Proper Table Manners & Dining Etiquette
It’s important to make a good impression at mealtime, and your table manners can say a lot about your sense of personal style.
Etiquette is defined as the rules for socially acceptable behavior.
A 17th century French dictionary gave its meaning as a small sign, label, or ticket. “Etiquettes” were placed around the palaces and gardens, instructing fine guests where to walk, where to stand, what not to touch – essentially telling them how to behave!
We have adapted this word from the French to refer to our manners and the proper way we conduct ourselves socially. There is dining etiquette, telephone etiquette, even golf and surfing etiquette!
Etiquette isn’t new. It may have begun with a behavior code by Ptahhotep, in Egypt’s reign of the Fifth Dynasty King Djedkare Isesi (ca. 2412 – 2375 BC).
Ancient Greece and Rome, developed rules for proper social conduct. Confucius included rules for eating and speaking with his philosophy.
The behavior that identifies a “gentleman” was codified in the sixteenth century, in a book by Baldassare Castiglione, Il Cortegiano (“The Courtier”); and remained essentially in force until World War I.
There are all kinds of opportunities to impress, such as dates, meeting the parents, lunch with the boss, not to mention the Holidays, plus more and more job interviews are being done over a dinner table.
One faux pas and you can kiss that promotion goodbye or never get to kiss the blind date across from you!
From the beginning of time, the act of eating together has had a pleasant social significance. The word companion and company comes from the Latin “com-“, meaning “with” or “together” and the Latin “panis” meaning “bread” or “food”.
A companion is someone you eat with!
So that the experience is as pleasant and inoffensive as possible requires developing acceptable techniques of eating.
“You should wipe your spoon before passing it to a neighbor.”
“Do not blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat”
— Erasmus, Dutch humanist and author of the first modern book of manners in 1526.
1. Maybe we’ve gotten more civilized since then, or maybe not! Your napkin is always placed somewhere within your dining territorial borders. As soon as you are seated, unfold your napkin and place it on your lap. The napkin remains on your lap (except for use) until the end of the meal. That’s when the diners are leaving the table, not just when you finish! If you need to leave the table temporarily, you may leave the napkin in your chair as a signal to the waiter that you will be returning. This is also a consideration for the other diners who won’t have to look at your soiled napkin on the table! Use your napkin before drinking from a glass or cup. At the conclusion of the meal, place your napkin partly folded, never crumpled, at the left of your plate. Even a paper napkin should never be crushed and tossed into your plate. Nowhere is a lack of training more quickly betrayed than at the table. Below are the ten most common faux pas in social dining and how you can avoid them!
2. Which is my water, bread plate, napkin? If you remember: liquids on the right, solids on the left, you’ll never eat someone else’s bread again! That’s your coffee cup to the right of the plate, and your bread plate on the left! This is a clever way to remember: Make “OK” signs with both of your hands. The left hand makes the letter “b” for bread! The right hand makes the letter “d” for drinks! Good visual for kids and to help the rest of us remember!
3. The Place Setting: The first and only utensil was the dagger, that same threatening symbol of violence that you carried with you for defense! The prevention of violence was one of the principal aims of table manners. So there are some serious restrictions regarding knives at the table. The knife is never pointed at anyone. A blade pointed outward is a sign that you wish the person across from you harm! Richelieu was responsible for the rounding off of the points on table knife blades in 1669 France in order to prevent further dinnertime bloodshed. The traditional place setting has the forks on the left side and knives (always turned inward facing the plate) and spoons on the right side. The silver is placed in order of use so that you can follow the rule “begin at the outside and work in” towards the plate!
Formal Dinner Place Setting
2. Fish Fork
3. Main Course Fork
4. Salad Fork
5. Soup Bowl and Plate
6. Dinner Plate
7. Dinner Knife
8. Fish Knife
9. Soup Spoon
10. Bread and Butter Plate11. Butter Knife
12. Dessert silverware
13. Water Glass
14. Red Wine Glass
15. White Wine Glass
The butter knife (#11), used only for spreading butter, should be already on your bread plate.
You’ll note (as J. Rankin of Portland, OR did!) that this table setting is European style since the salad is served after the main course. In America the salad fork would be between #2 and 3 above.
Dessert spoons/forks (#12) are usually brought in with the dessert, or in order with the other silverware, closest (last) to the side of the plate. Forks on the left, spoons on the right.
Often the dessert silver is placed above the dinner plate. If the utensil is a spoon the handle goes to the left, if it’s a fork the handle is pointed to the right. But as in the diagram above, not always!
The origin of the term dessert is from the French “desservie” meaning to de-serve or clear the table. Dessert was intended to clear the palate.
- No Oars! Once silverware is picked up from the table it NEVER touches the table again. Place it on the outer rim of the plate between bites, but never rest silver gangplank fashion, half on the table and half on the plate.
4. When to Start – in gatherings of six or less people, begin eating only after everyone is served. For larger groups, such as banquets, it is customary to start eating after four or five people have been served, or permission is granted from those not yet served.
5. Bread and rolls are broken off into bite-size pieces (why do you think they call meals, breaking bread!!!) and butter is spread on each bite as you eat it. Never use a knife to cut the bread, nor butter a whole slice at once!
