To many, dining etiquette seems like a lost art these days. Texting at the table is commonplace, and who really knows what to do with that extra silverware? But when it comes to being a guest – whether it’s at someone’s home or a restaurant – having good manners isn’t just about playing by the rules. It’s about being confident in yourself and creating a sense of ease for your dining partners.
“It’s not about making others feel uncomfortable or pointing out their etiquette flaws – that’s the No. 1 one faux pas,” says Diane Gottsman, a manners and etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “It’s about making others comfortable and knowing what to do, so you can focus on the conversation instead of worrying.”
Good table manners help level the playing field across all classes, genders and races, says Aimee Symington, etiquette expert and co-owner of Finesses Worldwide etiquette consulting. “Everybody can learn the basics. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t raised in a particular way.”
Need some guidance or just a quick refresher on dining essentials? Here are some tips from the experts to help you before, during and after meals.
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BEFORE THE MEAL
1. Always wait until the host and all guests arrive. “Follow the host’s lead on when to begin – that means waiting to take a sip of water or place your napkin on your lap,” explains Gottsman, noting that some hosts may choose to move to a different location before dinner starts.
2. Once your host gives the OK, place your napkin on your lap, says Symington. Remember the napkin is for food only. (Not for your nose.)
3. Mind the elbows. According to Symington, it’s acceptable to have your elbows on the table before the food arrives. Once it does, though, elbows and arms should be off the table.
4. Keep all personal items off the table. Whether it’s your phone (which should be turned off unless there’s an emergency) or purse, all items should go under the table, says Gottsman. Purses should not hang on the back of the chair.
DURING THE MEAL
1. Wait until all guests are served before eating, says Symington. For larger occasions like a banquet or wedding, you only have to wait for everyone at your table to be served before you begin.
2. Knowing which utensil and plate to use can be tricky. Symington offers a few easy tips to remember: For silverware, always work from the outside in, toward your plate. (So the appetizer fork will be farthest from the plate.) Dessert silverware will be above the plate. To identify which bread plate (to the left) and glass (to the right) is yours, “make a small ‘b’ and ‘d’ by forming a circle with your fingers and then extending your index fingers. The ‘b’ is for bread, and the ‘d’ is for drinks.”
3. If you drop your utensil or napkin on the floor at a restaurant, don’t bend down to pick it up. “Just make sure it’s not in the way and let the wait staff know it’s there,” explains Gottsman. You should, however, pick up anything you drop when you’re at someone’s home.
4. Do not announce you’re going to the restroom. “It’s not necessary to tell everyone where you’re going,” Gottsman says. Just excuse yourself.
5. Hold your utensil like a pencil, “not like a hammer or a shovel,” notes Symington. Also only cut two to three pieces of meat at one time.
AFTER THE MEAL
1. When you are finished eating, you should position your silverware to tell the server you are done, says Symington. “Think of your plate as a clock and then place your knife and fork facing the 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock position. The blade of the knife aims towards you, and then with the American style of eating, the tines of the fork face up.”
2. Reserve grooming for the bathroom. “Stay away from toothpicks,” notes Gottsman, adding that you shouldn’t grab one while walking out the door, either.
3. Don’t put your used cloth napkin on the plate. “It can ruin it, and it’s irritating to servers,” Symington explains. Instead, fold it back up and set it to the left of your place setting.