Dining Etiquette: A Refresher Course

[Editor’s Note: When you’re interviewing, celebrating, invited to a banquet or dining with friends and family, be aware of your table etiquette—you never know who’s watching. Someone influential’s impression of you could rise a few notches because you know which fork to use.]

In your roles as librarians, you often find yourselves outside the confines of the library advocating on behalf of your institution. Speaking before academic vice presidents or city council, presenting to the community foundation and boards of trustees, and meeting with state representatives and faculty are part of many librarians’ job descriptions. There are other, more social situations that can also bring you face-to-face with people who can impact the future of your library. Meals duirng interviews, chamber dinners, conference receptions, Rotary luncheons and holiday parties all provide opportunities for you to build relationships and establish yourself as an advocate for your library and person of influence in your community and state. You will want to keep your mind focused on communicating your message, not worrying about “Which fork is mine? Which way do I pass? What do I do with my napkin?” What follows is a refresher course on basic dining etiquette, providing the answers to the questions many people have about breaking bread with others.

The first thing to do after being seated at a table is to immediately place your napkin in your lap. Unfold it into either a large triangle or rectangle. Never use your napkin as a tissue, but have one close by if you think you’ll need one during the meal. Ladies should blot their lipstick with a tissue before eating so they don’t soil the cloth napkin and glassware. Don’t flip over your coffee cup or other glassware you won’t be using. If a beverage is served during the meal that you don’t want, simply say, “No thank you.” If it is poured by mistake, just ignore it; you weren’t planning on drinking it anyway. If you have to leave the table during the meal, say a soft “excuse me” to the people on either side of you, leave your napkin on your chair (not the table) and push the chair under the table as you leave.

As you look at your place setting, remember that solids are on the left and liquids are on the right. In other words, your bread plate is on the left side above your forks and your drinking glasses are on the right side above the knife and spoons. Use silverware from the outside in. The first fork you will need will probably be the salad fork, the one farthest on the left. The larger fork directly to its right is your dinner fork. On the far right side of your place setting you may find a soup spoon and, to its left, a teaspoon followed by the knife. If you see utensils placed horizontally across the top of your place setting, save those for dessert. Remember—once a utensil has been used for eating, it never again touches the tablecloth, only the china.

Your “real estate” at a table consists not only of your place setting but also the other items directly in front of you. It is your responsibility to take notice of those things and initiate their use. Roll baskets, butter, cream, salad dressings, sugar, salt and pepper—if they’re within your reach, pick them up and start them around at the appropriate time. Always pass to the right (unless someone has already started passing to the left) and don’t help yourself first. Those items should make a complete pass around the table before you get your turn. If you just can’t bear not having first choice of the rolls, turn to your neighbor on your left and say, “Would you care for one?” Then help yourself next before sending it on to the right. Whenever you pass something with a handle, such as coffee creamer, pass it with the handle facing the other person so they can grasp it easily. Always pass the salt and pepper as a set, even if only one is requested.

It’s important that you place the butter first on the bread plate before buttering your bread. Break off one- or two-bite morsels of the roll and butter as you go. Whatever you take up to your mouth should be eaten in one or two consecutive bites. Your tablemates don’t want to see a half-eaten roll placed back on your bread plate.

It is still proper to draw the soup spoon away from you as you eat and to tilt the bowl away from you to get the last drops. When you’re finished, place the spoon on the plate beneath the soup bowl. If there is no plate, rest the spoon in the bowl. Follow these same guidelines for any dessert served in a bowl.

Salads should be prepared so that they consist of bite-size pieces. But if your salad includes leaves that are too big to eat, use the side of your salad fork to cut them into smaller pieces. If that doesn’t work, use your dinner knife. But be warned, the knife will probably disappear when your salad plate is cleared.

When eating the main course, pace your eating to that of your dinner companions so that you finish each course at about the same time. In the United States, we eat “American Style.” Here’s how to do it (for right-handed people). Cut into the entree with the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right. Cut only one- or two-bite pieces at a time. Then lay your knife down across the top right edge of the plate (blade facing you) and transfer the fork to your right hand. Bring the food up to your mouth with the fork tines facing upward. Don’t stab your food or hold the silverware with your fists. And be careful not to gesture or point with your silverware, whether or not it has food on it.

If you must remove something from your mouth as you eat, take it out the way it went in. In other words, if it entered your mouth on a fork, remove it onto your fork. If it was finger food, use your fingers to remove it. Place the item on the side of your plate. Don’t try to hide it under the plate, because as soon as the plates are cleared it will be left behind on the tablecloth! Don’t hide any paper trash (sugar wrappers, creamer cups, etc.) you’ve accumulated during the meal under your plate either. Simply place them on your bread plate.

At the conclusion of the meal, imagine your dinner plate as a clock and place your utensils in the 4:20 position. It’s considered rude to push your plates away, stack them up or hand them to the server. Place your loosely folded napkin on the table just as you stand to leave, not before.

Maneuvering through a meal doesn’t have to be scary. Like all elements of etiquette, it boils down to common sense combined with kindness. Knowing the guidelines for dining etiquette gives you confidence so that you can relax and enjoy the meal and company. And in this fast-food age, it can also make you unforgettable!

Jill Bremer, owner of Bremer Communications in Oak Park, Illinois, has been helping corporations and individuals “get the edge they need to succeed” since 1986 with customized training in communication skills, image and etiquette. She is the author of “It’s Your Move: Dealing Yourself the Best Cards in Life and Work” (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2004) and is currently serving as one of five national trainers for the Turning The Page conferences sponsored by the Public Library Association and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

© 2008 Bremer Communications

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