Etiquette

Rules of Civility: Table Etiquette – Guide to Informal Dining Events

We begin our periodic series Rules of Civility with a detailed guide to table etiquette and manners in informal dining events.

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.

A typical informal place setting in the U.S. In Europe you would get another fork

A typical informal place setting in the U.S. In Europe you would get another fork

Before the event

R.S.V.P.

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.

10 Great Hostess Gifts

10 Great Hostess Gifts

Gift Giving

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.

Turn your cell phone off

Turn your cell phone off

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.

The Basics

Were I to distill all the rules down to five or six, I would offer the following:

  1. RSVP in a timely manner and explain any food restrictions or concerns
  2. Focus on others
  3. Eat from the outside in
  4. Eat with your mouth closed
  5. Send a handwritten thank you card
  6. 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.

Dining table place card

Dining table place card

 

Informal dining, seating

Place card

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.

The napkin

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.

The proper resting and finished position for a fork and knife.

The proper resting and finished position for a fork and knife.

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 soup, hold a fork and knife, cut meat and propose a toast.

How to eat soup, hold a fork and knife, cut meat and propose a toast.

How to eat

Portion size

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).

In the United States, these foods may be eaten with one's hands, even when seated at a table.

In the United States, these foods may be eaten with one’s hands, even when seated at a table.

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 shapes of various stemware that may or may not be used at an informal dinner party.

The shapes of various stemware that may or may not be used at an informal dinner party.

Wine

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.

Abstinence

If you do not drink, politely refuse the offer of alcohol, no further explanation is required.

Say goodbye with a handshake

Say goodbye with a handshake

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.

Summary Video

 

Conclusion

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.

23 replies
  1. Rob J. says:

    Regarding your witness to eating a multi-layered club sandwich while in Paris. My wife and I recently returned from Paris and learned Parisians, with very few exceptions, never eat with their fingers. Wanting to fit in, we enjoyed everything we ate following this rule even down to my ordering a simple hamburger and fries. It took a little getting used to but quite honestly, it was enjoyable, refreshing and one which we adopted since our return. Keep the articles coming, I enjoy them immensely.

    • Jay Sennett says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I, too, have found great pleasure in eating most foods with a fork and knife since our return from Paris.

      • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

        I eat a pizza and hamburger with knife and fork when possible because I like clean hands. What surprises me though is how many Americans eat with just their fork even though there is a knife at the table.
        Once they approach the end of their meal, they use their finger to put the last bit of their food on their fork. Some even lick the finger afterwards. I experienced that across the board, even when people wear suits and consider themselves to be well dressed…

  2. suede says:

    You rely quite heavily on an “informal”/”formal” distinction regarding the nature of a dinner. Where do you draw the line?

    It’s a real and useful distinction, for sure. But when you say, “In the United States, most dinners are informal,” I’m not sure what exactly you mean…

    • Jay Sennett says:

      Hello and thank you for your question. I am using formal dinner to mean the following: a multi-course dinner (a minimum of four, with six being average), served with fine wine and includes demitasse, liquer and brandy; the table setting uses crystal and porcelain atop linen. The pieces of that table setting maybe quite old; there is a butler for every four to six guests; and the experience is highly ritualized. I also believe attendance at a formal dinner party requires a man to wear a tuxedo. This list is not exhaustive.

      My next article will go into much greater detail about formal dinners.

      • Des Esseintes says:

        Jay,

        I agree with your distinction, although there is probably more of a continuum between formal and informal dinners, not such a digital divide, but this is helpful to broadly define the categories.

        I would be surprised though if there was indeed a butler for every four to six guests, unless guests brought their own butler with them – I suppose you mean a footman for every four to six guests? Or is the term butler applied to just any male domestic staff in the US?

        It should also be stressed again that there are many fine details where table etiquette differs not only between the US and Europe but even within Europe, between different countries.

        dE

        • Daniel Gerson says:

          Only governmental (and royal) banquets would be the kind of formal dinner where you would find a servant for every 6 guests.

          Also, I would never wait for a waiter to eventually come and pick up a dropped utensil, chances are way too high someone else will have stepped on it in the mean time. Same applies to informal dinners, btw, cause I wouldn’t want to have a fork, knife or spoon and the accompanying food stain the carpet or floor, while I wait till after dessert to pick it up.

          On the matter of the spilled wine, I have to admit that I have never ever experienced any host to demand the guest who spilled it to pay for either having it cleaned or replaced. That would be considered rude. Yes, you will apologize, but the offer is mearly an act of courtesy that is never picked up.

          Regarding the passing of spice shakers or any kind of food that is served on the table, there should always be enough present for the situation of having to ask for it not to occur, because that would mean you have to be a bother to others.

          Apart from that, I miss the ironed table cloth (iron them on the table to get rid of any creases!).

          • Jay Sennett says:

            “Only governmental (and royal) banquets would be the kind of formal dinner where you would find a servant for every 6 guests.”

            While I believe this is true in a public sense (i.e. what we in the public know about formal dinners), there will always be and have been private affairs – large ones – with several butlers. We just never hear about them.

            On spilled wine, I agree a host ought never demand that something damage should be cleaned or replaced. As a guest, and this is entirely my personal ethics, I would have it repaired or replaced, regardless of what the host said to me.

