Ask The Salty Waitress: When Abroad, Should I Try To Order In A Foreign Language?

Dear, Salty: Greetings from Brazil! I'm an American who recently moved to São Paulo and I'm loving the food scene here. However, when I dine out, I often worry about the language barrier. When I try to order in Portuguese, I feel it's great practice but I have this nagging thought that I'm slowing down my server, especially due to accent/pronunciation differences. On the other hand, if I order by simply pointing to menu items, I feel it may be seen as cold or blunt.

If you are serving someone who doesn't speak English, do you like it if they try to order verbally or do you prefer if they just point to something on the menu? Or is it more a general matter of how busy you are at the time?

Obrigado!G in SP

Oi G,

I have never worked in a restaurant in Europe—if only!—and it's not often that we get international visitors in Salty's diner. But I've traveled enough and chatted up enough people to answer your question.

You should definitely give ordering in Portuguese the old college try, especially now that you live abroad. It'll help you practice your speaking skills, which I don't have to tell you will come in handy if you plan to live abroad for more than two days. Second, and most importantly, you're showing courtesy to the locals by at least trying to speak their language. Even if your pronunciation or accent isn't perfect, when combined with pointing at the menu—just to be safe—you'll probably get your order across.

Maybe ordering in a foreign language makes it more a bit more likely that your order could be misheard, but that could be a silver lining. You'll get to try something new! Expand your horizons! Of course, if you need to convey something important, like an allergy, maybe you'll want to get confirmation that the server understood you. For severe allergies, you might even consider printing a card with your allergies or typing it into a translating app.

It's easy to fall back on English as the "universal language," but it's America-centric to assume that the whole world will just default to English to help us out. Putting the effort into at least attempting another language is to many people a sign of respect. I'm not guaranteeing some server won't snicker at your attempts to pronounce polvo à lagareiro, but at least you'll be making an attempt. When I was on vacation in Paris years ago, most servers and bartenders spoke English, but my hotel concierge told me they'd appreciate it if I stumbled my way through French first before they finally cut me off with "I can speak with you in English." Getting out of your comfort zone shows that you're trying. Maybe some servers will offer right away to switch to English, but I don't see the harm in using Portuguese.

I mean, if the tables were turned, I wouldn't be bothered in the least at a non-English speaker ordering in English at my diner. Actually, they'd have to, since I don't speak any other language fluently. As long as I can understand that you want steak and eggs and toast, I don't care how heavy your accent is.

Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or just a general question about life we can help you with? Email us: