While living in the Middle East, I was often invited to have dinner with friends, neighbors, or random people I saw on the street. “Please, you are most welcome. Come share dinner with me and my family,” was a phrase I heard on an hourly basis. My first dinner I was a nervous wreck. What should I bring as a gift? Do I need to bring anything? What should I wear? How long should I stay? How do I bring up the fact that I’m a vegetarian? And how do you say “delicious” in Arabic?
After quizzing my coworkers on proper etiquette, I arrived in my least wrinkled skirt with a tray of desserts I had picked up at a local bakery. After being shooed out of the kitchen when asking if I could help with anything, I sat down at the table where someone immediately asked me what I thought about the country’s president. Before I could stammer out a reply, dinner was brought to the table. Stuffed intestines. Despite my vegetarian status, I couldn’t refuse the meal that was specially made for me so I swallowed my horrified expression, took a bite, and immediately proclaimed that it was delicious. Fortunately, I survived that dinner. Unfortunately, my performance was so convincing that everyone is now under the impression that my favorite meal is stuffed intestines. Over the years and through numerous faux pas, I’ve compiled a list of rules that tend to be applicable across the board no matter which country you’re in or whose table you’re dining at.
Bring a Gift
The standard practice here is to bring a bottle of alcohol, but always check to make sure your hosts drink alcohol. While it’s pretty standard practice in Europe or North America, you don’t want to offend someone whose religious or cultural customs forbid alcohol. If you aren’t sure whether your hosts would appreciate a bottle of wine, then pick up a dessert or some other small gift.
Learn How to Say “This is delicious”
Find a local, a phrasebook, or a dictionary. Whatever you do, learn how to say “This is delicious” in the local language and then say it repeatedly.
Have Second Helpings
This is easy if the food appeals to your palate. If not, well…grin and bear it. If I can have second helpings of stuffed intestines, I think everyone else can take one for the team as well.
I know this one goes without saying. It’s just the universal truth of polite dinner table conversation. If someone asks you what you think of their local leader just tell them you don’t really have an opinion and then let them talk. Nod politely and then change the subject.
As someone who is a fan of wearing the same North Face cargo pants and beat up t-shirt for days on end, I get that backpackers don’t always have a plethora of clothing options available to them. Pack at least one nice outfit for occasions like this. You don’t have to be dressed like a GAP model, but at least make sure your clothes are clean and not sporting too many holes.
Take Off Your Shoes
In many cultures around the world, you do not go inside someone’s home with your shoes on. Ever. To be on the safe side, I just always remove my shoes when I enter someone’s home no matter where I am. It’s a nice gesture.
Greet Everyone Individually
Typically in the U.S., we walk into a room and say “Heeyyy everyone” and that’s the end of that. While I don’t pretend to be an expert on cultures around the world, it’s been my experience that in most areas, this is considered rude. Make an effort to go around and greet everyone individually with a kiss, a handshake, or a verbal recognition of their presence.