Whether you are attending a fancy, formal dinner, going to a backyard barbecue or even just out for a casual meal with friends, you have probably wondered about table etiquette like which fork to use or when to put your napkin in your lap.
Of course, we all relax a little bit around family and close friends, but good manners don’t go away just because we know those around the table with us.
Often passed down through the generations, impeccable table manners are an excellent way to up your social game by ensuring you feel comfortable in any dining situation. But table etiquette is not just for swanky dinners with formal place settings that include four forks to choose from. Good table manners can be used at every meal, in any kind of situation.
It’s never too late to learn about the rules so we have put together a quick reference guide to help you navigate the etiquette expectations and table manners you need to know so you can feel comfortable any time you join others around the dinner table.
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Do Table Manners Really Matter?
Some social expectations, like women not shaking hands when meeting someone new, have gone out of fashion. These gender-based etiquette norms have fallen out of favor in recent years in lieu of applying those rules to everyone or simply dropping the tradition completely.
But dining etiquette as a whole will never become outdated because table manner rules help us to make others comfortable in social situations as well as provide a basic framework for etiquette that is simple and puts a priority on behaviors that make our social experiences go smoothly.
Good table manners are not about appearing pretentious or acting condescending toward others. Instead, they help to provide a modicum of civility to our lives in social situations while making those around us more relaxed. And that means that remembering to use good table manners will never go out of style.
Even though the dining experience may not yet have begun, a few basic pre-dining etiquette rules can help you start off a social engagement on the right foot. If you’ve been invited to a social engagement like a party or a dinner, the first rule of etiquette relates to responding to the invitation.
Always promptly respond to an invitation, regardless of whether a formal RSVP is required.
A quick phone call, email, text or RSVP response card return will let your host know your status so they can prepare for their event or dinner. Even if the invitation is for a casual dinner, remembering to respond in a timely manner is a respectful action that will never go out of style.
Plan to bring the host a small token of thanks for invitations to events of any size.
Don’t arrive empty-handed. Bring a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers or another gift to your host. Whether you are attending an intimate dinner or a large gathering, a host gift is always appreciated and is a sign of excellent manners. If your group is meeting out for dinner or a party, a host gift is not needed if the event or dinner costs are shared amongst the group.
Do not bring food to the dinner unless the host requested it in advance.
Prepared food is not considered an appropriate host gift. And if a prepared dish is gifted to the host, do not expect for the food to be served at the meal but instead expect for it to be received as a gift to be served privately at a later time.
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Where Everyone Sits at the Table
Table manners extend to where each person sits at the table as well. Hosts can always predetermine seating and for more formal events, this is usually done with a physical reminder on the table like a place card or some other token representing each person. But for those more casual dinners, table seating may be open to the group.
The places of honor, like the ends of a table, are reserved for the host(s) or another special guest.
Guests should assume that these spots are saved for the hosts unless they are directed to sit there specifically. When a table is round, the seat closest to the kitchen or bar area may be considered the host’s seating.
Formal and informal dinner hosts usually expect couples to sit side-by-side or across from one another.
Ask your host where they would like you to sit if no place cards are in use, but couples typically will not be separated.
Good manners require you to accept your seating arrangements unless they are physically impossible for you.
You may not like sitting next to chatty Aunt Cathy or across from that boring neighbor whose name you can’t recall, but if your host has asked you to sit somewhere specific you should do so.
You might not be aware of extenuating circumstances that they are trying to accommodate so being a gracious guest is key to having impeccable table manners in this situation.
One exception would be if you are physically unable to sit in a location. For example, if your bad knee makes it impossible to get to your seat, quietly let your host know as soon as possible so that they may make necessary adjustments.
Setting the Table: What You Need to Know
Formal dinners can be a confusing experience for those who have never before seen the multitude of forks that can be on a table: a dinner fork, a salad fork, a dessert fork and even sometimes an oyster fork.
But guests should always know what each piece of silverware, plate and glass is potentially used for as well as what to do with each one during their dining experience.
Use the outside fork first.
