When you hear the words “table manners” you may just think of arbitrary rules for rules’ sake.
But at their core, manners are just about being considerate and respectful to the people around you.
Table manners are particularly important because, let’s face it:
There are lots more ways to gross someone out when you’re eating with them…when you’re chomping and slurping and burping and splattering….
…versus when you’re just sitting next to them on a train or passing them on the street.
Because of that, table manners have always been a good “tell” about someone’s overall refinement, their upbringing, and self-awareness around other people.
Why Table Manners Matter
Often the reason someone might be concerned about your table manners isn’t because your lack of manners bothers them…
Instead, they might be worried it bothers someone else.
For instance, when you eat dinner with your girlfriend’s parents for the first time, she may not care that you behave like a total buffoon at the table when you’re just around her…
BUT…she may worry that her parents will be bothered by your poor dining etiquette, because good manners are a sign of respect.
That’s also why employers will often take you out to dinner as part of the interview process…
Again, maybe the hiring manager doesn’t care if you have bad table manners, but they may worry that your potential clients (or other big wigs) will be bothered that you eat like an absent-minded caveman.
So my thought is, even if you don’t practice impeccable table manners at home, you should know how to behave for those important occasions.
Today we’re going to talk about some simple guidelines that will help keep your table manners on-point throughout an entire meal. Watch the video below, or read on.
Sitting down at the table
When you’re just about to sit down at the table, that’s a good time to silence your phone—you don’t want to be THAT GUY whose phone is going off throughout the meal.
You should also wait until everyone is gathered at the table before sitting down. And sometimes it’s good to take a cue from the host or hostess. Make sure you don’t take a special seat—like the head of the table, or inadvertently steal the seat with the best view, while your dining companion(s) is left staring at a wall.
The first thing you do when you sit down usually is to put your napkin on your lap.
Now, in very formal settings you would wait until you see the host put their napkin on their lap. But for most occasions it’s safer to simply always put your napkin on your lap as soon as you sit down…so you don’t forget.
Of course, your napkin should never go in your shirt—it should stay in your lap. But your napkin is your friend, so don’t be afraid to use it throughout the meal to blot your mouth and keep it clean while you eat.
When you’re sitting down, your posture should be upright and attentive, no slouching or leaning back in your chair.
Elbows Off the Table?
This is probably the most misunderstood rule in dining etiquette. It’s true that you should keep your elbows off the table while you’re eating—and keep your free hand on your lap.
But when you’re not eating, or between courses, it is OK to put your elbows on the table—particularly after the meal when you’re just chatting.
The Place Setting
Oh, the place setting! Nothing gives people greater anxiety…
When you sit down at the table sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. There are all these glasses, plates and forks and knives…
The good news is, you don’t need to memorize what everything is. All you need is a few basic guidelines to keep you on track.
Getting Your Bearings
The first thing you’ll need to figure out is, where is my water glass, and where is my bread plate?
You don’t want to be accidentally sipping off someone else’s glass or nibbling someone else’s bread…(or maybe that’s your thing, I don’t know).
There’s a very simple trick my friend Dave shared with me:
Just remember “b” and “d”. If you make the letter “b” with your left hand and “d” with your right hand, that will remind you that your bread plate is on the left, and your drink is on your right.
What’s With All the Glasses?
When it comes to understanding which glasses are used for what, you shouldn’t really have to worry about it.
It will be pretty obvious which one is the water glass—because usually water will be served immediately. And if you’re in a restaurant that has multiple wine glasses, usually the server or sommelier will fill the appropriate glass…
Basically, if someone pours something in one of your glasses, drink it. (see the “b” and “d” trick above to just make sure it’s one of yours).
What’s With All the Silverware?
When it comes to your silverware, here’s something you should understand: first, if the person who laid the silverware knows what they’re doing, each utensil should relate to the order that the dishes will be presented in.
The only thing you really need to remember is that you always work from the outside in.
Those ones on the top are for dessert—ignore them for the moment…
On the left, you’ll have a bunch of forks. On the right, you’ll probably have some knives, maybe some spoons, and maybe, a seafood fork (which looks like a miniature triton).
If you’re still confused, this basic rule may help: anything on a flat plate should generally be eaten with a fork, and anything in a bowl should be eaten with a spoon. I know that seems like “duh,” but you’d be surprised how many people start scooping up beans from a flat plate (talk about embarrassing yourself…man!).
Starting the Meal
As much as you might want to just tear into your food when it comes…wait until everyone else is served before starting.
If it’s a very formal dinner, you should also wait until the host or hostess gives the indication to start eating. But usually, you’re safe to start if everyone’s grub has arrived.
Handling Your Silverware
In the Western world, there are two main ways to hold your fork and knife: the American style and the Continental style.
With the American style, you hold your fork in your dominant hand, sort of like a pencil. When it’s time to use your knife, switch your fork to your nondominant hand and cut with your dominant hand.
Cut a single bite of food, then switch the fork back to your dominant hand to take a bite (you can see why this is sometimes called the “zigzag” style). If you want to put the knife down you can put it at the top of your plate with the blade facing towards you.
