One time, we had a short-mid-term guest. One of their habits is scooping food from jars and other containers with a spoon that just came from their mouth - peanut butter, Nutella, mayonnaise, everything. We let them cook because they were enthusiastic about sharing their recipes. At dinner, they served from the main dish using their utensils that came right out of their mouth, and used them to put food on our plates. I know they meant well, but we consider that practice unsanitary. They were Russian.

There were other situations with other people, and in them, I/we requested them not to do what they did because we believe they were unsanitary practices. The answer was always "it's our culture" and at times, they got offended and said we were too rigid or "we don't know how to get along with people". It seems like the only answer is to not invite or hire them next time, but you never know. How do we tactfully tell people that what they're doing is unsanitary without infringing on their culture?

I don't only want to know how to tactfully say it, but, yes, I want to let them know that their practice in our locale is unacceptable and that they should change their behavior while they're around, especially in my house. I am an American from New England, if that has any significance.

  • This question is being discussed on meta. Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 19:16
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    The girl in the cafeteria was from Argentina. The guests who double-dip were Russian, and not just peanut butter - any food in a jar or any container, including dipping their toothbrush in the baking soda box they know we use for baking. The cleaning lady was American from the rural Mid-west. I am an American from New England. One day, I will understand what is and isn't acceptable in this very difficult SE. Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 20:57
  • Looks a lot better now ;)
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 21:53

2 Answers 2


In all three cases, you have to find a balance between how much you are willing to offend them, and how much you care about your own health. I'll start with the easiest one.

We once hired a cleaning lady from a different country. She took the sponge from our sink and used it to clean the toilet, and put it back. Now she used that same sponge to do the dishes.

In this case, you hire someone to do some work according to your specifications. If you hire them to make your place cleaner, the job description does not include sampling bacterial growth from the toilet and spreading it on your tableware. Anyone doing that in a restaurant would get fired immediately.

So, easy case: someone who is hired to clean should understand cleanliness. This employee doesn't have the skills required to do the job. If they consider it normal to clean the toilets and the kitchenware with the same sponge while you watch, just imagine what they do when you don't watch. Just fire them. No need for subtle interpersonal skills in this case, since you're the one paying!


At the self-serve line at the cafeteria, we had a group from another country visit. One girl took the serving spoon, put it in her mouth to taste it, and then put it back on the dish. This must be something they do all the time in that country and they think it's alright.

In this case, I suppose you care more about the person, so you'll have to be a bit more tactful.

It is unsanitary, but you seemed to have trouble convincing her. I suggest using a different angle and getting offended yourself (fake it if you must). The idea is to convince her that it is rude, which should be a lot easier than convincing her that it is unsanitary.

If (as you imply) she recently arrived in the country, learning the ways of the locals is part of adjusting to a new culture, so gently telling her that something is considered rude here is a normal part of this process. It does not require her to adjust her own views and prejudices. Much easier.

You could mention that sucking on the spoon and putting it back in the dish is rude here. If she wonders why, tell her it's like spitting in the dish... which she kinda did, indirectly.

This is similar to good old Gordon's method, which is based on rephrasing stuff like "You're annoying!" into "I don't like it when you do this." The latter has a much higher chance of success for obvious reasons: there is no accusation, and it leverages her will to be nice to you. It has the drawback of only working on people who actually care about not annoying you though, but this should be the case.

In any case, pick your food from another dish.

At dinner, they served from the main dish using their utensils that came right out of their mouth, and used them to put food on our plates. I know they meant well, but we consider that practice unsanitary.

We don't "consider" that practice unsanitary. It is objectively unsanitary. According to WHO, 67% of world population carries herpes HSV-1. I don't, and I like it that way. The stat is high enough that if you make it a habit to share utensils/glasses at parties, then you will be part of the 67%. It is quite inconvenient. Not to mention EBV, CMV, Hepatitis, Strep, etc... and the common cold.

Also, it is flu season. It isn't germ-phobic or silly to avoid contamination and inconvenince by using simple common sense.

The answer was always "it's our culture" and at times, they got offended and said we were too rigid or "we don't know how to get along with people".

This is where things get uneasy. Their retort is a simple and common shaming tactic which aims to shift the blame on you. You don't know how to get along with people! It is an attempt to make you conform to their own culture. However, this happens at your place: your house, your rules.

