How to improve your table manners

Written by kathy adams
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How to improve your table manners
It's basically nice to display proper table manners, particularly at a formal affair. (Banquet table / Dinner Place Setting image by Taiga from

Americans have notoriously poor table manners. We slurp our soup, chomp our chocolate cake, spill our salt and belch our blessings. And while all of this slurping, chomping, spilling and belching can be seen as quaintly charming, we are no longer living in little wooden shacks.

Learn about basic table manners you should use at every meal, not esoteric table items (such as fingerbowls). Frankly, you almost never use those things, and even when you do, no one else will know how to use them either.

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Sit Down and Claim Your Property

Let's move right to the meal. But wait! Should a man pull a woman's chair out for her before she sits? Well, it depends. If they are on a date in a nice restaurant, sure. But at a nice restaurant, the person who seats the couple will probably pull the chair out for her, so you have nothing to worry about. This leads to...

General Tip #1: For all questions involving etiquette, just use your brains.

Men don't have to get all Victorian and insist on standing up every time a woman leaves or returns to the table. Just be polite. Now, if you're a guest at someone's house, don't sit until the host sits first (unless the host told you to just go sit down at the table). In fact, when dealing with hosts, remember...

General Tip #2: Never do anything until the host does it first.

This includes sit, eat, put your napkin on the table and leave. After all, the host is paying for the meal, so at least make her feel like she's in charge.

Now it's time to take inventory and figure out which stuff is yours. We've all gone to a dinner and used our neighbour's fork, glass, bread plate or husband. Here's a shortcut so you can know exactly what is yours: your plate is in the centre; knives and spoons are on your right; forks and your napkin on the left; liquids (your water) go to your right, and solids (your bread plate) go on your left.

There might be more forks, knives or spoons, depending on what the meal is, but you get the general idea. If you need another shortcut, remember that your drink is always on the right because the first two letters in the word "DRink" stand for "Drink Right." Just know that your bread plate is on the other side, and you're set.

One note if you happen to be the host: Remember that all items (salad, meal, wine and water) should be brought to each diner's right and cleared from each diner's left. That's why the glasses are on the right.

Use Your Utensils Correctly

Learn how to use everything properly. Take your napkin and place it in your lap right away when you sit down. (It should never be on the table.) Don't try to snap it open. Just put it on your lap (not into your shirt). If you're a man, do not put your tie over your shoulder.

Now you can take some bread from the breadbasket. Take only one slice of bread. (It's OK to rip it from the loaf with your hands, but be neat. Don't declare war on the bread and cheer when you get your slice separated.) Here's a common mistake: Do not butter your bread at this point. This is how to do it:

  1. Take some butter and put it on your plate, not on the bread. Now you have your own little pile of butter and won't continually fish from the communal butter dish.
  2. Tear a bite-size piece off your bread.
  3. Butter that bite-sized piece from your own little butter pile.
  4. Eat it with delight.

The first part of the meal comes: the appetizers. But what utensil should you use? You can find the answer in...

General Tip #3: Use your utensils from the outside in.

The fork farthest to the outside is the one you should use for the appetizer. When the next part of the meal comes, use the next outermost fork, and so on. The same goes for the spoons and knives. If you're in a fancy restaurant or a party at Buckingham Palace, you might be lucky enough to have waiters who will remove any utensils you won't need. But even if you do not have this luxury, use your brains! You won't use a knife to eat your soup. You won't use a spoon to eat your salad. But let's say that you lose track of your utensils and get lost. Then proceed to...

General Tip #4: If you're not sure what to do, wait and see what your neighbour does. If that offers no clue, just fake it.

Chances are, nobody's watching you closely enough to see that you're using your dinner fork instead of the salad fork (the salad fork is the smaller one). Don't draw attention to yourself. Don't make a big deal of it. Just take a guess and eat. If you used the wrong utensil, the waiter will bring you a replacement.

Here is the proper technique for using a fork and knife. Assuming you are right-handed, hold the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right. With the tines facing downward (curving towards you), hold down an end piece of whatever you are cutting (let's assume it's meat). Do not hold the knife or fork like a dagger, but rather, place your index finger along the top of each utensil, holding each at the end. This gives you greater control without looking like you're hacking into the poor, dead animal. Gently, using a sawing motion, cut the meat near the tines of the fork, so you have one bite-sized piece. Then lay down the knife (without allowing it to touch the table) and switch the fork (complete with pierced meat) to your right hand. Bring it up to your mouth, chew quietly and swallow when the meat is sufficiently masticated. This is called the American (or Zigzag) method of cutting food. The Continental (or European) method consists of not switching hands, and using the left hand for all fork-related activities.

Before we move on, remember the thing we said about not letting the knife touch the table? That's because...

General Tip #5: Never let any utensils, once used, ever touch the table again.

This includes leaning a fork onto the plate, or using a knife and putting it back in its original place. The original reason is because the utensil could dirty the tablecloth (a major faux pas) and result in a cleaning bill for the host. So once a utensil is used, its lifespan is over. Get over it, and leave it on the plate at all times.

One last note should be made about soup. Many people do not know how to correctly use a soup spoon, so we will supply you with...

General Tip #6: Do not put the entire soup spoon in your mouth.

