

        I also have never seen anybody eat peas from the back of their fork. You use the knife to get them into the bowl of the fork. Anything else is madness!

      3. Jen RO*

        Ok, now I’m confused, because I thought that what you explained (fork in non-dominant hand when using a knife, fork in dominant hand when not using a knife) was American style…

        1. De (Germany)*

          I think in that regard we just have different notions as to what “not using a knife” means. I might switch the fork to my dominant hand when I am done with all cutting that I will need to do for that meal (might…), but not just because I am done with it for one or a few bites.

          1. Jen RO*

            That is so weird! So European style basically means you always hold the fork in the left (non-dominant) hand? If so, I am firmly on the side of the Americans in this story – I couldn’t do that without getting food all over myself.

  17. Ann Furthermore*

    Like many others have said, the clients bringing this up and ridiculing the Americans for their eating habits says much more about them than it does about the Americans doing it “wrong.”

    And seriously — you don’t have anything else more important to worry about? I think it’s probably just that this group of people are just not very nice. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Europe for work in the last few years, and never once have any of my colleagues stared at me with a huge gaping maw, appalled at the manner in which I’m choosing to cut my food.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah. The coworkers get the switching thing under control and there will be another complaint about something else. And on, and on.

      If incorrect utensil usage is going to cost a business deal, than so will just about anything else.

      It sounds to me like these folks don’t want to be doing business and that is what is at the core here.

      I firmly believe in respecting other people’s ways. But reality is that we all will not pick up on every nuance that is out there.

  18. Various Assumed Names*

    I don’t even understand. I can’t believe I am just learning about this fork controversy now. I studied abroad but I guess the Englanders were too polite to point out my poor table manners.

    At one point, I guess I remember learning that it was proper to cut and switch, but now I just do it because it feels natural. I can’t even imagine eating with my left hand. I just assumed lefties eat with their dominant hand as well. Slightly stressed.

    1. robot chick*

      Well I’m starting to wonder if that whole thing might have started with the Brits, because they are notoriously “un-continental” (see above about European culture not being monolithic)…. I’m waiting for one of them to weigh in on this debate!

      1. fposte*

        I was wondering if they were British too–not so much because it was likelier than any place else, but because I’d want to ask them what side of the road they’re driving on when they’re here.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          If I had to guess, I’d say French. Sneering at Americans is something I’ve seen more of with the French. Brits tend to be more bemused by us.

        2. robot chick*

          No, actually, what I meant was if in Britain the switching was done too, and that’s where it came from, because in a thread further up there’s something about an English guy being snooty about Americans NOT doing it, and VAN not running into it, while I, speaking mostly as German but with reliable information of France, Italy, Netherlands and Poland, can definitely say left-right coordination is the standard way here on the continent.

            1. OP*

              Non-switching is indeed a UK practice too but the client is made up of many European nationalities in a country that has gone unmentioned so far

    2. Aimee*

      And I’m a lefty who had no idea that switching was even a thing until now! Apparently, I dine like a right-handed European (fork in left hand, knife in right).

      I have actually never noticed anyone fork switching before either. I asked my husband, and apparently he’s been doing it the entire 13 years we’ve been together, and I’ve never noticed.

    1. Arbynka*

      He he. I could never watch Keeping Up Apparances, her character annoyed the jeebies out of me.

    2. Who are you??*

      I totally heard her correcting me in my head when I read that as Bucket instead of Bouquet. LOL!
      Bucket Residence Lady of the house speaking.

  19. Daisy*

    I don’t usually switch hands when I cut my food. Not sure where I got it from, though. Maybe because my dad is left handed? Or because my family is more recently to the US. I’m sure I have poor table manners since I sometimes switch hands without the use of a knife.
    The only manners things I recall being taught is not chewing with my mouth open, talking with food in my mouth and not blowing bubbles in my drinks.

  20. Biff*

    All I can really say is “Wow.” I think the correct answer is to stop taking the clients out to dinner. “We’re sorry, we didn’t mean to offend you and we think that this will suit your sensibilities better in the future. We are happy to recommend restaurants you might find to your tastes while you are visiting.”

  21. Cautionary tail*

    Sigh. I’m ambidextrous. If I sit next to a right-handed person I use fork left/knife right or eat dominant right. If I sit next to a left-handed person I use knife left/fork right or eat dominant left. I always thought that was being considerate. Now y’all are telling me I might be a barbarian.

    What do other ambidextrous people do?

    1. Laura*

      I think they are objecting to switching during a meal, actually, not based on seating! I have no idea if eating “left dominant” would be considered rude – I’m American, where eating with your dominant and switching to cut is normal. (Though sometimes I don’t: I can cut fine with my non-dominant hand, and really, in a lot of meals I’m eating, the knife goes on whichever side the 2-year-old cannot reach it from!)

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      I’m actually cross-dominant aka mixed-handed. I do some things better with my left, others with my right; as opposed to ambidexterity where you’re equal on both sides. Anyway…

      Yes, I will switch my eating hand to accommodate the people around me. If I’m seated close to a lefty, I figure it’s easier for me to switch than to be bumping each other. Either way, I use continental table manners (no fork switching).

  22. In progress*

    This just made me realize that I don’t switch because I’m left-handed and I never even noticed that everyone else has been. These European clients need to teach me something about observing my other dining companions apparently!

  23. Lisa*

    Isn’t the point of the article that both ways are in fact European? It started out this way in Europe, brought over to America (we still eat like this), and then the Europeans changed it in recent years. If someone from Europe was aghast at my eating this way, I would just point out that ‘they started it’. Just saying.

  24. evilintraining*

    Just for the record, older Catholics were often taught not to do anything with the left hand. The left was considered “evil.” My dad was left- handed but ate with his right because he’d get a smack on the hand otherwise. When my oldest brother started Catholic school, he wrote with the left and was corrected by his teacher, who said she would call the police on him if he did it again. (My mom found out and had a rather stern conversation with her!)

    1. Katie the Fed*

      I did not know that!

      Not using the left hand is a good habit when traveling to Middle Eastern and some Asian countries because the left hand is used for something else – and you don’t want it touching food/other people.

        1. Beth*

          They mean wiping your ass, without paper. I sincerely hope you don’t do that with both hands.

      1. Jamie*

        If that’s what it’s used for, then why do you want to eat at a table with that hand anywhere near it.

        I’m sorry – if I think one of my hands is too disgusting to eat with I’m not eating with the other one until that situation is properly resolved.

        I have a feeling I’m not understanding the custom here, as it can’t possibly be what I think you’re talking about.

    2. robot chick*

      To be fair though, I’m almost positive that in that school of thinking, forks in general are tools of the devil….

      (just kidding, I know that fell out of fashion in the middle ages, while I, being raised catholic and fairly young at that, still had a great-aunt who tried to scold me for greeting with the “ugly” hand… yes, there were words had. Moms FTW.)

      1. Girasol*

        I read a book on Puritan life once that said using forks, which were at the time a new invention and not commonly used, was a sign of vanity and thus not proper in a Christian home. The book included a letter from a teen girl to a friend talking about how she actually tried a fork once when her parents weren’t looking.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          And I remember reading something about the Puritans and NOT eating food off of a knife. ha!

          They must have been very confused about life.

    3. Annie*

      I believe that this is because historically, the left hand was used to wipe after using the toilet (or latrine, or whatever there was at the time). It was considered dirty, because it actually was pretty filthy. That’s the origin of turn the other cheek. If someone slaps you with the right hand, you turn the other cheek so that they have to slap you with their dirty hand.

      From a historical perspective, it makes a lot of sense to have two separate usages for the two hands!

