How to overcome language barriers and cultural quirks when dining in a foreign country
In the past I have written about finding the best restaurants while traveling, which can be one of the most challenging yet satisfying travel conundrums. Once you've found your way into a great restaurant, it would seem like purchasing and eating food would be the most straightforward and simple human task imaginable. But between foreign-language menus and unfamiliar cultural quirks, the experience often proves just the opposite. That's because the more ingrained and routine a behavior (such as eating), the more susceptible it becomes to cultural and geographical nuances and idiosyncrasies.
Once you step inside a restaurant, it can be a world unto itself, with customs and routines that almost seem like trick questions designed to trip you up. In one Italian restaurant, patrons and staff are quiet and reserved; in another they are boisterous and outgoing. In one sushi restaurant near me, barely a word is spoken; at the sushi place across the street, the owner tells jokes and puts plastic sushi on kids' plates. (Guess which one has better food.) When you run into this kind of disparity on the road, it can feel like you're trapped in a funhouse of cultural mazes and bent mirrors -- which may or may not be fun, depending on how easily you find your way out.
Here are my tips for navigating through the twists and turns of local restaurant customs.
1. Take Stock of Your Surroundings
In some restaurants, just figuring out where to go and what to do to get your order placed can be the hardest part. If you need proof, let's review how a couple of well-known U.S. chains take orders, which won't even force us to account for language and cultural issues.
At a Subway, you get in line, then tell one person what kind of bread, meat and cheese you want; tell another person what kind of toppings you want; then tell still another person what kind of drink you want. They'll probably point to a rack located back where the line started, and send you over there to pick out your potato chips. Then you come back to the register to pay before you can finally eat. That's three or four stations just to get a sandwich!
At a Wawa, on the other hand, although it appears very similar to the Subway setup, you never really have to speak to anyone at all -- you input your order on a touch screen, and a slip of paper with your order number on it comes out, which you take over to the register to pay. Then you take your paid receipt back to the sandwich counter, and wait for your number to be yelled out and your sandwich put on top of the counter.
So we have two very different and rather complex ordering systems, and those are at high-volume chain restaurants, where you'd think it would be easy to get a sandwich. It is confusing enough if you speak the language -- imagine trying to make your way through these processes if you were from a foreign country and your English was a little shaky.
So when you find yourself stymied overseas, whether at a chain or a sit-down restaurant, my suggestion is to pause and take a good look around at how things work upon entering the restaurant. Watch the other patrons to see whether they find themselves a table, wait to be seated or head straight to the counter. If you stop to get your bearings just a bit, you are less likely to stumble your way to a nightmare meal.
2. Get By Without an English-Language Menu
Unless you are very nearly fluent in a foreign language, you are going to have trouble with a menu. While I can get by comfortably in one foreign language and fake it in at least one other, I still find myself stopped in my tracks when faced with a heap of unfamiliar nouns and adjectives. For example, "baked" vs. "grilled" vs. "fried" -- do you know the difference in your best foreign language? You might know the word for "corn," but do you know "asparagus"? And what about countless species of fish, for which names can vary by location, not only by type of fish?
In Eating Abroad: The Cultural Resonance of Food, I recounted the story of accidentally ordering "a pot of filth in its own sauce"; especially when traveling beyond the tourist trail, the risk of ordering something you really don't want is considerable and ever-present.
In this sort of situation, a phrase book can help; the Internet is even better. If you have a smartphone, you can access one of the many mobile translation sites and apps, including Google's easy-to-use Translate service. (Of course, in some cases, nothing will help: read about Deborah Fallows' attempt to get takeout, which may have had the waiter thinking she was asking for a hug.)
My suggestion: simply ask. I have found that most restaurants have a "specialty" of sorts, even if it is just pizza -- and they are happy to let you know. They want you to have a good meal, so they won't steer you wrong. Dig out your phrase book to be able to say "What is best?" or "What do you recommend?" There is no guarantee you won't be served their world-famous pot of filth -- but mine was pretty tasty all told, and certainly something to remember.
3. Get By Without Any Menu
Of course it's rare that a restaurant has no menu at all, but it can happen. For example, a daily menu scrawled on a cloudy slate in colored chalk in Euskara comes darn close. In these situations, you really are at the mercy of your restaurant hosts; hopefully they want you to have a great meal, and perhaps you should just surrender and let the waitstaff bring you what they will -- simply taking your chances can sometimes be the whole point of travel, after all.
4. Stick to What's Familiar
When in doubt, you may want to stay in familiar gastronomic waters. If you don't know the names of every fish in French, you might want to limit your options and go with what you do know -- learn the word for flounder, and stick with it.
5. Use Simple Language
At the same time that you are confounded by local menus and language, the folks who are trying to help you most likely feel the same way. Cut them and yourself a break by using simple, straightforward language. For example, I traveled to Central America on a surf trip with a guy who spoke very little Spanish, but insisted on calling every menu entry a "dish" -- so he would ask in English, "What was that dish Ed had yesterday?" Meanwhile, the waiters were scratching their heads, wondering why the guy wanted a dish -- did he want food on it too? Keep it simple and you have a better chance of being understood.
Particularly in popular tourist destinations, restaurant workers are very much accustomed to meeting folks from out of town. They also know almost immediately that you are not a local. I grew up near Atlantic City, NJ, and even as kids we could spot tourists and foreigners before they spoke a word. We didn't spend a whole lot of time or energy worrying about it; it was routine in the extreme.
So relax. You're not the first person to stumble into a restaurant and mangle the pronunciation of every entree, and you won't be the last. Of course you will run into impatient or just plain surly restaurant staff -- which just means that it's no different than at home. Let it ride and try to enjoy the funhouse; there is always an exit door eventually, even if it is the plane ride home.
Confused by when and how much to tip at a foreign restaurant? See Tips for Tipping Abroad.