Instead, fill a soup spoon about 75 per cent with soup, bring it up to your mouth and sip it from the side, with as little slurping as possible. When your soup runs low, it's acceptable to tip your bowl away from you so you can capture the last bits of soup, but don't do that more than twice. And remember to lower your spoon into your soup gently so it doesn't bang the bottom of the bowl. Imagine 20 people eating soup and banging their bowl bottoms.

Eat Properly

So now you're sitting at a lovely dinner, using your eating utensils in the most proper way possible. And then you let fly an enormous burp. Whoops! There's a lot more to table manners than just using the right fork. You also have to have correct manners with regard to how you eat.

Posture: Always sit straight up in your chair, never leaning backward nor forward. Never let your elbows touch the table (though you can put your hands on the table all you want). When eating, do not bring your face toward the plate, but bring the utensil up to you. You're the master! But what if you drop something? Suavely signal a waiter so he can replace the item. (Don't pick up the dirty fork and put it on the table. That's just gross.) But if it's your napkin that escaped, just excuse yourself as you lean down, pick it up and continue with whatever you were doing.

Passing: If someone asks for something to be passed to her, only reach for it if you are the closest one to the item. In that case, take the one item and place it directly next to your neighbour. (Do not pass it hand-to-hand.) Continue passing the item in this manner until the original requester has the item. And oddly enough, you are not allowed to help yourself to the item until the original requester gets a chance at it (after all, she asked first). When that person is done, you can ask the item to be passed back to you.

Salt and pepper: An additional note needs to be made about using salt and pepper: If someone asks you to pass the salt, do it in the same manner as above, but pass both the salt and pepper (even if only one of the two was asked for). Again, do not use guerrilla tactics and try to use the salt until after the original requester had a chance with it. Also, never use salt or pepper on your food until after you have already tasted it. It's a huge insult to the cook if you try to add flavour before even tasting it. And while it seems obvious, don't ever season a dish that everyone is supposed to share (not with salt, pepper, ketchup, Parmesan cheese ... not with anything). Keep your own creative additions to your own plate.

"Embarrassing" Moments: Did you burp? Did you spill something? Did your pet monkey poop on the table? To handle these unfortunate little accidents, just try to channel the aura of James Bond and think: Be classy, be classy, be classy. If anything comes out of your mouth other than speech (a burp, hiccup or chicken nugget), just excuse yourself quietly (to nobody in particular) and put your napkin to your lips. This is a good time to talk about general napkin etiquette. Never smear your napkin all over your face or wipe your mouth hard. Just use it to blot your mouth. But if you spill something, then follow...

General Tip #7: If you spill something, don't make a big deal of it.

It happens. Just be calm, quietly apologise, try to prevent anything from spilling over onto the people sitting next to you with your napkin, and get a waiter to help you control the damage. If something spills onto someone's clothes, do not try to get it off his clothes. That's technically known as a "sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen." Point it out, let him clean it up, offer to pay the dry-cleaning bill, and then let it go.

Using your fingers: A big question regarding eating properly is when it's OK to use your fingers and when you must use a utensil. While we provide a small list of finger foods, there is a tip you can follow, which is...

General Tip #8: If you're not sure whether or not you can eat something with your fingers, just use a utensil.

This just makes sense. It's better to be overcareful than under-careful. As for foods that you can eat with your fingers, they include:

  • artichoke
  • asparagus (as long as there is no goo on it, and it's not too long)
  • bacon (but only if it is crisp)
  • sandwiches
  • cookies
  • small fruits or berries with stems
  • french fries and crisps
  • hamburgers and hot dogs
  • corn on the cob
  • caviar
  • pickles

Pacing: This is not the Indy 500, and the food is not going to walk away. So take your time. Don't fill your mouth with too much food. Try to keep the same eating pace as your host, so you all finish at the same time. It is not a compliment when someone leans over and says "Boy, good thing you didn't eat the plate" or "Wanna finish some time before the next thaw?"

Mom-isms: Just think of this as the potpourri of things you've heard all your life about table manners. Most of them were 100 per cent correct:

  • Don't grab food
  • Don't talk with your mouth full
  • Chew with your mouth closed and no noise
  • Excuse yourself if you get up to go somewhere (the bathroom or to make a call)
  • Don't pick something out of your teeth (just excuse yourself to the bathroom)
  • Don't leave lipstick smears on anything
  • Don't put items on the table (meaning a purse, papers, keys)
  • Don't smoke
  • Don't tilt or squirm in your chair.

Finish With a Flourish

How do you end with a good impression? Well, since you read the section on pacing and everyone else is just about done, here's the landing procedure: Place your knife and fork on the plate so that they are parallel to each other, at the 11 o'clock position (a diagonal from bottom right to top left) with the points facing away from you. This is different from the "X" position, with the knife and fork crossing like an "X" over your plate, which indicates that you are not done with the plate, but merely resting between bites. To correctly use the "X" position, the fork bottom should be on the left and the knife bottom on the right. Place your napkin next to your plate on the table (but again, never until everyone is done eating and drinking). Place it loosely (not twisted or crumpled) and don't put it on the chair (or the chair might get dirty). And after the bill is paid, stand up, make sure you have your belongings and leave.

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