Spanish table manners, do you know the rules?

Sandwich MixtoTable manners in Spain can be a minefield for the uninitiated. Imagine, you are on a language program, sit down for the first meal with your host family, and wonder why they are doing those weird things with their bread…

Well, here are 5 quick rules to start with, perhaps you can add more in the comments:

1. Dipping your bread in the soup. Don’t you dare! Big faux pas (excuse my French, how do you say that in Spanish?) But…

2. Do use your bread as another piece of cutlery. Strange this one. Spanish people will often hold a fork in their right hand, and a small piece of bread in the left, which is then used to help push food gently onto the fork. Not really acceptable behavior in restaurants, but no problem en familia, and actually pretty handy – saves chasing those last few peas around the plate.

3. Get your elbows off the table! But put those hands where I can see them! Either side of your plate, muy bien. Hands left in laps are no friends to the Spanish dining table (and bad for your eyesight, or something).

4. Big spoons are for soups, lentils, beans etc (platos de cuchara), desert is to be eaten with something the size of a teaspoon. Very frustrating at times! Don’t be surprised to receive a small knife and fork with your croissant/morning tostada either – strange I know, but saves washing sticky hands afterwards.

5. Don’t stop talking for too long! Noise is key to any good family meal in Spain. Try to talk to the person diagonally opposite you, and shout if you have to make yourself heard, which is quite likely as everyone else in the room is also talking to the person diagonally opposite them as well. So rare is silence at a the Spanish table that they have an expression for such occasions based on an equally improbable event: “Ha pasado un angel!” – An angel has just flown over the table!

Any more Spanish table manners hints I’ve missed? What customs do you find strange in Spain?

48 thoughts on “Spanish table manners, do you know the rules?

  1. Edith

    No elbows on the table, and no hands under the table… that was one of my mother’s golden rules, too! :-)

  2. Katie

    two things:

    does the napkin go in the lap only when it’s big enough? i’ve noticed that few spaniards do it, except in a fancy restaurant.

    what’s olive pit protocol?

  3. Pepino (Dave Hall)

    I’m always putting my elbows on the table, but as I know it’s not considered a good move in some places, I tend to watch if others around me are doing it. So far, I’ve seen some pretty “posh” people doing exactly that, so I figured I’m on safe ground! jeje.

    Another thing related to table manners, is of course, wishing someone “buen provecho”, “que aproveche” or just plain old “bon apetito” when you see them eating. I find this one a bit weird at times. I can be stuffing a cheap, greasy butty down my gob in the office, and someone will make a special effort to come over to wish me “buen provecho”!

    I mentioned this to a colleague once, and he said it’s normal polite behaviour. He also asked me what we say in this situation in England…. “absolutely nothing” I replied, “unless you’re a waiter bringing food to a customer”. He looked at me like I was some kind of barbarian! jejeje :-)

  4. Jay

    One rule that is worth mentioning, if you ever show up after a meal has started, at a home or in a restaurant, the correct greeting is:

    “Buen provecho” (coloquial) or “Que aprovechen” (formal). Basically “bon appetite”, but they’re pretty serious about this. As serious as they are about all of their social dance norms.

  5. Chiny

    “No elbows on the table” goes back a long way. My grandmother (born 1900) used to phrase this as “All joints off the table except those to be carved”. As diets/habits change, this may be getting tricky to understand.

  6. Marina

    Hola Katie,

    Usually if you are in a good restaurant the napkins are made of proper material and not paper, in those cases most of the people will place the napkin on their laps. If they are paper napkins most people won’t bother as they tend to either end on the floor as soon as you move or they are so small that they are useless anyway.

    Regarding the elbows I think people are more relaxed about it these days but if you want to be sure to follow the rule… elbows off please!!!

  7. Jose

    Actually the thing about wishing people “buen provecho” or just saying “que aproveche” is an example of a custom that is widely extended and mistaken for good manners, but it is not.
    It is not a sign of bad manners neither; my father used to say it is a sign of not having been properly educated. It would be more of a “good manner custom of poorly educated people”.
    Anyway, it is a pretty extended practice nowadays, so I would’nt go as far as saying that it is bad manners any more… but I would not say it is good manners either… I’d say it is just a pretty extended custom. Actually I still consider it rude.
    And I’d say that good manners still state that one should make no comment at all about other people’s enjoying of their meal.

  8. Marina

    I forgot about the olive stones. If a bowl for stones is provided that is the place if not you should put them in a corner of your own dish.

  9. ValenciaSon

    Never have an ashtray to begin with, yuck! My fastidious uncle from Spain would never leave me alone about my elbows on the table and always having a piece of bread in hand when eating meals. What a pain he was! He kept saying “Pan, Pan, Pan”. I called him Big Ben, much to his confusion as he couldn’t speak english.

