Etiquette in selected European countries

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 54 of the February 2014 issue.

(First of two parts)

On a beautiful spring day in the year 2000, my wife, Flory, and I were picnicking on a shady, grassy expanse outside the town of Dijon in France. Our bicycle pannier bags were content resting against the trunk of a huge chestnut tree, having had a rigorous workout during our morning “commute.”

Half an hour earlier, we had bought a baguette and a just-off-the-spit chicken at a supermarket. While we were happily engaged in eating our recently acquired foods, passing pedestrians and bicyclists invariably wished us “Bon appétit!” 

“What a nice gesture,” we thought. It made us feel very special. We soon found out that this was a French custom, which we encountered in many areas of that lovely country.

Another convention we treasured was that, upon entering a restaurant or shop, you wish the seated customers a good day by saying “Bonjour messieurs, dames” (“Good day, gentlemen, ladies”) or, if there is only one couple present, use the singular “Bonjour, monsieur, dame” (“Good day, sir, lady”). In the evening, you would say “Bonsoir, messieurs, dames” or, if only one couple is sitting in the restaurant, “monsieur, dame.”

While hiking in Austria, we would invariably be greeted by “Grüß Gott” (“May God greet you”).

I thought it would be nice to explore the etiquette of a number of European countries to learn how to be more comfortable when visiting these nations. It could also help you approach people when you need to ask questions.

Dos and don’ts

Below is a list of “dos and don’ts” which apply to most of Europe.

1. When meeting somebody, shake hands, look into their eyes and say the appropriate greeting for the time of day.

Never move to a first-name greeting unless invited. The exception is in Denmark, where Danes each are apt to introduce themselves with their first name.

2. Dress conservatively.

3. In most European countries, when invited somewhere, it is important to be punctual. Southern France, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal are exceptions.

General rules when invited for a meal at a person’s home

1. When bringing a gift upon invitation to a home, don’t bring flowers, since countries differ as to which color and which number of flowers are appropriate. Instead, take good-quality chocolates or an excellent wine. Gifts should be nicely wrapped and will be opened when received.

2. When entering or leaving a room, shake hands with everyone individually, including children.

3. Wait for a woman to extend her hand first.

4. Stand up when greeting someone.

5. Upon entering a home, always ask if you should remove your shoes.

6. If in doubt, watch what others are doing.

7. Remain standing until invited to sit down.

8. Don’t begin to eat until you see the most senior person start.

9. Meals often begin with something similar to the French “Bon appétit” (“Good appetite”).

10. Table manners are Continental; the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating.

11. As far as cutlery is concerned, start with the outside first and work your way to the center as you wind through the meal’s courses. Note that the dessert spoon and fork are behind the plate. 

12. Always keep your hands visible when eating. Rest your wrists on the edge of the table. Do not lean your elbows on the table.

13. If you have finished eating, cross your knife and fork on your plate with the fork over the knife. This differs somewhat by country.

14. In most countries, don’t leave food on a plate when dining. Exceptions are Croatia, Italy, Portugal and Sweden, where you do leave a little food on your plate.

15. In Croatia and the Czech Republic, it is polite to refuse second helpings the first time they are offered. However, you can accept them after the hostess insists.

16. Send a ‘Thank you’ note the day following the meal, or call.


Note that public nudity is common in all of Western Europe. At communal swimming areas in Austria and Germany, there is often an “FKK” zone for nude swimming. FKK, which stands for Freikörperkultur, is a German movement whose name translates to “Free Body Culture.” It endorses a naturist approach to sports and community living.

Country-specific “rules”

Here is a summary of etiquette in selected European countries.


The English word “you” translates in German into the familiar “du” and the formal “Sie.” Always use the formal “Sie” approach and learn the proper conjugation of the most commonly used verbs that go with “Sie.”

Austria has many titles. Use them when talking to a person; for example, “Frau Doktor Schmitt” (“Mrs. Doctor Schmitt”). 

Formal greetings are “Grüß Gott,” typical for Austria and for Bavaria in Germany. The casual greeting is “Servus,” for “Hello” and “Good-bye.”

The following holds for all of Germany and Austria. “Danke” means “Thanks,” and”Bitte” means “Please” and also “You are welcome.” “Auf Wiedersehen” is the formal phrase for saying good-bye. Use the above terms whenever interrelating with other people, such as when leaving a tram or entering a shop.

Most Austrians will start a meal with “Mahlzeit” or “Guten Appetit” (“Good appetite”).


Shake hands and say ”Dobro jutro” (“Good morning”), “Dobar dan” (“Good day”) or “Dobra vecer” (“Good evening”) followed by the person’s title and surname. 

If you are unsure of titles, use “Gospodin” for “Mr.,” “Gospodja” for “Mrs.” and “Gospodice” for “Miss.”


When invited for a meal, ask for a tour of the home.

Offer to help with the preparation or cleaning up of the meal. 

Eat a little of all foods offered. You may refuse second helpings. Finish everything on your plate.


When meeting, it is common to repeat your first and last names while shaking hands. 

When greeting a married couple, greet the woman first.

If you are invited for coffee and cake, there may be as many as seven cakes to sample. 

Thank the hosts before bidding farewell to the other guests.

All foods (even fruit) are eaten with utensils, except bread and shrimp. 

Agree to second helpings. 

Men keep their jackets on at meals unless the host takes his off.


In France, when approaching a person, start any question with “Pardon” (or “Excusez-moi”), “monsieur, dame.” Following this, ask your question, prefacing it with “Pourriez-vous me dire” (“Could you tell me”)”

In French, there are two translations for the word “you”: the familiar “tu” and the formal “vous.” Always use “vous” when communicating with the French, and learn the proper conjugation of frequently used verbs that go with “vous.”

When entering or leaving a shop or restaurant or when residing in an apartment building, to those you meet say “Bonjour” or “bonsoir” (“Good morning” or “Good evening”), “monsieur/madame (if only a man or a woman is present) or “monsieur/dame” (when one man and one woman are present). Say “Au revoir’” (“Good-bye”) when leaving. 

If you are invited to a French household for dinner, which would be a rarity, keep the following in mind.

• Do not cut salad with a knife and fork. Fold the lettuce onto your fork.

• Peel and slice fruit before eating it.

• Leave your wine glass nearly full if you do not want more.


Greet people with a quick, firm handshake and say “Herr” or “Frau” and the person’s title and his or her surname; for example, “Herr Doktor Schmitt” (“Mr. Doctor Schmitt”).

Remember the following table manners:

• Do not cut the leaves in a salad. Fold the lettuce using your knife and fork.

• Cut as much of your food with your fork as possible.

• Finish everything on your plate.

• Break rolls apart by hand.


If you are invited to a Greek home, arriving 30 minutes late is considered punctual! 

Offer to help the hostess with the preparation or clearing up of a meal. 

Make a compliment about the house.

It is polite to soak up gravy or sauce with a piece of bread. 

People often share food from their plates. 

The most common toast is “To your health,” which is “Stinygiasou” in informal situations and “Eis igían sas” at formal functions. 

“Yes” is signified by a slight downward nod of the head. “No” is a slight upward nod of the head.

The index-fingertip-to-thumbtip “Okay” sign we’re familiar with is actually a rude gesture in Greece. Instead, a “thumbs up” signal means “Okay.”

Next month, I will cover etiquette in additional  European countries.