cultural difference 13: table etiquette

April 22, 2010

In the US, most people use their right hand to eat (unless, of course, they are left-handed). They cut their meat with the knife in the right hand, then lay down the knife and shift the fork to the right hand.

In Germany, the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right hand โ€“ and it stays there for the whole meal. Some people consider it rude to put the knife down, especially if you don’t put your left hand on the table. Food is cut one little piece at a time, directly before eating it. You don’t cut up your meat before you start eating.

For some reason, I eat with the knife in my left hand and the fork in my right hand. People always ask me whether I’m a lefty โ€“ which I’m not. I just find it more logical to do it this way.

Those of you who have been to Europe, have you noticed the difference? Was it hard to adjust?



  1. Good catch! This completely puzzled me when we moved to the U.S., because in Israel, we cut our food the German way. Been here most of my life, and I’ve retained this habit, since it seems more efficient for shoveling food into my mouth.

    How did you find out about this cultural difference?

    • I think I found out about it while I was writing one of my novels. I don’t remember which one, but I remember my beta reader asking me why my character didn’t put her knife down — was she going to stab someone? ๐Ÿ™‚

      • No wonder my friends treat me so nicely during meals. They’re scared I might stab them at any moment.

        I think I’ll keep this particular habit of mine. Makes everyone so agreeable at mealtime!

  2. Also, I found that we Germans often have that strict rule and order thing on the plate, like: meat to the left, a pile of potatoes or whatever neatly arranged on the right, a bit of sauce there and the vegetables in an equally neat pile somewhere else on the plate. Food isn’t allowed to touch before it enters the mouth.
    Most Americans I got to know handle the food on their plate differently – they often rearranged the food until it was more or less one mixed pile of everything.
    But maybe that were just the people I knew.

    • Check out the Tostada Bowl (http://www.ucdavismenu.com/images/food/tostada.jpg), where the different food items are all piled together on top of the edible bowl. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Ah, but that’s Mexican food ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • But even in the edible bowl, different foods are not mixed. It just looks nicer that way.

    • You’re right, Astrid. I tend to sort my food into different piles. But a lot of Southern Germans then cover all of it with liters of brown gravy. If it doesn’t have gravy, it’s not “Badisch” food. Ugh.

      • I rarely like any gravy and so I make a point of asking for it to be served in a separate dish if I’m eating at a restaurant. And I usually leave it untouched. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Perhaps the Japanese have the right idea about the food-items-touching-each-other dilemma: Bento Box (http://rtmulcahy.files.wordpress.com/2007/10/bento_6.jpg)

    How about eating spaghetti? When I came to the U.S., I was surprised to see people eating it with a fork along with a spoon used to roll the noodles around the fork. We always used a fork and knife and cut the noodles into a manageable size.

    • Yep, the Bento Box is a German dream come true ๐Ÿ™‚
      I eat Spaghetti with a fork and a spoon – and wear a red shirt. The red shirt isn’t typical German – it’s just cause I can’t seem to eat anything with red sauce without spilling it somehow over my clothes.

  4. I completely understand the need to wear a red shirt when eating spaghetti. I like to share my meals with my clothes as well.

    Poor Jae, I don’t think she anticipated her blog would turn into a forum to discuss people’s food issues.

    • Don’t you worry. I love the discussion.

      I know adult people who wear some kind of bib when they’re eating spaghetti. Not me, of course ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Okay.. one question. So.. If it’s considered bad manners to put your knife down… How do you eat corn on the cob with your steak? And yes, I had a grilled steak and corn on the cob for dinner last night. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Well, for one thing, corn on the cob is rarely eaten in Germany.

      But you are, of course, allowed to put down the knife for certain foods. I think you’re officially allowed to eat roast chicken with your hands, for example. You just don’t put the knife down during main course and while the right hand is holding the fork.

  6. Sorry. I meant to say: while the LEFT hand is holding the fork (while I hold the fork in the right hand, every other right-handed German I know does it the other way around).

    Phew, I’m starting to confuse myself ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Here in Australia we use both the Knife and Fork as you do.

  8. Thanks for letting us know, Dev. It’s interesting to learn about little differences in everyday stuff all over the world.

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