Culture always has a tons of different layers. Some things are very obvious and some things are far more subtle. Take for example the German cultural habit of wishing anyone else who is eating “Guten Appetit”. It literally means “Good Appetite”, but comes across more as a wish for a nice meal. Even after 5 years, it still feels odd.
What do you say in English?
This is a question I hear fairly often from Germans. We are all sitting at a restaurant. The waitress brings the food and wishes everyone a Guten Appetit. Then the friends all wish it to each other. Then someone who speaks English well notices me and thinks to ask how we say it in English. They want not just a translation, but the similar wish for a good meal. I pretty much have to answer, “Umm.. we don’t do that.”
Sure, often a waitress will say “Have a good meal,” but that doesn’t have the same charm. Nor is it something you wish all to your friends around the table. As near as I can figure from looking at my own culture, we in English speaking places just don’t say it.
Cheers for Food, yet More
So from looking around a table with friends when the food comes, out comes this wish for a good meal. Ok, so I think it is like “cheers” for food. You know when you all have a round of beer and clink glasses, but for food. Thankfully no clinking of plates required. And it is this, to an extent. Yet it goes beyond just the cheers idea.
When I am eating in the kitchen at work people will come through for coffee or something else and wish me a Guten Appetit. I am just calmly reading a book and some colleague heads through for a smoke and out it comes, “have a good meal”. I of course have learned to just say “danke” and be about my business, but it still feels odd. Especially when I see someone else sitting and eating, I would never think of intruding into their meal with my well wishes. So at this point I don’t think it is just cheers, but something more.
Variations on the Theme
To further this there is apparently a more blue collar working man’s version of Guten Appetit in the form of “Mahlzeit!”. This is said in nearly a grunt, according to the story I heard. Less of the cheerful Guten Appetit as you go about your business, but more of a short version implying “ok, that whole wishing of good meal is out of the way in as few syllables as possible, lets get to eating.” I take it as a working man’s way of not wasting too much precious lunchtime on the formalities. Maybe I take that story too far, but I like the idea. Mahlzeit translates as “mealtime”, so I don’t think I am too far off here.
Cheers for drinks was mentioned before. In German it is most often encountered as “Prost”. Then each pair of drinkers must clink their glasses together and look each other in the eye while doing it. The eyes is apparently important. The consequence of not doing so is some amount of bad sex according to legend. This is a reasonable custom in a group of 4 or 5, but with a table of 12 it gets lengthy.
I wonder sometimes if my colleagues think I am rude for not wishing them a good meal. When I am at work I tend to be in my own mind and the cultural subtleties often drop away. And really I wonder sometimes, are they somehow worried that if I am not wished a good appetite that I will lose interest in food altogether and starve. I assure you I will not. It ends up being like a lot of cultural habits. I still don’t really understand the purpose other than “politeness”.
So wonderment apart, if you find yourself amongst Germans in an eating situation be sure to wish your fellow dinners a Guten Appetit.
September 10, 2012 @ 9:31 pm
Haha! Even after years in the US I still fing it uncomfortable to sit at a table with other people and everybody just starts digging in without saying anything. Marco and I usually either just say “Guten Appetit” or “Buon Appetito” to each other or whoever else is at the table and people indulge us by saying the same thing – maybe we get away with it because we’re weird foreigners anyways 🙂
September 11, 2012 @ 8:50 am
I ride a lot on that idea. “Get away with it because we are weird foreigners.” I somehow thrive in this space. Little do they realize that I am just weird, even in my own culture. They just accept every bit of my weird as foreigner weird.
September 12, 2012 @ 7:41 pm
Same here 🙂
September 3, 2012 @ 7:18 am
It doesn’t strike me as odd for the waiters and waitresses to say Guten Appetit, since they are bringing the meal, but it would never occur to me to say it to other people at the table. It does throw me off a bit though when I’m out eating and a random person comes by and says it. The closest I can think of in English would be when a waitress drops off the meal and says “Enjoy” or some variation, but that’s just the person bringing the food.
September 9, 2012 @ 10:42 pm
I notice it mostly at work in the kitchen where there are no waitstaff. I will have to notice it when I go out more. Though I definitely have heard it amongst diners in a group at a restaurant. It is somewhat related to the idea that food comes out when it is ready, not nessicarly all together. Wishing Guten Appitit is a way of signalling, “please go ahead and start.” to those who just got food.
I make the joke sometimes that in the US, you more often hear “can I get you anything else” instead where “Guten Appitit” comes in. Yay, economics.
September 2, 2012 @ 1:45 pm
I’m similar- sometimes I don’t wish my colleagues a good meal because I’m reading or doing my own thing. It took me weeks to get used to the Mahlzeit thing.
Sometimes I like to mix it up a little and say things that are similar to Mahlzeit to see if anyone notices. Like Marzipan.
As for English- it’s been my experience that the American version of the same thing is just to use the non-English phrases like Bon Appetit. ::shrug:: Your mileage my vary.
September 9, 2012 @ 10:39 pm
Ha. I will definitely have to try that wishing people Marzipan for lunchtime.
I have definitely mentioned that we hear the French Bon Appetit, but it feels more formal somehow. You hear it in more upscale places, not in the local casual place like here.
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September 1, 2012 @ 7:30 pm
I’ve run into the same problem in other languages too. They have a similar expression to ‘Guten Appetit’ and want to know the English equivalent. I try to answer, but they have a hard time understanding that we don’t say anything before eating–at least nothing non-religious.
And the ‘Prost’ ritual here in Germany drives me crazy. It’s like they’ve even managed to overly organize drinking. Way to live up to the stereotype.
September 9, 2012 @ 10:37 pm
That is a hilarious thought. That something so simple and basic is over organized.
I wonder if English is the only one without it? I can’t imagine that, but I wonder.
September 1, 2012 @ 6:24 pm
I’ve gotten that same question when traveling abroad, and it’s kind of embarrassing that we don’t wish each other an enjoyable meal before diving into food.
September 9, 2012 @ 10:35 pm
Why is that embarrassing? I think if anything it just shows we place different emphasis on food. I agree, we should perhaps be more social and such, but to wish a good meal still seems odd for me.
August 31, 2012 @ 10:07 am
In my office, people will just say “Mahlzeit!” to people randomly as they are walking through the hallway anytime between the hours of 11 and 1. Is this to remind people that lunch is, in fact, happening today? I still don’t know.
September 5, 2012 @ 10:57 am
Maybe I can help with this 🙂
I am a native German speaker (well, Austrian – some would say that this is not German 😉 ) but I only got this long after I started to work. The “Mahlzeit” between 11 and 1 is just a greeting – like, after Guten Morgen (good morning) you say Mahlzeit, then maybe Guten Tag, Guten Abend and so on.
It has not much to do with anyone eating.
September 9, 2012 @ 10:46 pm
Austrian is close enough for that to be fine advice.
ok, so it is a greeting, as I surmised in an earlier reply to Mandy (working through a long list). I do wonder if it regional like a lot of things in Germany (and Austria).
September 9, 2012 @ 10:34 pm
Ha. That is funny. It sounds a bit like a greeting.