10 European Etiquette Rules You Should Know

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Jesse Morrow / Stocksy)

No matter how well-mannered we may be back home, Europe can be a minefield of faux pas just waiting to happen. I’ve made my fair share, to be sure. For the life of me I still can’t get that cheek kiss thing right — how many, and which side was it first?

Here are some tips to keep in mind from someone who’s learned the hard way, plus a few friends who either live in or travel frequently to Europe.

1. Use your library voice.

Please, for the love of all that is holy, turn down the volume. I don’t know why we talk so loudly in America, but boy do our voices boom in the cathedrals, museums, and cozy restaurants of Europe.

Stop and listen to a conversation between, I dunno, a couple of Brits. Take mental note of their volume on a scale of one to 10. Now go stand by the Americans. See? You don’t even have to be close to pick up every word of their conversation.

Just go more for library voice than gym voice and you’ll be fine.

2. Use social niceties when asking where the toilets are.

My friend Jesse studied in Paris and shared this tidbit: Americans have the tendency to jump right in a conversation with a stranger and they find this jarring in France.

American way: “Hey do you know where the restroom is?”

Parisian way: “Excusez-moi, où sont les toilettes?” (There is always some kind of “excuse me” or “sorry to bother you.”)

3. Greet shopkeepers when you enter a store and say goodbye when you leave.

It’s quite rude to not acknowledge them, plus, the greeting gives you a chance to strike up a conversation. Chatting with a shopkeeper could lead to any number of wonderful discoveries (such as the best gelato nearby) and it can just be fun!

Warning: You may find when you come back home that it feels incredibly weird to not do this.

4. Treat your server like a professional.

There is a laundry list of rules that vary from country to country. In general, treat your server like a professional, which they are, and never gesture, snap your fingers, or otherwise treat them as subservient. (For that matter, please don’t do that anywhere.)

5. Don’t ask for substitutions or doggie bags; do ask for the bill.

In most countries, don’t try to deviate from the menu; a fine Parisian restaurant is not the place to ask for a side of ranch dressing or to sub the chef’s vegetable of choice. Diana, a friend in Italy, tells me substitutions are more likely to be acceptable there, if requested politely.

Oh, and don’t ask for a doggie bag (although I totally saw my Airbnb host in Paris get away with taking leftovers … for the chickens at her castle in the countryside!)

Take note that you do have to ask for the bill; they find it rude to rush you by offering it. Another Italian asterisk here: Diana says, “It’s custom to go to the front desk to pay in Italy — even in nice restaurants. The staff really does not want to bother you.”

6. Don’t overtip.

As weird as this feels to us, big tips are not the norm. “A small tip is appreciated in restaurants, but it can be just rounding up the bill,” Diana says. Sure enough, I’ve seen a family at a restaurant in the French countryside leave 100 euros for a 98 euro tab (I’m not that nosy; the tables are just super close!)

7. Don’t touch the produce at the market.

Yes, I know, here at home we touch and caress and poke and prod fruits and veggies within an inch of their life before we commit to buying them. But try that at your own risk at a market in Europe. If you do want to handle something, grocers in Italy will give you a plastic glove, Diana says.

8. Let people exit the trains before entering.

This one comes from my friend Iain from Paris, but file it under “applies anywhere”: Let people exit the trains before entering. Another metro tip: Stay on the right side of the escalator if you are not going to climb.

9. Do not assume everyone speaks English.

Even better, learn a few phrases before your trip: please, thank you, I’m sorry, you’re welcome, excuse me, where is the bathroom, may I have, and do you speak English.

(And when they say no, but they actually do, they weren’t just punking you. Nobody likes to look bad, and though they might — and probably do — have amazing language skills, they could be self-conscious and think their English is too poor to use. Compliment them on it and thank them for speaking it.)

10. Try to have the right, or at least close, change.

This might seem random, but you’re not going to make friends at the checkout when they have to break a 50 — maybe even a five — euro bill for your bottle of water. For sure they’re going to grumble, and they may even refuse it.

Now then, you’re on your way to being a wonderful ambassador of your country. But what have we missed? What other rules of etiquette might we inadvertently breach in Europe?