Article #25. Table Etiquette

“Her table etiquette could sometimes seem antiquated, she takes such care; but this only adds to her overall warmth.”

This quote is lifted from the previous article on THE ART OF BEING titled The Things of a Captivating Woman, and has become the inspiration for today’s piece.  One of the things I find most fascinating on this list is table etiquette.  Some would find it overwhelming, but I love that there are layers upon layers, and details within details.  There seem to be no limits to how far you can go in showing grace and honor to others when it comes to breaking bread together.

And it all depends how formal you want to be…

My husband and I had the privilege of sitting around our friend Emanuel’s table.  Emanuel is a gentleman in his seventies of Greek heritage, and what a culinary masterpiece he can create!  Roasted lamb paired with mint jelly, savory roasted vegetables, fresh tomato salad, wine, & long loaves of bread graced his table that afternoon.  I’m not certain the Queen of England herself could have enjoyed a finer Mediterranean spread!  Of one thing I am certain, however: the formality and style of etiquette about Emanuel’s table would contrast greatly with the Queen of England’s regiments.

For one thing, we arrived at Emanuel’s home which was amidst extensive renovation.  I loved how casually he spread a clean canvas drop cloth over the table and pulled up random chairs and stools to accommodate.  He hosted with such an ease that made us feel at home – like family.  Once the table was set before our very eyes, we sat down to hold hands and bless the meal.  Emanuel then explained etiquette as he was accustomed to… warm, informal, and hospitable in nature.  “At my table, we pass the entire loaf of bread in our hands, and you break off as much as you want,” he said, adding that there was plenty.  “And no need to be formal; on the little Greek island we come from, burping is not only quite acceptable, but a compliment to the cook!”  Then we laughed, and had a grand time listening to his stories into the evening.

Really, I think “etiquette” is all about being adaptive to whatever table, culture, or setting you’re trying to connect over.  It is ultimately about connection with others, not how lofty we can behave.  And being well informed of different etiquettes can add a touch of charm to your manner should you choose to employ them.

So without further ado,

here are some standard manners, as well as some subtle things you may wish to add to your repertoire – particularly for enjoying a meal at a finer restaurant or in the event of a formal dinner party.  I know this has been a brilliant refresher (and clarifier!) for myself, and I hope it can be for you, too.

First, it may be helpful to know the standard formal table setting.  This is useful whether we’re hosting a more formal gathering, or as a guest so we may no longer wonder which set of crystal belongs to us – the one to our left or right.  As seen on the table below, you will want to sip from the glasses above your right hand (not the person’s beverages to your left… as I personally have never done).


Believe it or not, formal table settings can get even more complex and crowded than this, but we likely won’t receive invitations lofty enough for that extent of knowledge (and I dare say, if we did, we’d likely receive professional training on the ins and outs of the corresponding etiquette necessary).

SETTING UP:  When setting the table as a hostess, only set the table with utensils you will use.  Then follow the placements shown on the diagram above.

BEING SEATED.  Typically, one should not be seated until either the hostess first sits or invites you to be seated.  This is the signal that everything is ready, and that he or she will not feel rushed.  If you are invited to sit before the host or hostess, do not lay the napkin on your lap or disturb your place setting until he or she does first.

NAPKIN.  The very first thing to do once you’re officially seated is to place your napkin on your lap.  Someone in service may do this for you, and you should allow them to if they so indicate.  Usually it will remain folded in half upon your lap, with the fold at your waist.

Your napkin can be used to communicate with the waitstaff, so be sure to use the proper language for your intentions!  When temporarily excusing yourself from the table (to revisit the buffet, visit the bathroom, or perhaps give a toast), always leave your napkin on the chair.  This lets the hosts know you are not finished, and will return.  When leaving the table permanently after the meal, signal you are finished by somewhat folding the napkin and leaving it upon the table to the left of your plate.  Do not do this before others finish eating, and never crumple the napkin or place it on top of your plate.

HANDS.  Hands should be placed in your lap at all times unless passing dishes, cutting food on your plate (or buttering bread), et cetera.  Americans should always return the left hand (or whichever hand is not dominant) to their lap when not needed.  Arms, hands, and elbows should never rest idly on the table during the meal… though they may be while utensils are not in use.  Continental (such as British) etiquette uses both hands while eating… a fork in the left hand and knife in the right.  In this case, keeping hands and elbows close to your sides is important.