For meals with more than one course, the fork on the outside of the place setting should be used first. The salad fork is typically smaller and will be placed to the outside of the larger fork used for the main entrée. Forks are placed to the left of the dinner plate.
Specialty utensils, like a dessert spoon and an oyster fork or a seafood cocktail fork, may be placed above the plate. These utensils are smaller than the other spoons and forks and may have fewer tines as well, making them easier to spot in your place setting.
A bread knife should be laid across the top of the bread dish while the main knife should be placed horizontally across the dinner plate once it has been used.
If a butter knife is not included in your place setting, pass it along with the butter dish instead of keeping it. Your main cutlery will almost always be set with a dinner knife for you to use during your meal or with your bread and butter if no separate butter knife is included.
The dinner knife, tea spoon (smaller) and soup spoons (larger) are placed to the right of the dinner plate. While glassware is placed on the upper right side of your place setting.
Be sure to grab your own glasses and not your tablemate’s cups. The outside glass will be for wine or, if no alcohol is served, for the dinner beverage, while the inside one will be for water.
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Once you arrive at the dinner table, the real fun begins for the evening. But remember that table etiquette rules are all about making sure you, your guests and the hosts know what to expect and are comfortable with each other.
These few basic table manners for adults to follow will make the evening go more smoothly and put your host at ease regardless of how relaxed or formal your dinner may be.
Wait to be seated until after your host sits down or you are invited to do so.
At informal dinners, your host may invite you to grab a seat and get comfortable. But in more formal situations, etiquette dictates that you should stand behind your seat while everyone locates their appointed spot while you all wait for the host or hostess to sit down first.
Even though it might seem overly formal, it is much easier for the host to swap seating arrangements, should that be needed, while guests are still standing up and haven’t yet grabbed their napkins or sipped from their water glasses.
Do not reach for your napkin immediately upon being seated.
The name of the game here is waiting for cues from your host. Once they have snagged their napkin from the place setting to place it in their lap, you can (and should) do so, too. This host-first polite behavior should be extended to the rest of the dinner including calling a waiter over to order and taking your first bite of food.
Guests with good table manners will follow the lead of the host before moving on to any new step or stage of the dinner experience.
Place your napkin over your chair back (and not your plate) if you need to be excused.
Even though you just arrived at the table, if you need to leave—even for a moment—place your napkin over your chair back. This will alert the wait staff or the host that you are returning.
Napkins that are placed on the table or over a plate are an indication that you are finished with your food and are not returning to your seat. Using the seat back or even the seat of your chair signals that you will return to the table shortly.
Good Table Manners
Once the dinner has begun, guests can relax and enjoy their meal together. Most of the manners at the table that you will be expected to follow are not only intuitive but also make the dinner much more enjoyable.
Hold your stemware glasses by the stems.
When you are drinking out of a glass with a stem, use it to hold the glass instead of placing your hands on the side of the glassware.
Keeping your warm hands off the side of the glass will ensure that your wine or other beverage stays nice and chilly, requiring less frequent attention from the host or waiter.
Look the part: sit up straight, keep your elbows off the table and close your mouth when you chew.
Your mom was right: kids and adults do need to mind their own business while they sit at the dinner table. This means that manners at the table include paying attention to how you are sitting so you look like you are engaged in the conversation and not slouching down in your seat.
Also, keep your elbows tucked into your side and avoid placing them on the table during dinner. Not only will your tablemates thank you for not taking up their arm space that may be in short supply at a crowded dinner table, but guests will appreciate your attention to their views of you as well that don’t include a casual, inconsiderate elbow intruding on the side of their dinner plate.
Pass the salt and pepper shakers together.
At some dinners, you may be asked to pass a dish of food, a breadbasket or even salt and pepper to other guests around the table. Understanding the importance of table manners will help you to remember that anything that works together on the table should be passed together.
Salt and pepper should be passed off together just like the breadbasket and the butter plate should stay together and the food dish and the serving utensil should be handed to your tablemate together.
Wait to eat until everyone has their food.