      1. Windchime*

        My grandmother was born in the early 1900’s and was left-handed. She was forced to learn to use her right hand to write with in school; they tied her left hand behind her back somehow to force her. She had beautiful penmanship but it must have been so difficult to change to her non-dominant hand.

        This was in the United States.

        1. Mints*

          My boyfriend is 25 (!) and one of his elementary school teachers wouldn’t let him write with his left. No hitting, but she would make him switch

          1. Diet Coke Addict*

            Yep. I’m 26 and was Strongly Dissuaded from using my left hand by parents and teachers alike, to the point where I’m so strongly right-handed now that my left hand is laughably uncoordinated.

    4. Tina*

      Call the police on him? What actual criminal law did she think he was violating? Hard to fathom.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I can remember the nuns slapping us with a ruler for using our left hand to write with.

      That stopped all of the sudden. I guess now I have insight as to why!

    6. Who are you??*

      My father was left handed and went to Parochial School. He told stories of the nuns literally tying his left arm to his body and forcing him to use his right hand for everything.

  25. ChiTown Lurker*

    It’s unfortunate that your team allowed offense to stop them from being hospitable. It could have been a way to open a dialogue about differences. Several years ago, my former coworkers and I were in a similar situation. We had been assigned to work with a European team that included a very angry client (rightfully so). They came to the US to meet us and naturally our first activity was a team lunch. Our client brought up the issue of dining etiquette immediately and with much hostility. Instead of responding in kind, our new intern spoke up and asked him, with genuine interest, to explain the European way of dining. Our client responded favorably and the whole group ended up showing us their ways. At this point, they became curious about our ways. It opened a dialogue about differences and created trust that each group’s concerns would be heard and respected.

    Although it was not all sunshine and bunnies, the project ended up being very successful. We celebrated by going to a Thai restaurant where a coworker taught us all to use chopsticks.

    We hired the intern. He is now a director at my former company’s location in India.

    1. Zillah*

      That’s a cool story and stuff – really! – but I kind of am not a fan of the idea that the onus rests on the people who are being mocked/insulted to be gracious or hospitable. I don’t think it’s “unfortunate” that the LW’s team didn’t respond to rudeness with genuine interest in “the right way to eat” – I think it’s totally understandable.

      1. The RO-Cat*

        No, the onus does not rest there. It’s not an obligation, and responding to sneer with equal sneer isn’t all that uncommon.

        But it’s a generous thing to do, especially if the best outcome is sought after. Many times people will respond by dialing down or switching to politeness – and that’s what people seek in many instances (more so with a client).

        1. fposte*

          Excellent point–if you can look beyond what you have the obligation to do to what you have the *power* to do, choosing to redirect things to a place of comity is pretty awesome.

      2. ChiTown Lurker*

        No, the onus wasn’t on us. However, these were customers, not casual acquaintances. We needed to work with these people. It was in our best interests to work out the differences. It is, IMO, unfortunate that this is the hill they chose they chose to die on.

        Of course, if the OP’s company is planning on terminating the relationship with European clients, hostility is fine. Being gracious is rarely a negative in these situations.

        In addition, I think that the heart of the matter is that the OP also thinks that the Americans are uncivilized. In response to the next client joke, an appropriate response could be “when I initially came to the US, I thought exactly as you did. I have since learned that it is simply a different form of table manners and it is no longer a source of distraction for me.”

  26. OP*

    Thank-you all for your advice!

    I didn’t know and I honestly don’t think it ever occurred to our client that the American method was actually the polite way to eat in the Europe once upon a time. I will certainly point out that piece of history if it ever comes up again.

    I also just wanted to clarify some points:
    1. These dinners are mostly occurring in Europe. We visit them a lot more than they visit us.
    2. The US colleagues may have a sense that the clients were judging their table manners but were not ridiculed directly as some commenters seem to suggest. I just told my team that it was discussed after the dinner.
    3. The fork issue was just the most recent joke. Funnily enough, as discussed above, the setting knife and fork side by side to indicate that you have finished eating was another example.

    I sometimes feel like I’m in a clichéd movie at these dinners. The Americans are loud, the Europeans are wine snobs… as a team we even had to research the appropriate amount to tip. It seems the dinners are the only place where the cultural differences are noticeable, we actually work really well together without any friction outside of that.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      since we’re speculating, will you tell us what nationality? Pleeeeeeease? :)

      1. OP*

        Many European nationalities represented except (I think) the country where the dinners are taking place: Switzerland.

    2. LBK*

      Hmm, if the dinners are taking place in Europe, not the US, then I think the American coworkers do need to just suck it up and start following the European norms. The jeering and ridiculing are still completely uncalled for by your clients, but the coworkers should adapt and should understand why it’s rude not to.

      1. bridget*

        As long as your custom isn’t something that will affirmatively ick the other people out, I don’t think most people should switch. It would be MORE impolite for me to switch what I’m used to and end up with food in my lap, getting flipped off the plate, whatever. I’m going to look like (and make the mess of) a three year old who is first learning how to use a fork (because I am, at least using it in the European manner).

        How you are interacting with your own food is a lot different than really interacting with other people – it would be rude to insist that all Europeans speak English with you, or conform to your way. But with forks, you aren’t asking anyone to change what they do; just to realize that you are used to doing it a different way.

      2. fposte*

        I would agree with bridget that it’s not rude for them to use the manners of their home country (nor is it rude for Europeans to eat European-style in the U.S.). I’d try to move beyond that point in the discussion, though, to say that it might be advantageous to meet the clients’ standard of polite and not just their own.

    3. Artemesia*

      Do the Europeans eat the American way when they come to the US to work? Sounds like a discussion of the differences might actually be kind of interesting and productive.

      1. OP*

        No, definitely not. The thing is (and this has become clearer to me reading the comments) these particular table manners is more important to the Europeans than the Americans. Because the Americans can’t imagine why it is important to the Europeans (again reflected in many of the responses here), they are unwilling to change their behavior but it also means they would never notice that the Europeans are eating differently when in the US.

        1. Jamie*

          Not necessarily – people can modify their behavior because it’s important to other people, or for the business, even if they don’t find it an issue personally.

          I once worked for a company who had partners in China and there was a very specific way they wanted the emails formatted. Now, I don’t know if this is a China thing or just this company – but each email needed a greeting and a closing – back and forth like a conversation.

          I would never care if people did that to me, and I don’t see why it matters, but it matters to them and so I was happy to comply.

          A lot of people don’t see the reason they need to dress up for interviews, or send thank you notes – but we do them because it makes an impression on the people to whom it matters.

          1. OP*

            I agree with you but presumably someone told you that this was important to your Chinese colleagues and you agreed to conform. How do I impress upon my colleagues that the Europeans see this as important?

            1. fposte*

              Hmm, interesting. I think it depends on 1) what kind of people they are (are they otherwise well-mannered and thoughtful?) and 2) whether they agree that it’s important (or worth changing for, anyway), which isn’t a given.

              One possibility is framing it as the *clients* as being unsophisticated about cultural differences (which also has the virtue of being true here), which is less likely to get them on the defensive. I might talk about it terms of “Old World” and how they likely are aware that some behavior they think is fine would be viewed as disrespectful by their grandmothers, so they treat their grandmother with *her* version of respect and not theirs. So if you want to work effectively with these clients, it’s worth considering what *their* version of respect looks like.

            2. fposte*

              Though going back to your original post, it sounds like this is just a recent example of a variety of criticisms. Is just changing this going to make that much difference if it’s part of a larger opinion? (Especially if, as it sounds in your comment about the wine snob, at least one of them takes genuine pleasure in snobbery.)

          2. bridget*

            I would modify some of my behavior when visiting other countries, particularly things that people would find offensive or gross that I think are normal. But they don’t find American fork usage gross or offensive; they just think it’s wrong and like reveling in the superiority. That sort of cultural adaptation I find completely unnecessary, especially because it would come with a cost in dignity/cleanliness otherwise – I am terrible at eating the European way.