  10. sandy

    Talking about using your bread as another piece of cutlery, believe it or not, I found out it was one of the objectives for my daughter’s three-year old class in the kindergarden. Since then I have been doing it myself…….

  11. Edith

    I really like the small spoon rule for desserts! That’s just neat! In this way, it takes you longer to finish your dessert, yummy.

  12. Kay

    Recently at a rather elaborate “cena” in Madrid, I found myself putting the bread in the wrong place…on my plate instead of on the table(cloth).

  13. Ben Post author

    Good point Kay, I forgot that one, and often do indeed continue to put my bread on my plate even after 8 years in Madrid!

  14. Patty

    Are there specific table manners for sharing tapas? I’m wondering what to do if the dish needs to be cut up into smaller pieces or if ‘double dipping’ is allowed.

  15. Marina

    If you need to cut something into smaller pieces no problem just do it naturally… if people around you are fussy just make sure that you cut it before using your fork and knife for something else. Regarding double dipping I would avoid it by cutting whatever I’m using to dip (bread stick…) in smaller pieces. However I would say that dips are not generally a big thing in Spain, for example if Alioli comes to the table usually you spread it with a knife onto bread.

  16. Matthew Bennett

    What about this one: when there is one olive left on the plate, one piece of cheese, one slice of ham or just a couple of almonds, then it gets left on the plate. No-one touches it. Related to not clearing your plate entirely to show that you have finished and are happy: leave some food uneaten and people will see that you are indeed too full to eat any more and have enjoyed your meal.

  17. Ben Post author

    matthew – that last item on the plate is called the ‘Verguenza’ isn’t it? Something to do with the embarrassment of taking the last bit…

  18. Michale Holznagel

    Don’t raise your arms above your head to streach. Not really polite to begin with but after a very large Spanish meal I would sometimes feel the need to streach, but I had to remind myself that it is considered very rude to raise your arms up and streach.

  19. ValenciaSon

    I remember stretching being on the list in Spain. My uncle would get on my case for stretching at the table. Of course that meant I had to stretch. What is so wrong with stretching anyway? When I asked that question, he would respond with circular arguments, “eso no se hace porque no se hace” or “es de poca educacion”, YIKES!!.

  20. Edith

    In Holland, we also leave the last item (a cookie or a potato chip, for instance) on the plate. This doesn’t sound typically Spanish to me.

  21. Tessa

    This site was quite a help for me when i had to make a school assignment about social life in Spain. There are lot’s of things I didn’t know like the Verguenza. In Belgium the last bit of food is left as long as possible on the plate but eventually everyone is staring at it just as long till one is brave enough to ask. “Does anybody mind if i take the last one?” And then nobody dares to say no, cause Belgians are really to afraid to give their opinion.

  22. Kathy

    I have a Spanish exchange student and have noticed some habits that here in the USA are considered disgusting. Just wondering if they might be different in Spain. He takes large bites and chews with his mouth open, as well as eats quickly. He also tends to talk with food in his mouth. I don’t see these issues addressed by anyone and could use some help. These habits are creating a problem within our household.

  23. Ben Post author

    Kathy, those are bad habits anywhere, and are not representative of the Spanish in general, just bad up-bringing in this case perhaps!

  24. whitney

    i don’t agree with dont stop talking for long. some people are just quiet let them sit there if they don’t wanna talk.leave them be.

  25. sean

    is it true that in Spain you should not eat eggs with a knive? is this rule universal or only for Spain?

  26. Lluci

    Hi Sean. Yes, fried eggs should not be eaten with the help of a knife. They should always be cut with your fork or, if in trouble because they have “puntilla” (the crusty border), use a piece of bread to help the fork.

    And Kathy, in Spain chewing with your mouth open and having large mouthfuls is baaaaaaaad manners.

    “El de la vergí¼enza”, “la de la vergí¼enza”: Everybody feels embarrassed of taking the last piece in the central plate (not in their own, but in the central one), so that piece is called “the one of the embarrassment”. It will eventually be eaten, but if you want it you should ask first.

    And Jose, I do not think saying “que aproveche” or “buen provecho” is rude; Spain is quite vast and that may be in your region, certainly not in Central Spain. You should say it whenever you start eating (or when you finish, if in Catalonia) and when you enter a restaurant dining room and someone is having their meal, or when you are leaving and they are still eating.

  27. Lluci

    Now something about protocol.

    For the first course, you have to wait until everybody is served. Then you can start eating.

    For the second course, you do not have to wait; just start eating when your plate is served.

    For the desserts, again, you have to wait until everybody is served.

    And of course, you do not leave the table until everybody has finished.

    The head of the household sits at the head of the table. To his (sorry gals, it is normally a “he”) left, his wife. To his right, the woman of highest rank or the woman guest. The man guest sits to the left of the head’s wife. And then, woman-man-woman-man…

    As for the serving order, in Catalonia guests are served first, while in Central Spain is the head who is served first, then guests and then the rest of the diners.

