I considered putting this question into the Travel stackexchange but this issue feels like it's more to do with interpersonal skills and communication than actually travelling. I'm happy for it to be moved if necessary.

To put it briefly, I have a particular, very uncommon phobia which happens to overlap with a food that's considered a delicacy in many countries. I've found myself in a number of situations where I have to turn down high quality, expensive food because I simply can't bring myself to put it in my mouth, and I'm worried that this comes off as rude.

I'm very adventurous when it comes to new foods and more than happy to try something new, but this food is the one exception for me. Unfortunately it's common enough that it comes up from time to time, but not so common that I can simply avoid any restaurant that might serve it.

Ordinarily it would be simple enough to explain that it's due to a phobia I have, but this is a much bigger issue when travelling in countries where my hosts might have limited, if any, English-speaking skills, and come from a culture that might be less sensitive when it comes to mental health issues. In these cases my hosts may end up pressuring me to try this food, because I 'might like it', but though I hate to, I still have to refuse.

This happened last time I travelled, when my hosts invited me out for a big family dinner with about 10 other people, and I had to turn down the feature dish. The people around me seemed quite confused and perhaps a little hurt that I didn't want to partake. I'm travelling again soon and, being a bit of a foodie, have plans to eat at a number of high-end restaurants, but I'm worried about this coming up and that I'll offend the chef.

I've tried steps to manage my phobia over the last few years and have come a long way. It's a lot milder than it used to be but eating the things that trigger it is still not something I can do, and may never be. I'm worried that if I did just suck it up and try it I would end up vomiting and causing a significantly worse situation.

Obviously learning the local word for 'phobia' would be a start, but I'm not sure how effective this is. Is there a universally-applicable way that I can tactfully refuse this food if it's put in front of me without seeming rude?

  • 3
    It's not an ideal solution as it involves lying, but could your phobia be explained as an allergy or intolerance to your hosts if need be? IMOE, some cultures are more accepting of physical complications than mental ones.
    – user8671
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 7:49

2 Answers 2


I don't know what the food is, but let's say it's shrimp. You are free to say

I cannot eat shrimp.

Some people have religious restrictions, others are allergic, and others have a terrible memory associated with the last time they ate it. In general, asking you why is rude, but it may happen. You are not obliged to explain. In fact, a long talk about how disgusting it is and how you start to gag etc is likely to "yuck someone's yum" and put the others off their meal. So say something like

I don't want to get into the details, I just can't eat it. But I have no problem watching you all enjoy it so please, go ahead!

If someone says to you "but you might like it" they are trying to be nice. So you want to be nice when you tell them they are wrong:

Thankyou, I wish I would. Trust me, I know from other times that I cannot eat it.

You can then repeat your end-the-discussion point like

I am fine not eating it, please, everyone go ahead.

Try to smile. You are happy to be here. You are not upset that one of the things on offer is something you can't eat. You are pleased that your hosts care about the food that is available to you. Reassure them about that with your expression.

  • 3
    "In general, asking you why is rude" is ironic since a question titled "how to deal with someone refusing to eat my food for no apparent reason?" will 100% be answered on this SE with "show interest in their life and ask them why, take a chance to learn something about their condition/religion"
    – DonFusili
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 6:59
  • 1
    That is why I said "in general". Curiosity-based probing or challenging (is your reason good enough) probing are rude. It's possible that careful "is there some aspect of this I could change so that you could eat it) probing is not rude. The fact that you might be advised how to do something carefully and politely doesn't mean that all attempts at doing that thing are polite. Also, "there is no they" - if you asked me how to deal with someone saying "I can't eat x" I would not advise you to find out why so that you could learn about their condition. Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 13:04

If the communication by spoken language is the main problem, you might go with a white lie that is easier to express than the concept of phobia.

Tell them you cannot eat this for medical reasons.

If broken english is spoken, you can go with

My doctor says "do not eat this"

If you must communicate more by gestures than by language, with any luck the word "doctor" is still understood by your hosts. Point to the food, make a gesture of eating it, say "Doctor says no" and do the general gesture for "no" (like shaking your head or waving a finger in front of you).

That way you make your hosts understand that you will absolutely not eat this food and it's not because they've failed you in any way or you're trying to be rude. In some cultures where hospitality and pleasing manners are highly valued, this is a widely accepted way of saying "I don't want to eat this for whatever reason".

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