Butter should be taken when passed, and placed onto your bread plate, never directly onto your bread.
6. Dishes are passed from left to right. When a waiter serves you, food will be presented on your left, and the dish will be removed from your right side when you’ve finished.
7. Salt and pepper are always passed together, even if someone asks you only for the salt. They are considered “married” in proper dining circles.
8. Hold a stemmed glass by the stem! This is to prevent chilled drinks, such as white wine from becoming warmed by your hand, but it holds for non-chilled drinks as well.
9. The finish – when you are finished with each course your knife (blade turned inward) and fork should be placed beside each other on the plate diagonally from upper left to lower right (11 to 5 if you imagine your plate as a clock face). This is a signal to the waiter that you are finished. And don’t push your plate away or otherwise rearrange your dishes from their position when you are finished.
There are two styles of eating, Continental and American.
In the Continental style, which is more practical, the knife (for right handed folks) is kept in the right hand and the fork in the left, with no switching unlike the zigzag practice of the American style where the fork is changed from the left hand to the right after cutting food.
The left hand is usually kept off the table and in your lap during American style dining, except when it’s being used to hold the fork during the cutting of food.
In the Continental style the fork is held in the left hand with the tines down; the back of the fork up and the left index finger is placed on the back of the fork, low, for stability. This works for meat and other foods that can be pierced. For other foods (mashed potatoes, etc.) the fork is held in the same manner and the food is placed on the back of the fork and transferred to your mouth.
Both knife and fork are held while you chew although you can rest them on the plate.
The Continental, which most people consider old world is actually newer! It was introduced by the British around 1880, but Americans were trying to instill manners on their frontiersmen. The new dining methods were rejected as disruptive in the middle of this teaching process. American society felt it would diminish respect for the strict rules that were being established to remove the barbarian image.
When you are “resting”, not using the utensils at the table, but you are not yet finished, the knife and fork should be placed on the plate like this:
This silverware placement is a signal to the waiter not to remove your plate!
Of course, this is assuming that the waiter knows some basic table manners!
Now that we know you have favorably impressed everyone with your exquisite table manners, we hope you get that job, promotion and/or the girl.
As more business and business meals are taking place in Asia we need to spend some time with dining customs there!
Mastering chopsticks requires more than dexterity – you need to be culturally aware, too
If you’re a frequent business traveler to Paris, you probably hold your fork in your left hand, tines down, during a formal dinner. And when you visit the Middle East or India, you know to only use your right hand when eating. But the protocol for utensils in Seoul or Shanghai can be confusing, so we’re going to cover that particularly iconic part of Asian culture – chopsticks.
Reader D. L. offers this information about chopsticks stands!
A chopstick stand in a “U” shape is often provided to hold the chopsticks when not in use, keep them off the table, and more secure than just resting on your plate. If you are using disposable chopsticks from a paper wrapper and have not been provided a chopstick stand, one can tie the paper wrapper into a knot and use that as your chopsticks stand.
Thanks D. L.
Sizes and types of chopsticks vary. They may be wooden or metal, angular or smooth, twig-like and connected at the base, or engraved, shellacked and wrapped in a beautiful packet. Along with all these disparities, there are many chopstick faux pas.
Repeatedly rubbing the large ends of your chopsticks together after you’ve split them apart. Rubbing chopsticks together too much implies you think they’re cheap, which may embarrass other diners.
Passing food from your chopstick to another diner’s chopstick. Traditionally, the only time when two people hold a single item with their chopsticks is during a funeral, when relatives may pass the remaining bones of cremated ancestors to each other. Obviously, you should avoid this gesture while dining.
Gesturing, tapping, or spearing food with your chopsticks, licking the tips of your chopsticks – All these gyrations are rude.
Sticking your chopsticks straight up in your rice bowl.This visual reminds many Asians of the joss incense sticks used during ceremonies for ancestors who have passed away.
Setting your chopsticks flat on the table and/or leaning your chopsticks off the edge of your plate are both inappropriate in the US. Either balance your chopsticks on top of your plate, or lean them on your chopstick rest.
You may use the large ends of your chopsticks to serve yourself from communal plates. If you are helping yourself from a communal platter or bowl, there may be large chopsticks or a serving spoon available. But if not, then use the blunt end of your chopsticks to transfer a small portion of food onto your plate. Be sure not to load your plate with a large amount all at once, or eat just your favorite dishes either. In both cases, you will appear greedy
Chopsticks, two long thin sticks, were developed as early as the 3rd Century BC in China. The Chinese word for such implements meant “quick ones,” or “quick sticks,” so the English translation became “chopsticks.”
It’s possible that chopsticks were developed when people cooked their food in large pots which retained heat well, and hasty eaters broke twigs off trees to retrieve the food.
By 400 BCE, a large population and dwindling resources forced people to conserve fuel. Food was chopped into small pieces so it could be cooked more rapidly, thus using less fuel.
Also the Chinese had a food tradition, believing that it was barbaric to serve food that resembled the original animal and uncouth to carve up a carcass at the table. The Chinese took care of that unseemly chore out of sight in the kitchen and served food already diced and sliced, ready to eat, so there was no need for knives and forks at a Chinese dinner.
Confucius may have influenced Chinese utensil selection with his nonviolent philosophy and discouragement of knives at the dinner table.