The Importance of Learning Table Etiquette
At any age, regardless of our station in life or salary, we learn – and continue to practice – table manners for two reasons. One is to make others comfortable. How many of us have been forced to dine with someone who may have filthy hands, coughs all over the food and forces us to observe the as yet undigested bits of their food as they roll around gobs of food in their open mouths? Would we really wish to visit such vexatious behavior on others?
The second reason we learn table etiquette is to keep us from embarrassing ourselves. I know my water glass is on my right and won’t drink from another’s glass. By learning manners, I know to wait until the host begins eating so I won’t be halfway through my soup when the host says, “Bon Appetit!.”
When I was a child, my father carefully laid out a complete formal dining place setting and then began the process of educating me on how to eat in Western settings. I have found this education invaluable and have used it throughout my life. All of us should feel confident when we sit down at a table, whether it is a formal dining setting with a six-course menu at the country estate of a Duke or your sister-in-law’s fortieth birthday party. That confidence comes with knowledge and practice.
In the United States, most dinners are informal but informality should focus on our relationships with others, and never mean that we talk with food in our mouths, or dress as a five-year-old boy (i.e. shorts and sneakers and t-shirt) when invited to someone’s home for a barbecue.
Before the event
It literally means “répondez s’il vous plaît” or please respond. Therefore, Inform your host or hostess within 24 hours of receiving your invitation; 72 hours if you have a legitimate reason for delaying (travel, family emergencies) your response. Of course, a delayed response is always better than no response but never reply maybe, as yes or no is expected.
If you have food allergies or restrictions indicate them when you reply, as it is rude to request menu changes after you are seated.
If you have informed your host that you will not be attending, but your plans change, it is not appropriate to ask the host if the invitation is still open.
Unless you experience a family or personal emergency or are called out of town because of work, attend the dinner if you have indicated you will do so. If such an emergency arises, inform your host as soon as possible so they do not worry about your safety.
Purchase a host or hostess gift, such as flowers, wine or something special, but don’t expect that gift will be be shared or used at the event. In Japan, gifts should always accompany the guest and given to the host with both hands, preferably with the bag where you bought the gift underneath the gift.
Know Your Context – Dress
Who has invited you to dinner? Where? In the United States, guests are frequently entertained in the host’s home. In East Asia, particularly Japan and China and Taiwan, entertaining is done almost exclusively at restaurants.
By knowing your context, you will also have a good idea about what to wear. Here is a great look for spring, with jeans included. In the summer months, jeans may be too hot. So consider seersucker. And in this guide to better dressing in the fall, remove your tie, and voila, elegant casual.
Is your partner invited? Don’t assume so unless it is stated on the invitation. Never assume your children are invited. Employ the services of a baby sitter if you will be attending the event. You, your hostess and your children will thank you.
While it is rude to ask who else is invited, perhaps you were asked to attend by email or by an internet service such as Facebook or Evite. If so, take a moment to look at the guest list. This will allow you to determine if this is an occasion for friends to get together or if it will be a more business oriented event. Keep the guest list in mind during the week leading up to the event. Take note of current events of potential interest to the group you can bring up in conversation.
The Cell Phone Dilemma
All dining experiences with others are social events where food is served. The focus should always be on conversation. Therefore, turn off your smart phone off and don’t use it at all because that implies you are more interested in your device than in the people around you.
If you cannot miss a call, you must inform your host in advance, and you must take this call in another room. For general cell phone etiquette, take a look here.
Were I to distill all the rules down to five or six, I would offer the following:
- RSVP in a timely manner and explain any food restrictions or concerns
- Focus on others
- Eat from the outside in
- Eat with your mouth closed
- Send a handwritten thank you card
- While not explained in detail above, discretion is the better part of valor. Do know it is never appropriate to post pictures of the event on social media without the express permission of both the host and the person or person(s) in the picture.
For a more comprehensive guide to informal dining please read on.
