As I’ve been living in Canada and the US for 3 years and especially had worked at a restaurant in Canada, I found out many differences in culture at restaurants between Japan and North America.
Common sense in one culture can be totally weird or even rude in another.
For expat wives mainly living in North America, I will share some typical common practices at restaurants in North America and 5 useful English phrases!
①Communication with servers starts with greetings!
Once you sat at the table, your server will come to you and greet.
Let’s greet back with a smile!
How are you doing today?
I am good, thanks! How are you?
They rarely greet you in this way at restaurants in Japan but rather just say “Irasshai-mase” meaning “welcome!”.
It’s always a good idea to give “how are you” back to a server!
②It’s not very polite to say “excuse me” out loud to call your server
This is another cultural difference but we just always say “Hello” or “Excuse me!” to catch the server’s attention especially at casual places, but they don’t really do this in North America.
It’s mainly because each table has a designated server and you are supposed to always ask your server to help.
If it takes too much time, you can of course try to catch the server’s attention by eye contact or raising your hand.
When you are ready to order, you can just say to the server
I am ready to order.
③Your server is circling around you and ask if you need help
In Japan, servers rarely talk to you while they walk around, but it always happens in the US.
Everything is Okay?
You can ask for some help or another drink on this occasion.
They sometimes ask you if you finished your meal or not, saying
Are you done with it?
No, I am still working on it.（if you haven’t finished it yet）
This is another useful phrase to remember!
④You can take out your leftover in North America (or many countries other than Japan…)
The portion of your meal at restaurants in the US or Canada is generally big for Japanese or Asians.
Good thing is that you can always ask to bring the leftover to home if you can’t finish.
You can just say…
Can I get this to go?
Then your server will either pack the food up or bring a box for you to use.
While Japan is known for its “Mottainai” (“don’t waste things”) culture, it’s not common to bring your leftovers out maybe due to food safety or health concerns.
⑤Time to check
In Japan, they often leave your bill once you stop ordering at casual bars or restaurants.
Here in North America, you are supposed to ask your server to bring a bill for you.
The good phrase in this situation is just
Could I get a bill?
Get a bill and finish payment!
Two more things…
You are always expected to tip (15% to 20% in general) when you receive service at a restaurant or any other places. This is uncommon not just in Japan but even many other countries including Europe.
Say “Thanks” whenever they serve you!
Whenever you are guided to your table, served a glass of water, drink or your meal, just don’t forget to say “Thank you”. When you show your gratitude, you will get a better service.
What I feel living in North America for 3 years now is that servers or shop/restaurant staffs and customers are “equal”.
There is no notion or saying like “The customer is king” in usual places other than 5-star hotels.
Japan is known for its good service culture, and we Japanese sometimes take good services for granted and don’t fully appreciate it.
Here in the US, the relationship between you and your server is closer and can be rather casual.
This, in other words, means it’s easy to “make friends” with them or communicate with them, and all these are good for your English study and cultural immersion!
Even if you don’t really good at speaking English, just don’t forget about smile and saying “Thanks”!