            1. bridget*

              I suppose this is my opinion for general travel and interactions; my bar for “what is appropriate to modify” is probably lower for someone I must impress, like a client or customer.

  27. British!*

    I’m English and am have never ever heard of the switching thing! It sounds v complicated.

    For what it’s worth, as far as I know it goes
    fork left hand. Knife right hand. Eat. Obviously you can put cutlery down for pauses in eating or picking up a cup and so on!
    No concession for being left handed ideally, you just learn :)
    Spoon goes into dominant hand.

    No comment on which spoon, fork or knife to use if at a very formal dinner.

    For the person saying this switching thing creates a natural pause…we don’t just sit there wielding cutlery at each other during conversation in the meal!

    1. Jamie*

      Which utensil to use is one of those tropes and really stumps people, but it’s easy…outside in.

      Just work your way from the outside in and you’ll be fine.

      Source: I’m very fancy and own both finger bowls and fish knives. Trust me.

      1. British!*

        Well I know – but I wasn’t sure if it was different for Americans. I’m still recovering from this fork switching thing – not in a rude way, I just – like everyone else says, you get used to your way of doing things so different ways look weird and just – why?! why?! :) I hope I am able to still eat tomorrow and my brain doesn’t just short out in confusion :)

        1. British!*

          Bit thrown by this top of the fork lark though, I’m in the middle of teaching our child that basically fork = shovel!

          1. Windchime*

            Except the way it’s being described above, isn’t really like trying to balance something on the *back* of a shovel? It just sounds like more trouble than necessary.

        2. Jamie*

          Well, you’ll be able to eat if you’re in Britain because you have one of the most fabulous foods in the world over there and it’s eaten properly with the fingers out of a newspaper cone!

          Discovering the joys of sprinkling vinegar on fish and chips was a life changing moment for me – I didn’t even mind the newspaper or lack of ketchup.

          And I can always send you some pop-tarts. To eat a pop-tart with a fork would be heresy.

    1. British!*

      Definitely! ;-) Although I say that as a left hander who eats ‘properly’ – I’m not sure I could do it the other way round, plus I’m fairly sure I would have some inner screaming embarrassment (not that I should, I just would!)

    2. Pleasefilloutthisfield*

      Count me in! My mom occasionally remarked how I used utensils differently, but until now I didn’t realize how much.

    3. aebhel*

      I also do this–American here.

      Although reading this is making me very glad that I don’t have a job where I’m expected to eat in front of other people.

  28. Lizabeth*

    Did anyone else have the Senfield episode pop into their head where George eats a candy bar with a knife and fork???? We could go on about which way is the most effective method to eat said candy bar (Snickers, I think…)

    And I’m still laughing about Basil Fawlty…

    1. The RO-Cat*

      Once I had an Italian (C-suite…) chastise me for eating the pizza “the wrong way” (fork+knife) and his wife explaining how rude it was to have anything else but wine with it. And just don’t get them started on the damned ketchup thing!

      1. fposte*

        Amusingly, there was quite the to-do in New York recently when the New York City mayor ate his pizza with a fork and knife. (Chicago pizza is pretty much impossible to eat without utensils, but that just adds to New Yorkers’ issues with it.)

  29. Jamie*

    On behalf of service people everywhere, I certainly hope when they come over here they do honor the American way of tipping.

    I remember Karl Pilkington (British) telling a story on Ricky Gervais podcast about how when he was in Florida they went to a steakhouse and were low on funds being the end of their trip and left the waitress the equivalent of 60 pence in change. 5 people at a steakhouse for dinner and drinks and left a tip of a little over a dollar? The waitress gave it back to him and he took it – he was baffled that she was offended.

    Ricky and Steve were cringing – both having a lot of experience in America and a sense of shame – but even after it was explained to Karl he said he didn’t care – how American’s pay their waiters wasn’t his doing.

    I could just hear both of my parents rolling over in their graves – my head filled with “if you can’t afford to tip properly you cannot afford to eat out.”

    So as long as they are observing that custom when here I wouldn’t care how they held our fork. He also went on to mock how we speak which, if you’ve ever heard Karl…that’s amusing.

    I usually find him hysterical, but this time I just shook my head for that poor waitress.

    1. samaD*

      I hate to say it, but I was a bad US tipper for quite a while.
      Here servers make at least minimum + tips, so I assumed it was that way everywhere tips were usual (just never thought about it). I was horrified when I found out it wasn’t though! (and leave better tips)

      1. Jessica (tc)*

        In some states, this is the case as well: servers make at least state minimum + tips, if not more than state minimum, depending on the establishment. In general, the servers in my town make over state and/or federal minimum, which is sometimes higher than federal minimum, plus regular tips of 20%+ (depending, of course, on the person who is tipping). In other cities, servers make minimum wage (state or federal, whichever is higher), but all servers in the state make at least the higher of the two minimum wages. (I hope this all makes sense.) I originally lived in a state that paid servers a lower minimum wage than the regular min, so this idea of paying them a normal wage while they still get regular tips was new to me. I’m still a good tipper, no matter what, because I know how stressful such a job can be due to customers.

  30. Elizabeth*

    What I have taken away from this thread is that I’m utterly oblivious to the way(s) people cut and eat their food.

    1. Elizabeth*

      I’m aware of it (it is one of the the things I notice when watching British television), but it has never occurred to me to be concerned or offended by it. I tend to switch back & forth on which method I use, depending on how I feel any given meal and what I’m eating.

      1. Elizabeth*

        I mean, I’ve heard it spoken of before as a cultural difference, but in practice, when it’s happening right in front of me? Never registers. Probably because I’m a glutton who’s wrapped up in her own meal.

    2. samaD*


      unless they put the used cutlery down on the table….that I notice & it bugs the heck out of me :)

  31. The RO-Cat*

    First and foremost, I see sneering about manners as rude no matter where on the globe. Though most people will do it when the culprit is absent, it still is rude and smells of misplaced superiority (I’m an European, and I could write novels about the differences I see in a space of less than 1000 km).

    That being said, even though I get the American “Who cares?” attitude, I distinctly remember two things related to this: one, as a child, almost all the adults in my life paid a lot of attention to the way I used the utensils. I learned the “European” way before I was 7 as the only way to avoid being ridiculed in society. And this was at family dinners, not some executive gatherings.

    Two, I worked for several international companies, working with representatives from almost every European country (I missed the North and maybe the former Yugoslavia). Everybody was paying the same amount of attention to this issue (I had colleagues researching beforehand the “proper” way of using fish cutlery for a formal gala dinner). It’s a Thing, sometimes, with many Europeans, the dinner etiquette.

    As an Anthropology teacher explained to me once, respecting the etiquette (that is, the way noble folk did it – think lifting the pinkie when drinking from a cup) was aspirational for commoners and a sign used to show they were better off than the majority. It has nothing to do with ease of eating, it has everything to do with aspirations. And since the European society was historically way more layered and complicated than the American one… yes, it is a detail. But an important one to many here.

    Not that it should matter that much, but human beings will be human beings…

    1. OP*

      Thank you for explaining this in a way I couldn’t articulate. It is something Europeans notice and care about. I had real difficulty though in coming up with an equivalent in the other direction (something that was important in the US but seemed trivial in Europe) so that they had a point of reference. Any ideas?

      1. LBK*

        Tipping, maybe? Since most European countries don’t do it, it may come across as a “who cares?” thing if they don’t do it while dining in the US, but here it’s considered extremely rude to not tip.