Informal dining no seating
Don’t expect to eat a full meal. At informal parties, olives, nuts, small pieces of cheese, meats, crudite and finger-sized desserts may be eaten with the hands. Ensure to grab a napkin and never lick your fingers, that would be a faux pas.
If utensils or forks are provided, use them even if the food is “finger food” because the rules of civility in the West require us to shake hands with people we’ve either just met or whom we’ve not seen in a long while. Who really wants to shake the hand with olive juice, pork fat and salt all over it?
Do your best to mingle and make light conversation with everyone. Do not talk excessively loud. Give others equal opportunities for conversation.
Prior to leaving the event, always find your host and thank him, personally.
Informal dining, seating
Place cards tell guests where to sit and may be used at dinners with more than six people as they avoid delay and confusion.
No place card
Either the host will inform guests where to sit or he will request they determine where to sit on their own.
When to begin eating
In an informal dinner, eating commences when the hostess picks up her fork, unless she has instructed the guests to being eating without her.
If a host chooses to say grace, accept the gesture for what it is, but volunteer to say grace because you are the guest. If you are a nonbeliever, just remain quiet.
The host has gone to considerable expense and time to prepare food that he wants to share with you. At the very least, you can give thanks for that.
Place the napkin on your lap within one minute of being seated. The purpose of the napkin is to wipe food away from one’s mouth. Unless one is specifically given a bib to place around the chest the napkin never goes on the chest.
If you need to wipe your mouth, wrap a section of the napkin around your index finger and remove the offending article. Using a large portion of the napkin makes it more difficult to use it again if needed.
What to do with the napkin when leaving the table mid-meal?
First of all, try not to leave the table mid-meal. If you really have to, excuse yourself . Leave your napkin either on a chair or place it to the left of your plate.
When finished, place the napkin gracefully on the table, and do not place it on top of your plate.
Utensils and Glassware
At an informal setting, you may not be confronted with multiple utensils. Your meal may not require more than a single fork and knife. However, even at an informal dinner, your host may place multiple utensils at your place setting. Regardless of the construction of the place setting, the single most important piece of advice my father gave me with regard to utensils is eat from the outside in. A salad fork on the outermost left followed by your dinner fork etc.
When unsure, wait to see what others do, particularly your host. A delay of two seconds won’t be noticed by others but should give you enough time to determine which utensil to use.
Do not immediately dig into your food. Make sure everyone has had the opportunity to be passed every serving plate and has their dinner selection on their plate. Remember, an informal dinner is a social event with food. Your focus is always on others. Wait for your host to begin and moderate your eating pace with his.
Your soup spoon will be on your outermost right, followed by your beverage spoon and then your dinner knife. A dessert fork may be placed closest to your dinner plate or, instead, is placed on the dessert plate above your dinner plate or brought to you when dessert is served.
Eat to the left; drink to the right
Any plate to left and above your main plate(as opposed to right in front of you) is part of your place setting as is any glass to the right.
Once picked up, utensils do not touch the table again.
Utensils when the meal is over
Place fork and knife together at the four or five o-clock position on the plate. Some experts say fork tines up. Others say down.The former, I think, is more a custom in America; the latter in Europe.
Passing dishes of food and serving
Pass food from the left to the right. Do not stretch across the table, crossing other guests, to reach food or condiments.
If another guest asks for the salt or pepper, pass both shakers together, even if they only asked for one of them. Dinner guests won’t then have to search for orphaned shakers.
If, as the bread basket or salt and pepper shakers pass in front of you on their way to another guest, do not partake. Wait until the initial guest is done, then request the bread basket or salt shaker be passed back to you.
Always scoop food, using the proper utensil, away from you.
Always use serving utensils to serve yourself, not your personal silverware.
How to eat
Take a small to moderate portion size – you are not the only one at the table, and in case you dislike something you won’t have to eat much of it.
Try to eat as much as possible from your plate even if you find the taste unpalatable.