Just because your food has arrived doesn’t mean that it is time to grab your fork and dig in. Hold off until everyone at the table has their plate or entrée before eating but always wait for the direction and blessing of the host to take your first bite.
Avoiding bad table manners can be trickier when the dinner situation changes a little bit. Follow these guidelines when your dinner includes ordering wine, you are at a restaurant, your dinner is in another country or your dining companions are children.
- Let the host lead the way in ordering wine when possible.
- Once a selection has been made, the one who orders it will usually be expected to taste the wine to make sure it is acceptable. First, swirl the wine in the glass gently to open up the flavor, and then sniff the glass to sample the scent of the wine. Next, take a small sip of the wine to check the taste before letting the sommelier know if you like it so they can pour it up or select a new wine for you to try.
Restaurant Etiquette Rules
- Hosts should allow guests to order food first but also remember that their guests are looking to them for cues on what to do, when to order and when to begin eating.
- Good table manners at a restaurant include not putting your wallet, cell phone or purse on the table.
- Guests and hosts should always be polite to the wait staff and restaurant employees.
- Put your utensils on your plate when you are finished eating. Keep the napkin in your lap if you plan on ordering dessert or to the side of your plate when you are completely done.
International Table Manners
- Always be knowledgeable about local customs and dining expectations for countries you visit. What is polite and appropriate in the US may not be acceptable where you are visiting.
- Asking the host or the restaurant what to do, about a dish or how to act is always acceptable when done discreetly.
- When in doubt, always wait for the host and simply mirror their etiquette to be safe.
Table Manners and Etiquette for Children
- Parents or guardians should assist children in seating arrangements, ordering politely and helping them to use the right utensils.
- An adult should excuse themself from the table to go with a child that is disturbing the table or needs to go to the restroom.
- Kids should be asked to eat the food prepared for them, but it is perfectly acceptable for an adult to help them cut their food and pour their drink for them when they need assistance.
- Kids do not need to pass food or items around the table. Adults should hand passed items directly to the next adult when at all possible.
When Another Person Has Bad Table Manners
It’s bound to happen. Not everyone is aware of how they act at all times and sometimes we end up at dinner with someone who has bad table manners. Maybe they are having a tough day and the way they are acting is a result, or maybe no one has ever explained the rules of table manners to them.
But we all will have a dining experience that makes us cringe just a little bit when a companion doesn’t follow basic dining etiquette. A dinner guest who arrives with an unexpected dish that they insist the host serve at the dinner party might inconvenience or upset a host who has carefully planned the meal around each guest’s dietary concerns.
If a guest takes a seat at the dinner table before the host does, another guest might end up misplaced and be uncomfortable all evening. A dining companion who begins to eat the moment their food is placed in front of them can cause a host who was planning on delivering a toast or a few words to the group before dinner to feel embarrassed.
Or a guest who casually tosses their napkin on the top of their plate as they dash to the restroom might find that their dinner plate has disappeared upon their return.
So what can you do when you see bad table manners? The kindest strategy is to offer a gentle correction or light-hearted suggestion about keeping up with the appropriate etiquette at your shared dinner.
Often a quick smile and a nod towards your actions will clue in the guest about what they are doing incorrectly or missing out on. No one likes to stand out for obvious social missteps, so if the guest realizes that their table manners are lacking, chances are they will seek a friendly face for reassurance or guidance.
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The Importance of Table Manners
When you are enjoying a lovely dinner, the last thing you want to think about is your manners and what the other guests or the host are thinking about the way you act around the dinner table.
But when you see another dinner guest make an embarrassing etiquette faux pas, whether intentional or accidental, it becomes clear why even today table manners and dining etiquette are important.
Even if some expectations may at first glance seem old-fashioned or unnecessary, what we call proper dining etiquette today is simply a polite way to act that puts the feelings of the host and the other diners in front of our own.
Dining with friends or family can be a fun, relaxing and highly enjoyable part of our lives. Remembering the basic table manners rules—and why they exist in the first place—can make your time around the table less stressful and more pleasant for you and your dining companions even in today’s modern world.
When was the last time you minded your table manners?
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