        1. The RO-Cat*

          In my experience, most European countries don’t do it at the same level as in the US, but *not* tipping is rare. The way I saw it, tips here go up to the odd number mainly. I didn’t see anyone yet calculating percentages when tipping (maybe it is worth mentioning that income structure is somewhat different also in the services industry on the opposite sides of the Atlantic – less relying on tips and more on salary).

          OP, maybe basketball? Not so hot here but A Thing State-side?

          1. OP*

            Again while someone might not understand the appeal of basketball (or football) the idea that someone else would find a sport “important” is definitely not a foreign concept (World Cup anyone?)

          2. Jen RO*

            Ok, I am definitely weird, I always calculate a 10% tip… or maybe we found some local north – south differences.

            1. The RO-Cat*

              Not really weird, just (in my personal experience) in minority. I’ve eaten in almost all of the country with people from all over the map and the most complex calculation was “Is x enough?”. It was somewhat of a rule of thumb to stay in the vicinity of 10%, but it was more of a suggestion (and definitely lower for big-ticket multi-person occasions).

              1. ThursdaysGeek*

                In my experience, 10% is on the low side, 15% is about average, and 20% is reasonably generous, although higher is acceptable. A big-ticket multi-person occasion should tend towards the higher level of tipping, since that can be more work.

                1. Jen RO*

                  Me and Cat (who is a he, btw) tend to forget that the RO might not be obvious as a country designation for everyone. 10% is the norm here, but waitstaff do earn at least minimum wage without the tips.

        2. OP*

          I tried that but it is a flawed argument because even if you think the practice is strange it is very easy to understand why someone else finds it important (money!)

      2. Katie the Fed*

        I know, I know!

        Our flag! Europeans find it weird how many flags we have everywhere, that kids actually recite the pledge of allegiance at school, that we have all these rules about how flags are supposed to be treated. But it’s a very important part of our culture.

        1. Puddin*

          I concur, most Europeans I work with are confounded by the importance our flag holds in US society.

          1. aebhel*

            Sure, but even if you don’t follow those rules, the fact that they exist and people care about them probably isn’t foreign to you.

      3. Programmer 01*

        Football (American Football). Or which team you root for in relation to where you live, heh. That one’s always sort of thrown me, I have relatives in the US and have been informed that despite being Canadian I am, in fact, a Green Bay fan because Go Packers.

        1. OriginalEmma*

          I was in Barrow, Alaska where I saw a surprising number of Pittsburgh Steeler flags (where surprising number = anything greater than zero). So, ya know, takes all kinds.

    2. Jen RO*

      Have I been doing it wrong all my life? I switch hands and I was convinced everybody else does. I’m gonna pay attention tomorrow at work!

      1. Jamie*

        Seriously how many of us are going to be curiously taking note of how everyone wields their cutlery irl and on tv for the next day or two?

          1. Jamie*

            I watched my husband eat which creeped him out – I pretended to be fussing with something in his general vicinity but apparently I’m a bad spy because all he did was put his fork down and say “what?!”

            So turns out his family that was born in Europe does the single handed tines down method, but mine didn’t – apparently they changed when they came over here. As did one of his parents who came here young.

            I was kind of surprised he knew what I was talking about since he doesn’t care about this stuff, but apparently he was raised that it was fine for X to eat that way because it’s proper for them but don’t ever do that yourself.

    3. fposte*

      Yes, officially Americans don’t like distinctions, so it’s tough to find an equivalent that would really take it home to people without much experience of other cultures. (Though there’s some argument that the American class system is perhaps even *more* complicated than Europe’s, with one additional complexity being how disguised it is.)

      1. Jamie*

        I think it’s less disguised than we would like to think, but it’s taboo to officially acknowledge it I agree with you that it’s perhaps much more complicated.

        When you speak of layers – neighborhood, car, occupation are the quick and easy way to size someone up and put them them in a neat little general category.

        Then you have deeper layers of family prominence, power/influence (micro or macro levels), intellect, education, connections…a million others. It gets more nuanced.

        The easy split is there are people who are “like us” and those who are “not like us” and you know it when you see it – even without naming the groups. The people “not like us” are further subdivided into people with a whole lot more and those with a whole lot less and then subsets in each of those.

        I do think on a broad level who one’s family is matters a whole lot less over here – here I’d say our class divisions run primarily on money. I get the impression it’s less so in Europe as even an impoverished peer has some social standing, perhaps more than a wealthy businessperson with no title. Or maybe I watch WAY too much Downton Abbey.

        1. Jamie*

          FYI I meant “like us” in the general sense of like whomever is speaking – not you and I or posters here – just wanted to get ahead of that because I wasn’t speaking of anyone in particular.

        2. fposte*

          Don’t forget race and ethnic origin. They’re doppelgangers for class a lot in the US. But you’re right, I think, that in much of America green matters more than any other color (as long as they know you have the green).

          I used to live in the Hyde Park area, which Nichols and May famously pilloried as “black and white . . . shoulder to shoulder, against the poor.”

          1. Jamie*

            Absolutely – but yes – green is the most important color by far. And there is status assigned to racial and ethnic subgroups based on how much green they tend to have collectively…but individual wealth will still trump almost anything.

            Not always a fair or just system – but I do like the fact that we’re not relegated to a class based on the circumstances of our birth.

            1. smilingswan*

              One could argue that you are though, as it is very difficult to move up the income ranks. Of course some people do it, but the vast majority can not.

            2. fposte*

              Interestingly, in practice, we’re actually less socially mobile than several countries that don’t have that concept as a core self-identity. I guess that’s kind of the national version of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

          2. Ellie H*

            Hyde Park in Chicago? Me too. It’s a very interesting place, and I think pretty unique, socioeconomically. It is apparently so different now (in the past 2 years, basically) due to putting many fancy new businesses in abruptly, but I haven’t been back since the university started doing that.

    4. Jamie*

      I think it’s very common for parents and other adults in the family to care deeply about table manners of small children. It’s one of those things that if learned early and correctly becomes ingrained.

      You do your child a huge favor by teaching them to eat properly – then they don’t have a much harder time learning it as an adult before dating, or work functions, etc. And people do judge you on this stuff – so teaching kids the manners of their culture is a gift and an obligation.

      It’s just like teaching them to say please, thank you, excuse me – wait their turn, give up their seat to someone elderly or infirm, to write a proper thank you note that doesn’t read like a form letter.

      These things make people more pleasant to be around, and your kid benefits from people not finding them rude.

      My kids have always been able to drive me to distraction and yes, just this week one was eating Spagettios out of the can with a plastic spoon while standing in the kitchen, and another made a smoothie in the blender and proceeded to drink from the container and leave the rest without a germ warning, and they all know how to make chocolate milk in their mouth…but I can take them anywhere and never have to worry. No noise, napkins on lap, silverware used correctly – once they were old enough to stop commenting out loud on other people’s incorrect table settings we were golden.

      I don’t know that’s it’s so much that we don’t care (although whether I noticed how someone holds their cutlery would depend on my mood and how bored I was) but that the concept that doing things differently is sneerworthy even when it’s perfectly correct in our culture is what bridles.

      It’s not that we don’t care about table manners – it’s that we don’t tend to care if others choose to do it differently.

      1. smilingswan*

        This is very true. I once dated a guy with appalling table manners. I didn’t date him for long.

      2. Lindsay*

        I just realized the other day that my parents never did teach me proper eating skills – table manners, yes (no elbows on the table, napkin in the lap, ask to be excused, chew with your mouth closed), but actual eating (holding and using silverware correctly, don’t cut all your meat at one time, how to not make a mess, no).