With the Continental style, you keep your fork in your nondominant hand and keep your knife in your dominant hand, and cut with your dominant hand. Still just cut one bite of food at a time, but don’t switch. You’ll just eat using your nondominant hand.
According to Emily Post, either style is fine. I often find myself doing the Continental style because it’s less complicated…and I somehow have no trouble getting food into my mouth with my left hand, even though I’m a righty.
With either style, when you’re not cutting (and just taking bites with your fork), you should keep your free hand in your lap.
“Can You Please Pass The…”
Just because the butter is just close enough that you can grab it doesn’t mean you should. Stretching across the table or reaching over someone else’s plate is a big no no.
If something is within arm’s length and you can reach it without disturbing someone else’s space, that’s OK. Otherwise, politely ask them, “Can you please pass the…?” Also, remember that when someone asks for the salt, make sure to pass both the salt and pepper…and vice versa.
Eating Food You Don’t Like
What if you’re at someone’s house and they serve something you don’t like?
Rather than avoiding it altogether, the polite approach is to serve yourself one or two bites, and at least taste it. (Unless you are so allergic that it makes your face puff up like a basketball—that’s not polite either…).
It’s okay to leave a little bit on your plate to show that you tried it, and just HOPE they’re not too insistent on you having seconds.
Yes, believe it or not, it is acceptable to eat some foods with your hands…even at a formal dinner.
Obvious finger foods like:
- chicken drumsticks
- corn on the cob
…All of these are fine to eat with your hands, but use your judgment. If it’s too messy, maybe try using a fork.
Chewing and Talking
You probably already know that you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full of food. Try to avoid smacking and chewing loudly, and keep your mouth shut while chewing.
The easiest way to do this is to just take smaller bites—especially if you know you’re going to be in and out of conversation throughout the meal.
If you need to get something out of your mouth (like a piece of gristle), you can use your fingers to quickly and discreetly take it out. But try to cover your mouth with your hand or your napkin while you’re doing it. Once you grab the piece of food, quickly and quietly put it on the edge of your plate. (none of this: “Hey, is that a beef knuckle I just bit into!?”)
Taking a Drink
It’s not technically a crime to take a drink with food in your mouth. But if you do, you shouldn’t be obvious about it. It’s better to wait until you’re finished chewing and to wipe your mouth first. Otherwise, your glass may end up looking like a crime scene.
Excusing Yourself from the Table
If you need to go to the bathroom or get up from the table during the meal, you don’t need to ask for permission. You also don’t need to say where you’re going. No one needs to know that you’ve been drinking espressos all day and now you have to pee like a racehorse.
Just say “excuse me, I’ll be right back.”
When you leave the table, place your napkin to the left of your plate. You don’t have to fold it back into its original origami-like shape. Just try to fold it over to conceal any unsightly food stains.
Being Part of the Group
Dinner is meant to be social. Make sure you take part in the dinner conversation, and also take note if it seems like you’re eating much faster or much slower than everyone else.
Checking Your Phone
Checking your phone at the table is totally fine if you’re a really important person who’s better than everyone else, right? Yeah…no.
Hopefully this goes without saying, but your phone should never be seen (or heard) during a formal meal. It’s VERY disrespectful to the other guests. And really, you can’t go 2 hours without taking a hit off your little dopamine delivery device?
If you get a legitimately URGENT call or text (like your wife is in labor or your house is burning down), you should excuse yourself from the table and quietly take care of it without bothering everyone else.
Ending the Meal
Throughout the meal, if you’re just taking a break from eating, you can place your fork and knife this way to show you’re not finished (note American style vs. Contintental):
“Just Pausing” (American Style)
“Just Pausing” (Continental Style)
If you’re actually finished, you can put the knife and fork together on your plate at an angle, which indicates that you’re done (for both American and Continental styles).
“My Dinner Stomach is Full…But My Dessert Stomach Free!”
Most servers in nicer establishments will understand these signals, so if you don’t want your food to be accidentally stolen mid-meal, it’s best to learn them.
Once the meal is finished, place your napkin to the left of your plate or if it’s cleared, where your plate was.
I know sometimes manners and etiquette seem arbitrary. But at the end of the day, these guidelines were established to simply be a universal set of understood behavior—so we can all behave civilly around each other.
Not everyone is going to be offended if you don’t follow these guidelines. But once you learn basic table manners, you realize that they’re not difficult to keep up. So why not practice proper dining etiquette if you can? It certainly doesn’t hurt to try, and many people will appreciate that you were conscientious enough to behave like a proper gentleman at the table.
Final morsel: if you get through a meal without repeating the words “please”, “thank you”, or “excuse me” at least a few times each, chances are you could stand to be a little more polite and conscientious to your fellow diners.
What other tips do you have about table manners or dining etiquette? Leave a comment below!
Emily Post’s Etiquette: Manners for a New World, by Lizzie Post
Miss Manners’ Basic Training: Eating, by Judith Martin