The etiquette of visiting around the world
Leave shoes on or take them off? Bring flowers or wine? Call in advance or drop in? What to do?
Some of our contributors got their heads together and came up with a very useful guide on how to avoid social blunders when visiting these countries: Canada, Spain, France, Costa Rica, United States, England,
Canada – Kelly
Growing up in a smaller town, there were few formalities for visiting. A phone call between friends might be as brief as “Hey, can I come over?” or, as kids, “What are YOUR parents cooking for dinner?”. Even that call, though, was not necessary. My parents’ house would always, and still does, have guests dropping by the informal back door entrance. While some guests may ring the bell or knock, family and dear friends know they are always welcome. They are free to walk right in, call their greeting, and settle in.
Shoes, boots, and coats are almost always left by the door. Often even if the host suggests leaving them on. This is done, in part to save the house from the mess of Canadian weather (mud, snow, slush) and in part to feel that relaxation of being in a private home instead of out in public. We always greet newer guests with “make yourself at home”, and we mean this. A true friend is one who will start the tea themselves or load the dishwasher after dinner, without the host saying a word.
For more formal occasions, such as a dinner party, guests often will bring the host a small contribution for the evening, or to be saved for later enjoyment: a bottle of wine is most common and flowers are often appreciated.
While inside another’s home, we are always offered a beverage. Most Canadian guests will only wish to accept if “the coffee is already on” or the host was planning on getting something for themselves already. Of course, the host will usually insist that it is no big deal or that of course they would have served refreshments even if they were alone. Now everyone gets a drink and no one feels like they are imposing. It is the rules of being polite.
Guest etiquette in Spain – Marta
In Spain, the majority of the population lives in flats, especially in big cities, this is why it is more common to meet with people outside the house. When we plan on visiting friends or family at their place, we usually call in advance just to make sure that it is a good time for them. As for telephoning your friends, you usually avoid calling them before 9 am or after 9 pm or during meal times.
If you are meeting someone from work, or older than you, and the relationship between both of you is formal, the form of address you use is “usted”, as using the form “tú” might be considered impolite. The most formal method to greet someone is a handshake, but we also love to kiss people, one kiss on every cheek starting with your right side. We usually kiss on the cheeks if the relationship is between friends or even acquaintances; the exception is if the two people are men, they usually just shake hands.
Unless your feet are wet or dirty because of snow, rain, or mud, we never expect guests to take their shoes off when they come home. We usually leave the guest coats in the hall or in the room next to the door entrance so they feel comfortable.
When you receive friends at home, you always offer a cup of coffee or some other beverage and sweet or savoury things to accompany it. Depending on the hour, you offer different things, for example, a Sunday at midday, you would offer something cold and usually alcoholic to drink and different tapas (cheese, olives, ham) to eat a little something but not so much that you’re not hungry to have lunch later.
If you are invited to a dinner party, it is common to ask the hosts what they want you to bring. If the host does not suggest anything in particular, a box of chocolates, a bottle of wine (usually red) or a bouquet of flowers are usually very welcome. Be careful with flowers and their meanings, though, if you give red roses, the message is passion, so, unless you want to marry the host of the party, choose a different colour or some safer option with no hidden meanings such as chocolates!
Costa Rica – Nuria
Visiting friends and families’ homes is pretty common in Costa Rica, but people prefer visits to be arranged in advance. When invited to a house for dinner or a party, it is typical to bring something such as flowers, wine, food or chocolates. Gifts are usually wrapped and opening them immediately is a sign of courtesy. Also, it is common for people to arrive a little after the agreed time, but no more than thirty minutes because that would be considered impolite.
We Costa Ricans are very polite and friendly, so visitors are expected to say “Con permiso” when entering a house, which literally means “with permission”, but is considered the equivalent of the phrase “Excuse me”. In Costa Rica, visitors do not need to take their shoes off, and women usually keep any sweaters and purses with them. It is good manners to accept what the host offers to eat and drink, and it is also polite to offer help in the kitchen as a way of showing gratitude.
