How to navigate the trickier points of dining etiquette

By Betsy Cribb
March 07, 2020
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There are some rules of table etiquette that you could recite in your sleep: Keep your elbows off the table. Place the napkin in your lap. Don’t speak with your mouth full. But there are also some finer points of table etiquette that feel a little murkier and may make even the politest diner feel unsure of what to do. Here, we’ve tackled the trickier details so you don’t have to…and so you can make your mama proud next time you take a seat at her table (with a clean shirt and washed hands, please).

Mistake #1: Passing Food the Wrong Direction

Dishes should always be passed to your right. The counterclockwise order is especially important when there are multiple dishes to be shared. The exception to this is if the person who has requested a dish is sitting just one or two places to your left, It doesn’t make sense to send the potatoes on a pilgrimage around the table just so you can say that you’ve stuck to the letter of the law.

Mistake #2: Cutting Your Food into Bite-Sized Pieces All at Once

Tempting though it may be to get all of the slicing and dicing out of the way, it’s imperative that you cut your meal one bite at a time instead. Of course, if you’re helping a small child at the table, it’s fine to cut up their food at the start of the meal.

Mistake #3: Placing Your Used Utensils in the Wrong Place

You know the drill about which piece to use when (quick refresher: work from the outside in). But what about when you’re resting or finished with the meal? There are two widely accepted resting positions for your silver: You can go with continental-style, which includes placing your fork and knife at the center of your plate in an inverted V (knife on bottom, fork tines up). Or you can go with American-style, in which you place your knife diagonally on the top right of your plate and the fork on the plate, tines up. Once you’ve finished the meal, both the fork (tines up or down) and knife (blade facing in) should be placed diagonally on the plate (handles at 4 o’clock, tips at 10).

Mistake #4: Leaving Your Napkin on the Table

Okay, so there’s a little drama when it comes to the Great Napkin Debate. Experts generally all agree as to where your napkin should go at the end of the meal: Neatly placed to the left of your plate. But when it comes to where the napkin goes when you get up from the table mid-meal, people fall into two camps: Table vs. Chair. The pro-table crowd says, “Put the napkin on the table to the left of your plate, just as you would at the end of the meal.” They also argue, “The napkin is messy, and it will leave a mess on the chair” and “That chair ain’t clean, and germs are bad.” The pro-chair crowd says, “You put the napkin to the left of your plate at the end of the meal. Let’s not make this confusing.” While we can certainly appreciate both sides of the debate, we’re Team Table all the way.

Mistake #5: Not Following Your Host’s Lead

There are times when proper etiquette takes a backseat to taking direction from your host. For instance, if your host sends the plates clockwise, rather than counterclockwise, you should follow suit and pass accordingly. It is far more gracious (and shows far better manners!) to go along with your host, rather than to insist on doing something the “proper” way.