Table etiquette rules, like language, are constantly changing. How do you know if you’re behaving yourself when you sit down to an elegant table? Whether you want to brush up on the rules for an approaching dinner party, or aren’t very familiar with them, you can review them right here, right now.
DO YOU MIND YOUR MANNERS?
Has there ever been a time in your life where you worried that you may have been bending the rules of table etiquette?
Perhaps at a fancy restaurant or at a swanky soirée where it’s easy to feel dreadfully out of place. Or maybe watching Titanic and wondering how you would fare in Jack Dawson’s place.
Whether you’re well versed in table etiquette or there’s room for improvement, this will act as a lesson to refresh and inspire.
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ENSURE A PLEASANT EXPERIENCE
Some people couldn’t care less about how they present themselves at a table. The thing is, good table etiquette helps to ensure a pleasant experience for everyone gathered round for a meal.
Etiquette is a living, breathing entity, changing with the tide of social norms. It’s fun to look back and see what was required at the table in say, 1906, because compared to the past, today’s expectations are like a walk in the park.
While a number of these are common sense, this list, while not exhaustive, was drawn from Amy Vanderbilt’s extremely thorough and invaluable book, Complete Book of Etiquette.
SIT UP STRAIGHT
Check your posture. Are you sitting up straight right now? Not only is sitting up straight better for the spine, joints and ligaments, it looks better too. Have you ever seen someone slouching at the table before? It doesn’t look good, and it looks like they don’t want to be there! Not convinced? Poor posture can lead to poor digestion. You don’t want heartburn, do you?
ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT
Here’s a scenario: you spot the peas on the other side of the table and you want them. You want them badly. So you reach across the table and your elbow knocks over a glass of wine, ruining the table cloth. Or maybe you reach across poor Peter, who’s in the middle of cutting his steak. Farfetched? Maybe, but the simple rule is to ask for what you want. Want a challenge? Draw from the rules of high English society and ask, “Peter, would you like some peas?” which in turn should incite Peter to offer you the peas.
It’s time for a pop quiz on table etiquette rules!
Sitting down at the table, you notice a cloth napkin.
a) Leave it alone until you need it.
b) Tuck it into your shirt, bib style.
c) Set it over your lap, folded in half.
If you chose option A or B, you will be surprised to learn that it’s C. Placing the napkin on your lap will protect you from the possibility of your food missing its mark and staining your skirt or trousers. It’s also easy to discreetly dab at your mouth should the need arise. Should you leave the table at any point, return your napkin to the table instead of leaving it on your chair.
WHEN TO BEGIN EATING
Your stomach is rumbling and your meal is ready and waiting in front of you. What a tease! Alas, the polite thing to do is wait for the cue to begin. Here’s as list of possible cues:
The host or hostess takes their first bite.
The host or hostess encourages you to begin.
If you're at a larger gathering, when more than half of the table has received their plates.
If you’re ever in doubt, wait it out!
Two rules here. First, chew your food with your mouth closed. No one at the table wants to hear the sound effect of food being masticated. Also, no one wants to see food being chewed to a pulp. Second, don’t talk with your mouth full. You don’t want to accidentally spit food in someone’s face when you’re speaking with them!
REMEMBER TO CONVERSE
While everyone is sitting up straight with napkins on their laps, chewing and speaking with their mouths closed, they’re also enjoying the company. At least, they should be. The purpose of a dinner party is to gather people for a meal. The company is the most important aspect; the food is secondary. Sometimes we don’t know what to say or how to contribute to a conversation, but it is important to do one’s best to participate.
THE BUTTER DISH
Whether your dinner rolls need buttering or corn on the cob is being served, if there’s a shared butter dish, there’s a protocol to be followed! Some butter dishes come equipped with a butter knife, but if the one at the table has none, your own knife will do. Simply take what you need and transfer it to your bread plate. From there you may butter your dinner roll, or whatever you took butter for.
EXCUSING YOURSELF FROM THE TABLE
As a child, if I wanted to take leave of the table, I had to ask to be excused. These days I don’t really ask to be excused, but I do beg pardon by saying, “Please excuse me.” It’s a simple gesture, but it’s a considerate one.
STEALING FROM OTHER PEOPLE’S PLATES
My husband, Big Papa, is a funny man. He was once gifted an extendable fork because he enjoys stealing from other people’s plates. This won him all kinds of delicious prizes, like french fries and bacon. With that being said, he wouldn’t dare do such at thing at a nice restaurant or amongst company we don’t know very well. There’s a time and a place for everything, and if you want to behave yourself at the table, then resist the urge to filch a french fry from your friend’s plate.
ELBOWS OFF THE TABLE
In some cultures, elbows can be on or off the table, it doesn’t matter. I grew up in Canada and have German roots, so elbows are off the table. Growing up, I never received any explanation as to why, I only heard the rhyme, “Sylvia, Sylvia, strong and able; keep your elbows off the table!”. When you think about it though, it circles back to the first rule, which is sitting up straight. If your elbows are on the table, you’re not sitting straight; you’re leaning!
DON’T TIP BACK YOUR CHAIR
According to Amy Vanderbilt, a lot of people are guilty of tipping their chairs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this at the dinner table. In fact, I thought most people left this practice behind upon graduating secondary school. There’s safety to consider, of course, but you also want to be mindful of the furniture. You never know if the chairs are antiques, or if the chair you’re sitting on recently underwent a repair. Stay grounded, that’s all I can say.
SEASONING YOUR FOOD
Picture this. You spent all week planning the details of a meal, prepped the day before, and then spent the day of the dinner party cooking up a storm. You carefully taste everything, seasoning the food to perfection. When at last the meal is on the table, one of your guests picks up the salt and pepper shakers. You watch in astonishment as they shake away without even tasting a single morsel first. How rude! Is it a force of habit? Maybe, but give the chef the benefit of the doubt and taste your meal before altering its seasoning. For a similar reason, don’t drown your meat and potatoes in sauce.
WORK YOUR WAY IN
If you ever find yourself in a setting where there are multiple courses, you may notice several different pieces of flatware at your service. Don’t panic! Start from the outside and work your way in. Simple, right?
If you’re hungry for more etiquette tips, I recommend checking out Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette. I’ve also heard great things about Emily Post’s Etiquette, though I can’t vouch for that one, since I haven’t read it. Then of course, there’s my ebook on vintage table etiquette that has over eighty tips on how to behave yourself in case you wake up one morning and it’s 1906. You can grab your copy by heading on over HERE.
I WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
What were your experiences with learning table etiquette growing up? Do you adhere to a set of table etiquette rules, or do you prefer a free-for-all at the table? Is there something you see at the table that drives you up the wall? This wasn’t a complete list, so if there’s something you would have liked to see on here, please let me know in the comments below!
TABLE ETIQUETTE RULES: THE VIDEO
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Love and gratitude,