American etiquette requires the fork be changed into the left hand so that the right may take the knife to cut (only a bite or two!) before returning the knife to the top of the plate, switching the fork back into the right hand, and replacing the left (non-dominant) hand back onto the lap.  Taking a drink requires a similar order.  In summary, you may only do one thing at a time; whether taking a bite, cutting your food, buttering your bread, or taking a drink.  Every time.  No shortcuts.

PASSING FOOD.  During family-style meals, each food dish sits in the middle of the table.  Starting with the head of the table, each dish should be passed counterclockwise, or to the right.  This provides order to the way the meal is initially served.  However, if someone only a few spots to the left requests an item, it may be passed left once everyone has been served.  If someone requests an item a second time later during the meal, no one who passes it should take any en route to the one who asked.  In deference to that person, simply ask for it to be passed back again.  Finally, if passing beverages, do not place fingers on or inside the rim where someone’s lips may touch.

SPEAKING.  Yes, please.  No, thank you.  My pleasure.  These all go a long way for all situations in life, not only at the table.  While eating, swallow your food if you have more than a few words to say, and be sure to rest your fork on your plate while speaking.  Then you may resume eating again.

REACHING.  I love this one, because how often I have wondered about it!  An item is considered “within reach” if your arms may easily reach it when only slightly leaning forward.  One should never lean past someone else, and especially not across someone else’s table setting.  Basically, imagine an invisible 3-dimensional box around yourself, and do not reach beyond its limits.  Never breach someone else’s, either.

SILVERWARE.  This etiquette fascinates me most.  When facing several options of forks, for example, start with the fork farthest from your plate.  Essentially, you’re working your way inward with each course.  Often the first course is a soup or salad.  The salad fork is often – though not always – smaller than the entree fork.  This order also applies to spoons and knives.  Occasionally, specialized cutlery is provided by the waitstaff depending on what you ordered… such as a soup spoon or steak knife, if they do not already appear at your place setting.

(Conversely, drink to your right.  That is, use drink ware starting from glasses closest to your plate outward.)

Once you have dirtied any piece of silverware, it must never touch the table again!  Silverware is usually cleared away with each course, though at times the server may ask that you keep your set for the next course.  Always rest an in-use knife, for example, across the top of your plate.  Butter spreading knives stay rested on the bread plate, and soup spoons on the saucer which the bowl rests upon (or in the soup itself, if no saucer is present).  Forks remain on the plate whenever it must be set down.    

Like your napkin, your silverware speaks in secret code!  Here are a few (of many) cues:

Screen Shot 2019-11-11 at 11.14.42 AM

Imagine being a hostess, wondering whether your guest really did not enjoy the meal or whether they were merely uneducated about the proper way to signal that they are finished eating.  (And as the guest, wouldn’t it be mortifying to learn you unintentionally signaled dissatisfaction to the chef?  This is one of my worst fears.)

It’s amazing how certain placements and gestures can communicate beyond verbal language!  How useful then, to become “bilingual.”

Discipline, honor, connection.

Manners and etiquette were a huge part of my training as a child, and I’m ever grateful to my parents for that.  It’s something I’m eager to pass on to my own children one day.  Of course, there are many details about table etiquette that I have only recently learned (and perhaps a thousand more to be learned), but I believe having a good base of manners is never a wasted discipline.  Life has a way of taking us to unexpected places where being well-informed and well-practiced just might prove valuable.  It has in my own experience.

I hope no one sniffs at what some might consider “rigid rules” after reading this article.  And I hope no one scorns the traditions that created these guidelines.  There are some stuffy folks in the world who may use manners as some show of distinction and superiority, but this is no reason for any of us to neglect our manners.  Others genuinely use them as a way to honor and be honorable, and I want to be one of them.

Whether you sit at the table of Queen Elizabeth II herself, or whether you’re the honored guest of our dear friend Emanuel, adapting your etiquette accordingly is a huge way to show honor, respect, and the desire for true connection with your host.  Whenever you’re unsure, simply fall back upon the best manners you’ve been taught, and I imagine the warmth of your heart will always show through.  ❤


Did you find any of these manners particularly interesting?  Are there any others we may want to know more about?  I hope you’ll let us know in the comments!

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