        Only discovered this deficit the other day when the guy I’m seeing kind of teasingly asked if my mother had ever taught me how to eat when I was a child and I was like, “uh, that’s a thing?” and now this thread has confirmed that this is indeed a thing that I missed out on. I suppose I was enough of a terror as a child that as long as I was sitting quietly at the table they didn’t quite care how my food was making it from the plate to my mouth. Off to YouTube for me I guess.

        1. Jamie*

          Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior will teach you all you will ever need to know – and it’s a super fun read.

          Fabulous guidebook – every home should have a copy IMO.

    5. Turtle Candle*

      I can sort of see why “the Europeans think you have no table manners” (not that I think you put it so bluntly!) wouldn’t work as an explanation; if you were raised to believe that fork-switching *was* good table manners, it’d be plain confusing. And “the thing that you have done your whole lives, well, we/they disdain it” is a really easy way to make people dig in their heels.

      It might be useful to make a comparison to using chopsticks in China or Japan. Most people I know would at least make a stab at using chopsticks at a sushi restaurant, and would understand if you said, “Hey, in the US it’s perfectly fine to ask for a fork, but here, you should try to use the chopsticks instead.” You might draw an explicit parallel: “You know how in Japan it’s polite to try to use the chopsticks, even if you’re more comfortable with a fork? Well, here it’s polite to keep your fork and knife in the same hands and not switch them.” That makes it clear that you’re talking not about how uncouth they are but about how they should adapt to local table standards.

      For what it’s worth, I grew up in Europe (although I have been in the USA for many years) and I have less than no patience with people who don’t understand that table manners differ. I consider it provincial and uncouth in the extreme to think that your manners are (or should be) everyone’s manners (and in fact the idea that everyone else is a barbarian who needs educating has some pretty unfortunate repercussions throughout European history). But it’s not your job to fix your fellow European colleagues, and I do get that.

  32. JoAnna*

    I’m left-handed so I’ve always held my fork in my left hand. I had no idea I was eating European-style! :P

  33. BadPlanning*

    Huh. And I thought fork/knife swapping was the polite thing to do! Well, I guess it’s all relative. Most interesting.

    I think it’s probably easier for the OPs coworkers to adjust to Asian etiquette because it’s quite a bit different — you have different utensils, often different food, different dish/presentation so it’s easier to just adopt new habits. The US way vs European way of holding the knife is much easier to feel right vs wrong about.

  34. Dawn Michelle King*

    Wow. I realize that I even do it wrong for both styles. When I was a senior in high school/freshman in college, I worked for a skydiving center and hung out with two young pilots from Norway trying to earn their flight hours by flying loads of skydivers. I had many meals with them and felt awkward at dinners with the zig-zag style of eating I grew up with so I imitated them.

    Apparenlty I it wrong because I hold my fork in my right hand and cut with the knife in my left hand. I am right handed normally so to me this made sense since you need a fork so much more than the knife.

  35. Hiring Mgr*

    I’m sorry OP but I agree with your European clietnts (I am American btw). It sounds like you work with animals. No offense, I’m sure they are nice people–but really??

    I would think long and hard about whether this is a company you see yourself at long term. You may want to dust off those resumes.

    1. LBK*

      Wait, really? Quit your job because your coworkers eat in the way most Americans eat? I hope I’m misreading your comment…

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        I think it’s more a question of whether the OP is comfortable working in this Neanderthal environment. I’ve never lived on a farm but it sounds like pigs at a trough.

        Again I mean no offense–I’m sure they have only the best of inentions, they’re proably just uneducated.

        1. LBK*

          Uh…I really do not understand your line of thinking. What leads you to believe the OP’s coworkers are uneducated, Neanderthals, pigs, etc.? I get absolutely none of that from reading the letter.

        2. Lynn Whitehat*

          ? Americans cutting their meat polite-American-style sounds like pigs at a trough? And the OP should quit their job over it? Just when I think I’ve seen everything…

    2. Heather*

      Well, no, because animals don’t use a fork OR knife to eat. Even European animals.

    3. Anon*

      Funny. The way that the Americans’ eating is described is polite in America. You would look very rude to me.

  36. Who are you??*

    Such a strange question and even stranger comments. Who knew!?!
    I actually use a combo method to how I handle the fork and knife. Most times I do the Star Spangled Fork Flip but there are times I go European and leave the fork in my left hand and eat off the back of the fork. I was mentioning this to my friend just now and she mentioned that I ate my Thanksgiving meal that way. That I would eat that particular meal in European style just tickles me…but I notice that when I eat meals with lots of elements of flavors like Thanksgiving: turkey, stuffing, gravy, sweet potato, and veggies and I want to taste a little with each bite (without stuffing my mouth full!) I use the back of my of my fork to keep the bites smaller.

  37. Poohbear McGriddles*

    I wonder how they would feel about my Indian classmate in grad school who ate rice with his hands.

    The fork issue reminds me of an episode of Turn on AMC. The British spymaster remarks that switching the fork is more civilized because it reduces the opportunity for a descent into gluttony. Later, while dining with several officers recently released from prison, a colonial spy is uncovered because he does not switch over his fork. Another officer promptly stabs him in the neck. Good times.

  38. hildi*

    Is this what they do on Downtown Abbey? That’s the only thing that keeps flashing through my head as I read this. I always thought it looked very dainty and delicate. And somehow delicious. Like food tastes better when eaten that way. Maybe it’s just me. :)

    1. Programmer 01*


      I’m not going to lie, I worked in a store before it really became popular and had people calling about DVDs of it and for the life of me I could not find in the system anything about this “Downtown Abbey” people kept asking about.

      Someone finally spelled it out for me and turned me into a fan all in the same conversation!

      1. hildi*

        ha! I think that same confusion-turned-fandom has happened with many people. I remember hearing Alison talking about it here several years ago and I assumed it was about nuns living downtown, which is so horribly cliched, isn’t it?

  39. Sharm*

    This post and the comments are making me anxious. I just don’t even think about this stuff! Unless people are really obnoxious (open mouth chewers, clanging silverware, shoveling food quickly), I don’t even notice.

    This is also another one of those times I think about how I have several cultural influences at play, and so I don’t even know what’s right. My parents are Indian, and though they never really eat with their hands anymore, I think in their eyes, just teaching us to use a fork and a knife was enough.

    I am never in formal enough situations to worry about this (THANK GOD), and I’m trying to think about how I do eat with a fork and knife, and I think I’m a switcher. But it’s so rare that I even use both utensils at a meal! Now I really sound like an American, but with food like burritos, pizza, salad — it just doesn’t come up. I also eat a lot of rice and stew dishes, and I hate using a fork for those, so I just use a spoon.

    I am going to be so self-conscious about this now. And probably avoid Europe for a while!

    1. Sharm*

      Just wanted to point out the don’t-use-the-left-hand is a big thing in Indian culture as well. When one of my cousins turned out to be left-handed, our grandmother in India was incredibly disappointed, and the entire family tried to get my cousin (basically a baby at this point, mind) to switch. They acted as if great shame had befallen the family name.

      Talk about ingrained…

    2. hildi*

      “Now I really sound like an American, but with food like burritos, pizza, salad — it just doesn’t come up. ”

      I thought of this, too. I just don’t eat a lot of food that needs to be cut? Chips and sloppy joes are best eaten without silverware. What a boor I am. :)

      1. OP*

        Perhaps that’s an idea… steer the group towards the more casual places! Although if you’ve ever visited Geneva you’ll realize that is a borderline impossible task.

        1. hildi*

          Take them to one of those medievel jousting places where you have to each meat from a trencher of bread with their bare hands. That would level the playing field quickly, no? :)

        2. Sharm*

          And my guess is, if the clients weren’t happy about American table manners, they’d be even less happy about going to a casual eatery. HOW GAUCHE.