    Enjoy your meal!

  28. sean

    Hi Lluci,

    thanks for the reply, but can you give me some reason/history to this particular etiquette? is it universal?

  29. isabel

    this are not “good manners”but iis so normal in a lot of spanish bars to throw everything to the floor…dont worry!your paper napking, your cigarrette, your olive bone, nobody would think you are unpolite, but make sure first that there is something on the floor alredy!

  30. Gary

    Eating custard with a teaspoon is a pain, but good custard is hard to find in continental Europe, the real thing – thick with skin, you know the deal

  31. piedad ortega

    Well after reaing all these articles I have to say that you all are right . Spaniers don’t have manners in the table , they are very rude cause they don’t say thanks and please not like british and americans. I like when a british person say it to me( please or thanks) without looking to me face . I alway think that it is parrot like style or empty manners. Yes, British people are more polite cause they use thaks or pelase , just for this.
    Also I always thought that all British were alcoholics and americans crazy racists who like guns.
    I also like when people from abroad go to Spain and they do not make an effort to learn a little of the spanish language or they take to Spain fish and chip aggg!!! disgusting. They don’t eat spanish food thay just prefer their own and also tey prefer going to british pubs and lots of pints and get pissed ( but at least they say please and thanks all the time). To sum up if British nad americans have so many complains about Spain, spanish and their manners, costums I don’t understand why they go there . The world is a huge planet . Anyway think twice before making any assumption I think it is very ignorant because people from abroad can have their own ideas about others cultures and it doesn’t mind that they are right it is just how you are by being shaped by your society

  32. piedad ortega

    Well sorry if I look defensive to you , it is just that I can’t believe that others are making fun about things that they see with their foreign eyes. My god like this comment about a person who has a spanish student at home and the guy takes large bites and chews with his mouth open and I don’t know what else. Kathy darling do you thing that those bad habits are happening just because the guy is spanish?

  33. españolito

    piedad, no te enfades, no captan tu ironia, para eso habria que tener al menos medio cerebro.
    Con la disculpa de que aman España y les interesa el Español, en este sitio, que el principio estaba muy bien hasta que a su dueño Ben le dio por el sensacionalismo barato, hay una pandillita de xenófobos, acomplejados, envidiosos y amargados muy interesante. La mayoria tiene un complejo de superioridad-inferioridad con respecto a España que es digno de estudio psiquiatrico. En fin, salvo algunas honrosas excepciones como Edith, aqui hay mucho xenofobo, prepotente e ignorante, pero seguro que no te estoy contando nada que no sepas.

    Obviamente, este es mi ultimo post aqui. Que os vaya bien a todos.

  34. Gary

    So, then, tucking the tablecloth in my shirt collar to prevent spillage and lifting the bowl to my mouth to slurp soup wont go down well ;-)

  35. Louise

    I’m not sure if the serving etiquette Lluci mentioned is universal to all of Spain. Here in Soria it’s much the same as in Catalonia, guests served first, then head of household, his sons, etc. I’ve been asked by my Tia to serve a few times, especially when she has a lot of guests, she always tells me who to serve first and its always the guests that are less ‘familiar’.
    The one & only telling off I’ve received (it dragged out for several hours) was when I arrived for lunch about 5 mins after the other invited guests. Because I wasn’t there to help set the table etc one of the other guests offered, which my Tia considered to be extremely shameful, that a guest had to help. I decided it wasn’t worth mentioning I was also an invited guest, but instead took it as a sign she considered me close family.

  36. Dawn

    Okay, since we’re on the topic of no-no’s, here’s one I’ve noticed, which no one has ever been able to explain to me (Ryan, do you have any insight??)

    Why is it considered back luck, when you’re pouring wine in Cádiz, to turn your wrist (and the bottle) to stop drops coming out of the bottle? More than once, I’ve had friends and acquaintances in Cádiz absolutely FREAK when I do this — “¡No lo hagas! ¡Mala suerte!” — but they’re always at a loss to explain exactly why doing this is bad luck. One person explained that it dates back to the Middle Ages (poisonous substances could be stored in a ring and then dumped into a wine glass when the wrist is turned), but considering people don’t wear big rings these days, this seems like a bit of a stretch.

    And this doesn’t seem to be a belief that extends outside of Cádiz — bar keeps and wait staff in Granada and Jaén, for example, have no problems turning their wrists to stop drops.

    Any insights?

  37. Pingback: Table Manners in Spain: Tackling The Tough Questions Like Where to Put the Olive Pit

  38. emilee

    what i dont get this…….. putting my hands under the table is to txt…….. n im used to not putting my elbows on the table!!!!!

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