            And like you, I miss an ironed table cloth, which is why I always iron ours when we are entertaining.

            • Daniel Gerson says:

              Perhaps your next article will clear this matter further, because I took it as you were saying that a private household would have such a vast number of regular servants that they would suffice to guarantee a servant for every 6 guests, which would be highly unlikely. Labour costs are way too high for that, nowadays. Yet if you were referring to hired staff for a formal event’s dinner, it would be a whole different matter, as then there would usually be one or two servants per table.

              On the part of a guest damaging or destroying parts of the glassware, china or the table cloth, I have to disagree. As host you should always set the table with pieces you can afford to replace. Otherwise, you keep them in the cupboard.

              I would never expect guests to replace 150$ a piece plates or crystal glasses, because they dropped them by accident.

              • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

                In regard to replacements, legally it is clear that the one who destroys it must pay for it. Whether that’s enforced or not is entirely up to the host. I wouldn’t ask a guest to replace something but each to their own.
                I noticed that on cruises you may have one server for each person for formal dinners. So everybody receives their food at the same time, they wear white tie…

            • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

              We bought a beautiful table and so we use charger plates rather than a table cloth. Interestingly, the British Royals seem to do that rather often as well – not that I could tell from first hand experience, just based on the documentaries I have seen in the recent past.

        • Jay Sennett says:

          I agree completely that the distinction between informal and formal exists on a continuum.

          As I understand it butler is the term now used. Most households able to afford such staff rarely have a footman, instead preferring to hire a butler who may also function as a valet, footman and majordomo, depending on the occasion. The term, as you suggest, is broadly applied to male – and also female – domestic staff who are trained as butlers.

          The butler on staff with a family is usually responsible for hiring temporary butlers for large formal functions. In this way a guest would not need to provide their own butler.

          And, a resounding yes to the many fine details where table etiquette only between the U.S. and Europe but also within Europe. I will cover some of those differences in the next article.

        • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

          Americans often speak of Europe, not realizing that there are huge differences between the countries on many levels. At the same time, most Europeans talk about Americans in the same way although life and people are very different in New England, Fargo, Louisville and L.A. I guess the further you are away the more likely you are to generalize.

  3. Reverend Richard de Meath says:

    I am in the fortunate position that the main dinner service I use for entertaining was a wedding present to my great, great, great grandmother. It was made by Minton in 1846 and is placed on the dinner table every time I invite friends to dine. Everything I own, regardless of age, is used on a daily basis. I believe in the old adage, things will eventually be broken!
    I made a gift of one of my silver canteens of cutlery to my nephew in France, as I have no children of my own and wanted to ensure it remains in the family. I retained the smaller canteen, which has 12 full place settings.
    Reading this article, I was struck by the subtle differences between fine dining here in the UK compared with that practiced in the USA. In particular, I was noticed the comments concerning people eating with their hands, and using their forks without the accompaniment of the knife in the accompanying video.
    This last was something I noticed appears the accepted custom in the greater American society. Whilst living in NY for a while, my friends there believed using of the knife and fork together was a rather difficult task to accomplish. One in particular actually asked me to teach him how to crack open a boiled breakfast egg, using the eggspoon.
    By the time he mastered the art, we were both heartedly sick of eating eggs.

    • Jay Sennett says:

      “Whilst living in NY for a while, my friends there believed using of the knife and fork together was a rather difficult task to accomplish. One in particular actually asked me to teach him how to crack open a boiled breakfast egg, using the eggspoon.
      By the time he mastered the art, we were both heartedly sick of eating eggs.”

      My wife claims we are lazy in the U.S. with regard to using a knife. We don’t want to clean the extra utensils; but that doesn’t explain why we don’t use them in public nor does it answer Raphael’s observation that we have knives on the table, which we then never use.

      Your story about the egg spoon made me remember the first I used an egg spoon. I was traveling with my family in Germany. The small inn we stayed at provided a soft boiled egg, cheese and the delicious, hearty dark breads for Germany is rightfully famous. Next to the egg sat a tiny spoon. I asked my mother what that spoon was for, and she said, “To eat the egg, of course!” She then gave me a lesson in how to properly eat a soft boiled egg with an egg spoon. I’ve come to believe the egg spoon is an almost perfect utensil.

  4. Ahmed Sajeel says:

    Delightfully refreshing … It may come as a surprise to the Western World, but we here in Pakistan are quite familiar with the etiquettes outlined; and that may largely be attributed to the colonial times.

    Such etiquettes as a norm were meticulously instilled when I was growing up by my late mother who herself had attended a Convent school that went back to the British era. In fact she was very particular on the matter of courtesy and manners at large. And while in our society it is mostly considered the ladies’ department, she also taught me how to lay the table.

    • Jay Sennett says:

      Your story about your mother reminds me of the supreme importance parents play in instilling manners and civility in children. These are lessons that pay untold benefits as we age.

  5. David says:

    Wonderful article. I’m looking forward with anticipation to see the one on Formal dining and formal place settings as well. As for rising when a lady leaves or enters the room, we do it ..I was raised that way and the men in my family wouldn’t think of doing otherwise. I hardly think that manners , courtesy and dignity are outmoded, so on that point I disagree, otherwise a fine, informative article.

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