France – DeeBee
Etiquette? Well, it is a French word after all, so should French be experts at it?! The problem with Etiquette is that it evolves along with society.
Good manners expected by the older generations might come across as being obsolete if not ridiculous nowadays but most French people still expect a minimum of manners… and those who were not taught them when they were young find it hard work manoeuvring in social circles without pilling up behavioural mishaps. The end result is that quite a few people feel socially insecure and desperately try “to do it right” and just “do it wrong”!
Some of these mishaps can be quite funny or hilarious. Here is a short list of a few things that French would and won’t do:
- We won’t take our shoes off as it is very rude from a hostess to request such a thing! It’s safer as well as some people may have smelly feet!
- We don’t stare at the decoration of the rooms as if we were planning a future break-in!
- We don’t touch objects, even if we love antiques.
- We don’t sit down at the table before being invited to do so by the hostess.
- Some people seem to be starving so much that they even start attacking the hors d’oeuvre before she does. This is a big NO!
- We don’t check the brand of the plates or the cutlery.
- We never eat all the food in our plate but leave a tiny portion of each ingredient to show our appreciation but also to show that we had not been on a starving diet before accepting the invite!
- We respect the order of cutlery, in other words we don’t use the dessert fork or the cheese knife for the starters!
- We never ever spread our Foie Gras (goose liver) on our bread. Spreading is for jam or butter or ordinary pâté only, and doing so would jeopardise you being re-invited to a dinner party!
- We don’t drink our wine too quickly like a soft drink.
- We don’t ask the price of the bottle even if we find that wine delicious…
England – Liz
In England it’s generally quite rare to ‘pop round’ (visit) unannounced, unless it’s someone you know very well.
The exception is neighbours, who might ring the doorbell without calling first – although they usually have an excuse, for example needing to borrow some sugar. As I grew up in the countryside, another reason for neighbours’ visits could be “did you know there is a sheep / cow in your garden?” – but I think this is not common unless you live in a small village surrounded by farms!
If you do ring the doorbell without having arranged a visit, your host might just chat for a while on the doorstep if they are busy, otherwise they will invite you in. It’s quite normal to entertain guests in the kitchen, and refreshments are low key – you might be offered a cup of tea or coffee, or you might just sit at the table and chat for a while. If you’re offered food, it’s usually a biscuit straight out of the biscuit tin.
In most houses you keep your shoes on inside; occasionally guests will take their shoes off and leave them at the door.
There’s no set time for a visit – most times visits last 20-30 minutes but you might stay longer, depending on how busy you and your host are, and how the conversation is flowing. Staying too long is called ‘outstaying your welcome’ and will be signalled by your host looking increasingly nervous and maybe starting to fidget.
If you are visiting someone you don’t know very well (or even someone you do know well) you will probably arrange a day and time in advance. It’s considered rude to arrive more than a few minutes early or more than ten minutes late. If you’re going to be late you should call, apologise and maybe even ask if your host prefers to rearrange for another time.
A visit which is arranged in advance will generally be a bit less casual. You might sit in the living room and will be offered something to drink (again, usually tea or coffee) and maybe a small snack such as biscuits or a piece of cake.
United States – Sean
When visiting someone’s house in the USA for the first time, it’s important to remember that the many different cultures that make up the USA means that there is no one set of concrete “rules” to follow. Even regionally, you’ll find a relatively wide variation in guest and host behavior. Don’t be embarrassed to ask your host if you have questions about what’s appropriate.
First of all, you have to determine what kind of event you are attending. Is it a pot-luck (everyone brings a dish)? A dinner party, where the host is presenting a sit-down dinner? A group watching a sporting event? A friendly get-together? A birthday party? There are several degrees of formality, and these won’t be readily apparent, even to Americans. When confirming for an event, asking “what should I bring?” is a good way to start. You may be requested to bring beer or wine, a small food item, a simple snack (chips or crisps, etc.), or nothing at all. You can also ask “what should I wear”? People don’t always dress up in the US, and you don’t want to show up over (or under) dressed for an occasion.
