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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Business Dinner Abroad? A Crash Course in European Dining Etiquette

Traveling to a foreign country for work is exciting, but it can also be stressful—especially if you’re unfamiliar with the local customs. And that’s why we’ve been exploring business dining etiquette around the world. Read on to learn more about eating out in Europe, then check out our guide to Japanese etiquette!

Headed to a business trip to Paris, Berlin, or Rome? While a dinner in Europe sounds like a dream come true, it can also be très nerve-wracking. Which fork do you use? Why is the salad served after the main course, not before?

To know what you’re in for and to make sure you don’t commit a dining faux pas, brush up on these European dining basics for France, Italy, and Germany.

France: Mind Your Manners

1. Watch Your Hands and Elbows

Even if you didn't grow up in France, your mother probably told you that keeping your elbows on the table is poor manners. The same rule applies in France, but you should also be careful to keep your hands visible throughout the meal, rather than placing them in your lap. Why? Legend has it that this custom goes back to medieval times when people put their hands on the table to show that they didn’t have a dagger in their lap.


2. Switch Your Silverware

In France, the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right. This “Continental style” of eating will help you avoid the zigzagging back and forth as you switch the utensils between hands. Ordering a salad? Skip the knife altogether and instead fold the lettuce onto your fork.

If you're pausing between bites and need to rest your silverware, cross your knife and fork on your plate with the fork on top—otherwise the server may assume that you're done and whisk your plate away.

3. Forget the Substitutions

French restaurants don't take “the customer is always right” viewpoint, instead expecting their patrons to defer to the expertise of the chef. Asking for substitutions will just annoy the staff—and it won't impress your French dining partners, either. When choosing from the menu, stick with dishes that you can accept just the way they are.

4. Enjoy the Bread

It's common knowledge that the French treasure their bread, but it often comes as a surprise to French dining newbies that the bread isn't served before the meal, as it is in the U.S. Instead, it's served alongside the main course or with the cheese course that follows. And don't be caught off guard by the lack of a plate to place your bread on—putting it directly on the table is not only accepted, it’s expected.


5. Use Your Indoor Voice

One common complaint of French restaurant diners is that Americans speak too loudly. The French generally speak at lower volumes, so use your indoor voice and keep your tone soft and subtle.

Germany: Follow All the Rules

1. Always Cut Your Food 

Germany, like France, uses the Continental “fork in your left hand and knife in your right” style. In Germany, utensils are always used, even when eating food that Americans think of as “finger foods,” like pizza. Germans tend to use knives only when absolutely necessary, so if you can use the side of your fork to cut your food, stick with that and only pull out the knife for the heavy-duty tasks.

2. Ask for Still or Sparkling

If you want a glass of water, be sure to ask for it—the server won't automatically bring water to the table. But keep in mind that you'll most likely be served (and charged for) mineral water. Tap water isn't served unless specifically requested, but it’s still frowned upon because it appears to be a sign of stinginess. Probably worth the couple Euro to spring for a bottle.

3. Pay Attention to Your Napkin

Germans have rules for their napkins, too: If you have to leave the table for some reason, put your napkin next to your plate (not on the seat of your chair). After the meal is over, fold your napkin and place it to the left side of your plate (even if it's a paper napkin).

4. Pass to the Left

If you need to pass a dish to someone to the table, be sure to pass it to your left. When passing the salt or pepper, pass directly into the hand of the person requesting them, rather than onto the table itself.

5. Clean Your Plate

Even if you're full, try to finish the food you were served. If you have food left on your plate, your German dining companions and waiter may think something was wrong with it.


Italy: Start Late, Slow Down

1. Be Punctual—But Expect a Late Start

As with any meeting, you should arrive on time to a business dinner in Italy. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself waiting for your Italian colleagues, who may arrive 15-30 minutes later. Use the extra time to your advantage by studying your Italian phrasebook, making conversation with people at the bar, or going over your talking points one last time.


2. Slow Your Pace

Italians dine at a more leisurely pace than frenzied Americans do—and that’s putting it mildly. Business dinners and lunches can last about three hours, sometimes even four. So clear your schedule for the evening and come prepared to savor your food and the entire dining experience. Unlike in American restaurants, the wait staff won’t rush your party out—or bring the check until they’re specifically asked for it.

3. Cut Your Pizza 

Just like in France and Germany, the continental style of holding your silverware is used, and you should always eat with your silverware—even if you’re enjoying some delicious Italian pizza.

4. Order Espresso—Not a Cappuccino

Italians take their coffee seriously and love lingering over a post-dinner shot of espresso. Prefer to take your coffee heavy on the milk and sugar? Save it for another time—cappuccinos, lattes, and other milk-heavy coffee drinks are reserved strictly for the morning and afternoon.

Now that you're armed with these Continental dining basics and no longer have to think about the etiquette of how to hold your fork, you can clear your mind to focus on the more important parts of the meal—the business and the delicious food at hand. Bon Appétit!

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Photo of woman at business dinner courtesy of Shutterstock.