Always taste your food before seasoning it. Doing so honors the culinary efforts of your host and suggests restraint. From a practical perspective, the food may be seasoned to your taste as it is served to you. How comfortable will you be if in seasoning the food before tasting it you make a dish too salty or overly peppered? Table etiquette and manners also help us.
Eat in small bites, one morsel at a time. I cannot emphasize this rule enough. In his 97th rule, George Washington writes:
Put not another bit into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls.
Always keep in mind that etiquette is largely about making others comfortable. Most of us are not comfortable watching someone masticate on a glob of food golf-ball sized or larger; nor are we comfortable watching them speak with food in their mouths.
Food in general and meat in particular should be cut up into bit size pieces as they are eaten. Only meals for children are all cut all at once. Ensure you use fork and knife and not just your fork, no matter what others do. Whether you are using an American style of eating (fork in left hand, knife in right, which are switched after the food is cut) or a Continental one (no switching), one should never, ever place so much food in one’s mouth they must chew with their mouth open.
Don’t hunch over your plate nor use your fingers to move food around the plate (unless eating in a culture where eating with one’s hands is permissible).
When I was in Paris I watched a very chic woman eat an entire multi-layered club sandwich with a fork and knife. Once done, she departed with an equally elegant male companion and did not need to wash her hands. After that I experience, I learned to eat everything with a fork and knife.
Do not gesticulate with your utensils.
If you drop a utensil on the floor in a restaurant, do not pick it up. Ask your server for a new one. If you drop a utensil at private party, ask for host for a new one. Pick up the dirty one after dessert is over.
If you are dining in a country where bread is buttered before being eaten, first place a slab of butter onto your butter plate using your butter knife. Then tear the bread and butter each piece. Do not butter the entire roll or bread piece.
Otherwise, in countries like France where bread is not buttered, tear into small pieces and, use the bread to sop up the lovely sauce your host has prepared.
Butter, spreads, or dips should be transferred from the serving dish to your plate before spreading or eating. This practice insures a man won’t double-dip, which is unsanitary.
When you are done, do not push your plate away from you. At a restaurant the waiter will remove them. In someone’s home ask the hostess is she needs assistance with clearing the table.
Keep your elbows off the table. You won’t interfere with the meal of the guest next to you and you will be less likely to dirty your clothing.
It goes without saying that loud eating noises such as slurping are very impolite in the West. Burping is also impolite.
Do not use a toothpick at the table nor blow your nose. Cover your mouth with your napkin if you cough.
Say “Excuse me,” or “I’ll be right back,” before leaving the table. Do not say that you are going to the restroom.
If a woman excuses herself, stay seated. The older practice of rising upon her departure and return is outmoded and confuses people nowadays.
The wine you bring as a gift is just that, a gift. If you have an especially treasured bottle you want to share, call your host in advance of the dinner to ensure a good match.
Hold both wine and champagne glasses by the stem.
If you are being served two different wines during dinner, it is acceptable to leave one glass unfinished as you drink the other.
In an informal setting it is permissible to ask for the bottle and refill your glass, but ask others first. Do not overfill your glass. Dining is a social event with food and wine. Do not take more than your share, of anything, wine included.
If you spill wine on a table cloth, immediately notify your hostess and offer to pay to have it cleaned or replaced.
If you do not drink, politely refuse the offer of alcohol, no further explanation is required.
Leaving the party
It is best to leave when others do. Thank your host personally. The following day, without fail, write a handwritten thank you note to you host.
Others may find other rules more appropriate, particularly in the UK and the Continent, where the tradition of more formal eating and formal public behavior has existed for much longer. In the U.S., these six rules of table etiquette will put you in a distinct category of a civil and mannered gentleman. If you are traveling to Europe and other destinations, you will be acting in ways different from most American men, which, in this case, is a good thing.
In the next article we will discuss the rules of formal dining, which is far more ritualized than informal dining.
If you have the same or different opinions on the matter, please leave a comment, thank you.