Upon arrival, if you bring a jacket or purse, your host will tell you where you can put it, or will offer to take it to another room to store. Jackets are often stored in a neat pile on a bed, if closet space isn’t available. Your host will likely offer you a drink or snack, or inform you where you can find either to serve yourself. Many houses have a space by the door to place your shoes, especially in places where snowy winters mean water, salt, and sand on your shoes. Some don’t however; just do as other guests do, or ask your host. If you see shoes by the door, you should probably take yours off.
If you’re attending a celebration of Christmas, birthday, or other occasion where gifts might be given, you can ask the host if you should get them (or the honoree) a small gift. Note that “please don’t” doesn’t mean the same things as “you don’t have to”, or “only if you want to”. Wine, chocolate, flowers, tchotchkes from your home country, or other simple items should suffice. Make sure to ask if your hosts drink before bringing wine; there are some very strict “tee-totalers” in the United States, particularly in the South, where it may be seen as rude (or even scandalous) to bring alcohol. There are around 500 municipalities in the US where it’s still illegal to buy or sell alcohol (“dry” counties), again, mostly in the South. Also, if your hosts are very religious, make sure any other gifts you bring won’t offend. For example, a carved figurine of a Catholic saint is not going to be very welcome in many Southern Baptist homes.
Remember that Americans are like “peaches” in terms of building relationships; it’s pretty easy to penetrate to the acquaintance level, but friend-level is much harder to achieve. If you’ve been invited into someone’s home, you are trusted enough to be pulled in to a closer circle of friends… But don’t be surprised if one invitation does not lead to a blanket invitation to drop by any time. Americans value their personal space, and their private lives, and for many (especially in the age of cell-phones), dropping by someone’s home unexpectedly isn’t often appreciated. This may vary regionally, and depends on how “neighborly” the particular place in the US is. There are places in the US (usually less urban) where visitors may drop by unexpectedly; you can ask a friend about the local culture in this regard. It’s generally polite to return the favor by inviting your host to visit your place, or to invite them to dinner somewhere, if your apartment doesn’t accommodate visitors easily.
For kids, asking if you can come over to someone’s house to play is most times ok, but for adults this can be considered “inviting yourself over”, and is often considered rude. Wait to be invited, don’t ask. Even as a kid, there were some very formal families that I inadvertently offended by “inviting myself over”, to play with their son or daughter. Even a phrase such as “drop by anytime” should not necessarily be taken at face-value.
You may greet the host with a simple hand-shake; if you’re very close with them, or if they’re of European or Latin background, there may be single, or very infrequently double, kisses on the cheek among men/women or women/women (but generally not men/men). Close friends may hug, but if you’re not sure, start by reaching out for a handshake. If you’re a man, and your host (or his partner) is a women (or vice versa), offer your hand to shake if you see a woman doing the same; otherwise, just smile and nod approvingly when you’re introduced. Women don’t always shake men’s hand upon meeting. Do smile a lot and make eye contact (but don’t stare), regardless. Americans love good-natured, genuine smiles.
In general, Americans like to believe that people across the globe share more commonalities than differences. They also are eternally optimistic, and opinionated. It’s often said that you shouldn’t discuss politics, religion, race, or rival football teams when amongst unfamiliar company. You might find your hosts dive into these topics, but just remember that dissenting opinions aren’t always appreciated, especially if you and your host and their guests are not terribly familiar with each other. Many Americans have never been outside of the US, or even outside of their own state, so don’t assume that someone you’re talking with will have any kind of context for where you come from, that there are different morals or customs in other places, or that their “analysis” of your own culture or national politics might come off as rude. America is a place of incredible diversity in some places, but incredible cultural/ethnic similarity in others, and attitudes and beliefs may vary widely. Don’t be worry too much though; if someone has invited you to their house, they are likely not interested in (intentionally) making you feel uncomfortable.
We would like to hear from our readers too. What are the most common etiquette rules in your country?