          1. OP*

            Absolutely. As I wrote above, the client (or at least the most important person at the client) is a serious wine snob including going into excruciating detail about the vineyards and vintages with the sommelier. It is honestly painful to witness especially when you just want a glass of wine after a long day.

            1. Windchime*

              This person is actually seeming less pleasant as the thread wears on. He actually sounds kind of full of himself.

  40. Janis*

    This happened to me in my 20s when I was an overseas volunteer. I wa the only American in a sea of Brits and other Commonwealthers. They were aghast that I ate the way I did — and being the only Yank (and a pretty good sport) they loved to razz me. “Does your mother know you eat like that?” one of them asked me. Yeah, I still remember you, redheaded Jeremy from York. I said, “Yes, she does because she’s the one who taught me.” He was taken aback because I put the left hand in my lap.

    But I was plenty appalled at the veritable TOWERS of food they would smear on their fork backs with their knife, combined from every food choice on their plates, and shovel the tower into their mouths at once. Personally, I’ve never been a “food mixer on the plate,” and that just grossed me out. But this makes me laugh to remember how they teased me.

    1. hildi*

      “I’ve never been a “food mixer on the plate,” and that just grossed me out.’

      I’m probably veering way too off topic here, but another culinary habit that always squicked me out was when people would have a bite of food and then also take a drink of their beverage. Blech. I just don’t think I like those two sensations clashing.

  41. Pixelpaintr*

    The fact that fork-switching is seen as impolite by Europeans just had me flummoxed – I recently have been catching up on episodes of Turn (revolutionary spy ring) on AMC, and there was a whole plot point on how the British captain could tell who was a local spy because he would not fork switch (which would have been the proper English way at that time).

    He explained that the fork switching displayed more grace and less rush to consume the food. The colonial Americans apparently had a more beastly status by eating with the fork in the left hand.

    Funny how things change, huh?

    1. Poohbear McGriddles*

      Yeah I remember watching that and thinking Simcoe killed the poor guy for the wrong reason! Oh well, he made other missteps as well, like not knowing the regiment’s motto.

  42. holly*

    i’ve never mastered the european style because i didn’t realize they were only using the backs of their forks. it makes a lot more sense now based on the grip. but i’m also terrible with left-hand coordination so it will still never happen.

    1. nep*

      The left-hand coordination thing — yup. I might well end up flicking food on someone. All a matter of what we’ve gotten used to over time.

  43. AAA*

    This is so interesting to me–but one thing no one has brought up–for me this entirely depends on *what* I’m eating, as much as *where* I’m eating it.

    I use chopsticks in my right hand and a spoon in my left when eating ramen (and you better believe I’m slurping those noodles!). I use a fork in my left and a spoon in my right if I’m eating Thai (unless it’s Thai noodles, then it’s chopsticks). When I’m eating at a French restaurant, my fork is in my left hand and my knife in my right. If I’m eating at an American bistro, it’s zig-zag style all the way.

  44. Puddin*

    So these clients think it is perfectly ok to ridicule people from another culture? This does not even sound close to a good-natured ribbing in front of the US folks. If it were tongue in cheek, it can be kind of fun to discuss the differences and use that as small talk or, if needed, an ice breaker. However, since it does not sound like it was meant to be playful, as the manager, I would not have to feign shock at their lack of tact and rude behavior.

  45. Christen Parzych*

    I lived in both Ireland and the US, and my European friends would amusingly point out this idiosyncrasy. It was never construed as bad manners, though, and our friend group constituted almost fourteen different nationalities. Truth be told, I did try and change my eating style, but as I was learning, I was quite sloppy and uncoordinated, which I would consider to be even more of a faux pas at a business dinner!

    I think the clients need to relax.

  46. smilingswan*

    This is fascinating. I’ve been to several continental European countries (I’m from the US, Boston if it matters), and spent a semester in Italy in college, and I never noticed this. I’m definitely a switcher. To me, holding one’s knife and fork continuously in ones hand makes me think of a toddler learning to use utensils.

    I find it interesting that while not switching gives the impression of being in a hurry and shoveling food in one’s mouth, Europeans (at least continental ones) have a reputation of lingering much longer over meals than Americans do.

    Also, I have tried and tried, but I can not eat with chopsticks. I’m just not coordinated enough.

    1. Sharm*

      On the chopsticks thing, I live in a place that has a big Asian population, so I’ve had to learn how to use them (I don’t want to be that gal who gets a fork when everyone else goes chopsticks). Not to discredit you or disagree that it’s hard, but I’ve improved greatly and just wanted to say there’s hope!

      I had a few people really sit down with me and really break it down, and once I realized you should only really be moving one of the sticks, it clicked in my head. I now feel it’s more about dexterity rather than coordination, but it’s a fine line.

      1. holly*

        it also depends on the chopsticks. those big, square, plastic ones are impossible for me. small, pointy wooden all the way!

        1. Sharm*

          Co-sign! My boyfriend eats with a beautiful pair of chopsticks, that happen to be super-long and so polished that there’s virtually no grip. Give me the crappy to-go style chopsticks any day!

    1. fposte*

      Oh, that’s really interesting–I didn’t know about the spoon thing. There’s nothing that can’t be made more complicated, is there?

  47. Bluefish*

    Ok so I’m American, and right handed. I use my fork in my right hand and my fork in my left hand and never switch. I never understood why people switch hands, I mean i don’t care how someone else eats but to switch hands seems like an unnecessary extra step. Plus, as a right handed person, i would have a hard time using the fork at all in my left hand. I never understood how a right handed person could comfortably use the fork in their left hand.

    1. Sharm*

      As a right-handed person, it’s much easier for me to cut with my dominant hand (i.e. my right hand) than with my left. In other words, I am better at holding a fork and eating with it in my left hand than cutting anything with my left hand. And that’s why this convention worked well for me.

  48. Purr purr purr*

    Seriously, what was the point in even answering this ridiculous question? The comments section has turned into European-bashing. I’m pretty certain you wouldn’t appreciate it if we moaned about Americans and the stereotypes about what they’re like yet it’s OK when it’s about Europeans? Not much of a HR entry was it?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m not and never have worked in HR. The blog isn’t an HR blog. It’s a manager’s perspective on issues that come up in the workplace. This is one of those.

      I haven’t had a chance to read through all the comments yet. If there’s European-bashing, it’s inappropriate. But I can’t see how the post itself was.

      1. Jen RO*

        I was actually expecting way more European bashing. I only saw one post that crossed the line IMO.

    2. Brightwanderer*

      I can’t help noticing that every time you comment it’s to say something derisive or inflammatory. Can I ask why?

  49. nep*

    This reminds me of a time I had dinner with a colleague, who’s French, and her son. He chuckled at the way I was cutting my food then switching. He joked, ‘If we were having a race I’d win by a long shot — that’s just all kinds of unnecessary movement and energy.’

  50. Jaime L.*

    I will preface this by saying I’m an American. When I was a preteen, I was forced to take an etiquette course (that is how it felt at the time), and we were taught both European and American styles. When left to my own devices, I eat the European style as I find that easier (and I’m right handed, not left). However, we were taught that it is important to use the style the rest of your companions use. If everyone around you is using American, use American. If everyone around you is using European, use European. If the group is mixed, use the one that makes you feel most comfortable.

    I agree with Alison’s advice on how to approach this since the meals are taking place in Europe. Also, most Americans tend to be customer/client-focused, if they push back you can say, “It may seem silly to you but to them it is very important and it will help with our client relations.” But if they are not your direct reports, you can only mention it a couple of times before dropping it.