How to reply depends on how rude you are willing to be. If you never invite them again after this (as you suggest), think about it: it is actually pretty rude, and in a sneaky way. If their cooking tastes great, and they are fun to be with, it's a bit of a bummer.

The most polite thing to do would be the same as the previous one: tell them it makes you uneasy, and you will have trouble enjoying the food. Since it is the flu season, you can even insist that the news repeats every day that we should be extra careful about contamination! Or you can agree & amplify their shaming tactic and pretend you are indeed a bit phobic of germs and they should respect your quirks.

Also, really, licking the spoon and putting it back in the dish is like spitting in the soup.

An important thing is not to fall into the shaming tactic: when they say you "don't know how to get along with people" just laugh it off. And if they say it's part of their culture, this is just a lame excuse: just pretend you didn't hear it.

You can rub it in by microwaving your plate to sterilize it ;)

Personally though, if they still don't get it after the gentle and diplomatic attempt, I would simply escalate to stage two:

I'm French: we have weaponized cheese.

  • Thank you for taking your time to thoroughly answer all 3 scenarios. I deleted #1 and #3 because I guess we're not supposed to list multiple scenarios even if to me, they are examples that support the issue, thus not too broad or off-topic. I guess it's alright to be a bit beyond firm when necessary. Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 2:32

TL;DR - just go with it. If the guest is a friend, make a joke of it.

Contrary view: Would you kiss that girl? If you fancied her?

If you wouldn't because of your sexual preferences, would you be disgusted - for hygiene reasons - if a friend expressed a liking and you saw them kissing her?

If the answer to either is "No" then I suggest you have nothing to worry about.

I have the same Western European culture and licking the spoon? Euuh. What's that about.... But if she does it because of her culture, I'd try and take it as a chance to be worldly. We are rather hyper-hygienic these days.

Give other cultures credit for having different but equivalent standards. We don't see stories "100,000 x culture died this year for dirty spoons, their cooks put them in their mouths, the beasts"

I'd like to balance it with advice, "however you could also mention to her, .." but I can't think of a polite way you could do that if she isn't a friend.

If you're good friends just tell her, not very polite. Make it your fault ("It's my upbringing but I just can't quite feel comfortable") and if she is any sort of decent human being she will understand you mean and are helping her out, "In this country, I don't do this."

Conversely if you go to her culture, you will be ready to eat from the same bowl or whatever. You'd be very offensive if you refused!

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    DOing something someone says is unsanitary while a guest in their home is rude. (At least, once you've been asked to stop.) On top of that, you not only advise the OP let it go, you also advise that instead of doing the same while visiting said other culture, OP should just follow that culture? It sounds to me more like you're advertising the OP just not stand up against unsanitary practices ever, and even partake if their friends do.
    – Kendra
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 21:22
  • I think we'll have to agree to differ! I think, as a host courtesy is making a guest comfortable, or as a guest conforming the best you can to the host's customs. Note I am , I agree, making the assumption "using the spoon to cook with in my mouth" is not actually insanitary really. Perhaps compare "I was in France and they wanted me to eat snails". (Personally I'd refuse .. but put the blame on me. Yuck). If the question was "My guest prefers to go out to the street to relieve herself" or something blatent, I would have a different answer
    – Bob
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 21:27
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    Taking a spoon from one's mouth and putting it in any sort of food to be served is unsanitary. You transfer the bacteria from your mouth to the spoon or other utensil, and from there to the container of food. This then allows others to catch things you may have, such as flu, cold, or anything else really. I agree on making guests comfortable- If your guest's culture says they, for example, belch loudly after a meal to show compliments to the cook... Take the compliment. But spreading bacteria? No. Especially (not noted in OPs case but it would set me off) with young children in flu season.
    – Kendra
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 21:37
  • If OP has vulnerable people involved then its a whole different question, for sure. In that case I totally agree "Person X is vulnerable to bacteria so we have to be really careful, please don't do that" (worded better) would be the best response. No need to worry about them being offended. I think we'll disagree about if average children are that vulnerable, but I think we'll agree it's the parents job to decide.
    – Bob
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 22:05

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