    I’ve read the above comments and I see people trying to point out an equivalent where Europeans might think it no big deal but Americans would be highly offended. In non-American English speaking countries (I’m thinking of especially the UK and Australia) there is a gendered 4-letter swear word beginning with a c that seems to be considered on par with other swear words in those nations and not necessarily better or worse. I was a little surprised to hear it on tv the first time I watched The Office (UK). In the US, it is generally considered highly offensive to be used. Like… On another plane above what is already normally considered “highly offensive” language. Foul language doesn’t upset me but my poor mother would nearly have a heart attack.

  51. Kimberly Herbert*

    Honestly, I think the people commenting are the ones that are rude. My Mom was Canadian, Dad Texan, My Sister and I eat “European” style. Honestly because Mom was the one home with us all day. I once won an etiquette trivia contest because When asked “Is it polite to switch the hand you are holding the fork with, while cutting your food?” I answered Americans switch, and most other cultures that use the same place settings don’t. Neither is rude.

    Honestly – if someone insists that a person is being rude challenge them to try to eat the “other way” for one meal. It is hard to change something that has been wired into your brain from childhood. If someone tried to change it would probably result in worse mistakes and spilled food. It is not the same as switching to a different set of utensils. When you do that there is some forgiveness for accidental messes because it is so different. Switching how you handle familiar tools would not have the same forgiveness instead I suspect people would be more judgmental.

    My parents focused more the basics and things like only butter enough bread that you can eat in one bite (unless eating tortillas), know were your space is and keep out of your neighbor’s space (I’m a lefty and due to LD have fine motor skill difficulties), standing up if an adult came to the table at a restaurant to speak to our parents (until we were about 16 then we stayed seated like the adult women at the table), how to politely decline food.

    Then they moved to knowing when to stop being polite because the food an adult is trying to force on you will either kill you or make you itch for the next 6 months (chain reaction with allergies/skin condition).

  52. Traveller*

    This whole episode reminds me of a business dinner I had in the US with colleagues/customers from Germany, US, Japan and China. We were eating pub food (chicken wings, pizza, burgers, fries)….at some point during the meal, I realized I was the only one eating with my hands …..yes, even the chicken wings were undergoing the knife/fork treatment.

    I felt like a complete barbarian and proceeded to finish my clubhouse sandwich with a knife and fork.

    1. Graphics monkey*

      Germany keeps coming up within this table manners discussion. Interesting!
      I’m Scandinavian and I would devour pizza with my hands. Also, grilled sauasages and burgers. Who eats burgers with cutlery? Unless it’s like one of those gigantic steaks on a plate. I would not however touch chicken wings with a ten foot pole…

  53. Sally*

    I wonder what these “Europeans” think of the citizens of the countries that primarily use their bare hands as utensils! I’m guessing not a word would be said…

    1. fposte*

      To be fair, not a word was said here either. The clients haven’t said anything directly to the people who eat differently–they mentioned it to somebody who eats the way they do.

    2. Mephyle*

      I am in Europe now and trying hard to remember to eat food that I consider hand food with my utensils, but I keep forgetting. Also, it is hard to know which ones. I mean, even they eat potato chips with their fingers.

  54. Katie the Fed*

    This may be one of my favorite comment streams ever on this website. Yes, it was a bit mean in parts but I’ve learned so much – like how to put peas on the back of a fork.

    1. Sharm*

      Ha, I know! I read all the explanations, but I just can’t seem to wrap my head around that one.

      To be fair, I’ve always preferred eating with a spoon to a fork, but I think that’s some of my Indian heritage poking through. Our food is more conducive to needing a spoon given all the sauces, so I actually rarely eat with a fork unless it’s a salad or particular type of pasta (I eat penne with a spoon – YUP! I’m like a whole nother level of uncouth American!)

      1. Jaime L.*

        Is it considered rude to mix your rice in the leftover sauce to soak up the extra sauce on your plate and it with a fork that way? That’s the way I currently eat Indian food at Indian restaurants in the US; however, if it is offensive, I didn’t know and will stop. I certainly don’t want to be improper.

        1. Sharm*

          Nope! I do that all the time. You can’t let it go to waste! :-)

          I don’t really think you can do anything wildly wrong at an Indian meal. Indians aren’t really known for being snobby, but I think most confusion stems from the food itself. If you aren’t familiar with Indian food, you may not be aware how to use Indian pickles, or what dishes go great with chutney, how to eat a certain food, etc etc, but that’s not really etiquette, IMO.

          I think the main etiquette thing would be to be very wary of vegetarians and being sensitive to that (not using the same serving spoon in a non-veg and then veg dish, keeping meat dishes far away from veg ones). It may not even apply in certain situations, but that’s the one thing I know would upset my parents and elders.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            How do you use Indian pickles? All things pickle-related are of great interest to me, but I’ve never been sure how to approach Indian pickles, which are quite different from ours.

            1. Sharm*

              Good question! It’s actually pretty simple — you can put it on everything!

              I think the main thing is that it looks and tastes so different from what Americans think of when they hear “pickles.” Think of it like a spicy condiment. It can be made from lemons, lime, mango (not the sweet kind, but a specific kind for pickling) and various other fruits/veggies, which then get brined and spiced. You can eat the actual lemons/limes/whatever, or just have the liquidy part.

              As a kid, I’d eat pickle alone with Indian breads (chapathis, poori, naan). You can add it to any veggie dishes you eat with rice, or just add a whole bunch to rice on its own. I’m South Indian, so our food is less known because most Indian restaurants are North Indian. But there are all kinds of breakfast and lunch foods we’d eat it with if you’ve heard of them — dosas, idlis, vada, uppama, and many, many more.

              No meal is served without it. It may feel spicy to some, but I always recommend people try it.

              Sorry for the treatise — I got so excited! (And now I’m hungry.)

            2. Sharm*

              I don’t know if that answered your question… I think I’ve found most people just ignore the pickles because they don’t know what they are and I would just say, don’t be afraid!

    2. Mints*

      I missed this thread in live-time, but it makes me feel self-conscious =/

      I was raised by my non-white, non-american mother and we BARELY use utensils (similar to the Indian style of eating, I guess). But since I’m white passing, I don’t think people get automatically get the “She was probably raised in a different culture” idea. And I’m constantly worried in fancy restaurants I’m going to do something to make myself look like a drooling neanderthal.

      Also: What the heck are finger bowls and fish knives? (I googled it, but seriously, this is Queen of England stuff to me)

      I’m halfway considering taking an etiquette class.

      1. Jaime L.*

        Are you in the US or in a different country? I can’t speak for outside the US, but in the US I have only ever ever ever had one person comment on my method of eating. It wasn’t even a rude comment. They told me they noticed I ate in the European style and asked if I traveled abroad often.

        Please don’t feel self conscious. I never pay attention to the way others eat. I don’t know if I could even tell you which method my spouse uses and I’m considered to be pretty observant by
        others around me. It’s just not important to me. If it would put your mind at ease, maybe check out YouTube before investing in an etiquette class. I just searched YouTube for “dining etiquette” and a whole bunch of instructional videos popped up. There was even one showing both American vs. European. There was even one for Chinese dining etiquette.

        If you would like to take an etiquette class, by all means, but don’t take one because you are self conscious!

        1. Mints*

          I’m in the US. And I do realize that the huge majority of people I interact with are entirely too nice to be jerks about my fork usage or whatever while we’re eating. But I think it’s the kind of thing that people would notice and think “Oh Mints is eating that with her hands. That’s weird.” Or “Oh Mints has her elbows on the table. I wonder if she noticed.” Even if they don’t say anything, I think they’ll just register it
          Maybe I’ll check out those YouTube videos though. Although I don’t have any fancy dinners planned right now (thank goodness)

          1. Laura*

            I was raised in traditional American etiquette, and yet, I don’t notice elbows on the table unless they’re mine and I suddenly become self-conscious. I don’t notice who grabs which fork. Unless someone manages to dump their food down their front (or mine!), I don’t notice what they’re using to eat with (unless they’re commenting or showing off deliberately, trying to draw attention).

            I suppose in certain circles, snarking about table manners might be an entertainment level sport, but by and large most people _don’t care_ unless it’s actually really attention getting, horribly and obviously rude (talking with food in your mouth, flinging things at fellow diners), you draw attention to it, or it’s their own kids and they’re policing for manners learning.

            (And even then, I might explain to my five-year-old why he has two forks and what they’re formally for, so he knows. Do I care if he actually uses the right one? Not really, so long as he’s using a fork or spoon for a dish that calls for it and not scooping messy things with his hands…and again, that’s my own kid, because I’m teaching him. Also because in 15 seconds he will hug me, and if his hands are covered with cheese sauce, I will be too.)

      2. robot chick*

        Well, fish knives are like pointy but even duller butter knives, which is because properly cooked fish is supposed to basically fall apart at the slightest prodding, and using a sharp knive to cut it up is insulting to the cook.
        Finger bowls I only know in theory too, but they’re afaik just little bowls of water, that come with food like lobster, escargot or certain poultry that’s supposed to be eaten with the finger(tip)s. By dipping them in water, you don’t just spread the smear when trying to wipe them off with your napkin.

        Don’t take my word for all this though, taking an etiquette class actually sounds fascinating!

  55. Maggie*

    When I first saw Americans eating the way they do, I felt very proud of myself that I could use a knife and fork better than some adults. Admittedly I was only about 5 at the time!

    However, I still don’t understand how someone can cut food when holding one’s cutlery with one’s fingertips. I saw a couple struggle for ages trying it and all I can think was “hold them in your hands!”.

  56. Cassie*

    I grew up in the US and I’m pretty sure I thought that there was just two ways of using a knife and fork – one was switching hands, one was not. It didn’t occur to me that one was the “European” way and the other was “American”. I switch hands because I’m more comfortable using my right hand to hold me fork.

    I’d be interested in knowing exactly how important this is to the clients. Is it like using your left hand at a Middle Eastern restaurant level taboo or is just “ha ha, look at those ignorant cowboy Americans”? It’s one of those “does this really affect my (our) work?” situations. If it’s risking those clients, then yes, your staff should take it seriously. Otherwise, I’d just ignore it. We live in an increasingly multicultural society and we’re always preaching about tolerance and acceptance. This also extends to eating habits (but NOT chewing with your mouth open!).

    As for Chinese food etiquette, do not put chopsticks sticking up in a bowl of rice; do not pour soy sauce on a bowl of rice. If you’re eating with Koreans, do not pick up your bowl – use your chopsticks to shovel rice onto the spoon if you need to. If you’re eating with Taiwanese or Japanese people, do pick up your bowl and shovel rice into your mouth with the chopsticks.

  57. Chris*

    1. American, born and raised in the midwest, and I have always left the fork in the left hand, the “European” way, I guess. It’s just how it is for me, I don’t know. It wasn’t deliberate. Seemed more efficient. I mean, why switch? But, more importantly…

    2. WHO FREAKING CARES. It’s like someone getting honestly angry about the fact that people in the UK/Commonwealth nations drive on the left, and everyone else on the right. It’s just the way it is. Neither is correct, it’s just the way it is. Who cares?

  58. A "European" Commenter*

    “And for the record, the clients are being rude themselves, since it’s rude to sneer about other people’s manners — and even a bit unsophisticated, since the cultural difference on fork-switching is well-known and shouldn’t be so astonishing to them.”

    I am from Europe and I honestly didn’t know there is such a thing as fork switching and I dare to say that not a lot of people here know. I was in the US and in Canada but wasn’t immersed in their culture so it never came up. That said, I think I would comment if I see it. Not in a rude but certainly in a weirdly intrigued way since it would have never occured to me that there was another way to hold it.

    To all the people saying that they don’t understand why we would focus on it. It was kind of drilled into me that holding your cutlery right and having table manners kind of shows that you are an educated and polished person. Some things were even spoken of in elementary school e.g. such as on which side to put knife and fork. However, Europe is not Europe, my dutch bf had no idea about the “proper” placement of cutlery and learned that dutch people are not so strict with this and even saw a lot of them drinking wine out of normal glases…..which would be close to blasphemy in my country.

    1. C.C.*

      Given that you didn’t know that there was another way to hold the cutlery, do you think you would comment on it especially in the context of a business dinner? Or would you just assume that the person was being overly casual?

      1. Jen RO*

        Depends on the people present. I would definitely comment on it if I was dining with clients I was reasonably friendly with – “Oh hey, you eat the other way around! How does that work?”. I would not see it as uncivilized, as OP’s clients did, but I don’t see a problem discussing it. I am intrigued by cultural differences and I like explaining my own, so I wouldn’t assume that someone else would mind.

        1. Jamie*

          I find cultural differences interesting, too. Personally if one person was eating in a way I found odd I’d assume it was a quirk, but if everyone of a specific culture was doing it the same I’d assume it was a cultural thing of which I was unaware and I’d google before assuming people were all backwards and rude.

  59. Graphics monkey*

    I’m European and I have never heard of fork switching but now that you mention it I do sometimes put my knife down and eat with the fork on my right only and I wouldn’t do it in a fancy restaurant or in a business meeting or around people I didn’t know very well because it does indeed not feel proper. I do it at home mostly.

    Having said that I have also never heard of someone being so concerned with table manners that they would actually gossip about it unless it was something really noticeable like hitting your face with the plate and eating without hands. Gossipping is what’s rude here.

  60. Worker Bee (Germany)*

    I’ve lived in CA for two years and I never ever noticed the fork switching thing… I have to pay attention to it when I am visiting again.. As most of you said, as long as nobody is making a mess, all is great. No one should care..

  61. KH*

    I have my own style. I just keep the fork in my right hand and the knife in my left hand. No, I’m not left handed. I never got comfortable with the fork in my left hand.

    And the criss-cross thing makes no sense. Your food would get cold before you could finish it. Or do you cut it up all at once like your mom used to do for you when you were 2 years old?

  62. Thomas Europe*

    I really care about table manners and I quite feel disgusted when I see people (no matter where) having no eating behaviour the way I learned.
    My problem with the american style is that it all includes what you teach the children not to do in Europe:
    1) cutting the food in advance and then eating with a fork only – in the right hand!!. You do that here with small children who cannot use the knife by themselfes. The parents cut the food and then the child can use the fork. But we are adults an can use the fork whenever we want!
    2) you have to sit straight at the table. But when the US use their fork and have the left hand under the table it appears like the mouth goes to the fork. We have been tought: the fork goes to the mouth! So for us it looks like a lazy teenager is sitting crooked at the table with no behaviour
    3) the hands are alway on the table. It is rude to leave on hand below the table.
    4) Then US Americans eat it appears to me that they never enjoy it. They play with the fork in the meal. Picking a little bit, one arm below the table, sitting crooked and show no interest at all for the food.

    So for the Europeans the american style of table manners is impolite and rude in our point of view. But we think the same way when we eat with Asians which shocks us even more!!

    BTW: In the US you use a lot of plastic. You produce so much garbage only caused by the food!! In Europe we use more cutlery made of steel or wood if you through it away. The produced litter in the US only caused by eating is what shocked me the most.

  63. serea*

    I don’t care in what hand the knife and fork are. I just hate that Americans always make a mess at the table. ketchup everywhere, bits of food everywhere too. cutlery on the table when they are finished, instead of neatly placed on the plate. having worked as a waitress for years in the UK and having served many europeans and americans, i must say that americans do indeed have THE WORST table manners. cleaning the tables after they were finished was a nightmare.. i could and would never leave the table in such a state!

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