The modern guide to table manners

Friends and good manners will carry you where money won't go

Menus have been pored over. The top-rated restaurant has been booked. The guests have been invited and the perfect outfit has been picked. It is going to be an occasion to remember. Let’s make sure it’s remembered for all the right reasons – this modern guide to table manners will tell you all you need to know.

Excuse Me, Waiter, There’s a BMW on the Table

When seated at the very best of tables, guests should find that they have plenty of elbow room. This will have the added advantage of making clear exactly which plates and glasses belong to whom. Unfortunately, at some events, extra place settings are squeezed in, and it becomes difficult to tell which side plate you should use. Try remembering ‘BMW’. That is, ‘Bread’ on the plate on the left, ‘Meal’ on the plates and bowls in the center, and ‘Water’ (or you’re probably hoping for ‘Wine’ at this stage) in the glasses to the right. No, problem!

Table Manners

Confusing Cutlery

When faced with a dazzling array of beautifully arranged cutlery, just remember the old rule – use them from the outside to the inside. Often, soup is served as a starter, and the soup spoon should be waiting on the outside right. The fork on the outside left is usually a salad fork, while the knife and fork on the inside of the setting are for the main course. Towards the end of the meal, all these will have been cleared away leaving the dessert spoon (and its accompanying fork) at the top.

Cutlery Wielding Like a True Gent

Now it’s easy to find the soup spoon (outside right, remember?), but how exactly should it be used? Maralee McKee has lots of tips on how to remain poised and keep a clean shirt whilst eating soup. The main rule is no slurping, but also be sure to eat from the side of the spoon and bend forward just a little for less chance of embarrassing drips.

If there is one golden rule of cutlery, it is that your knife never, ever, goes into your mouth. It doesn’t even get close. Breaking this rule is the quickest way to stand out as a wannabe amongst true ladies and gents.

Strangely enough, it is ok to squish food onto the back of the fork (even if it means having to use mashed potatoes as glue to persuade the peas to comply), but never ok to use the fork ‘shovel style’ to scoop food up. So remember, keep that fork pointing downwards.

At this point, table manners decree that the head is held high. Not just because everyone at the table is doing a wonderful job, but mostly because it would be rude not to. Although it may seem sensible to bend over the plate to save the tablecloth, it is not good etiquette.

When the course is finished, it is polite to lay the knife and fork next to each other vertically, towards the bottom of the empty plate (it would be an insult to your host to have food left over).

Smartphone at table

Golden Rules

These rules may seem obvious, but times change, and while it is now ok to politely ask someone to pass the potatoes, it was once considered a faux pas to ask someone to pass the salt. Luckily, most of the golden rules of table etiquette are really based on being a considerate guest and companion, so they ought to be a little easier to figure out.

One such consideration is to chew with the mouth closed, and only talk with an empty mouth. While the bread with whipped butter and onion ash may look incredible when served, it’s not so attractive part-masticated, so keep it hidden.

Napkins are for knees, not for collars, nor even just for decoration. After being used they should be left on the table in a heap to make it clear that they are soiled and need to be washed.

Never use personal cutlery for communal bowls, and likewise, dipping a pre-bitten item (or any item for that matter) in a communal sauce is likely to make the other guests feel queasy. Transferring foods or sauces from the communal dish with the serving implements provided will keep everyone happy.

Additionally, as David Thomas points out, it is very rude to use a device at the table, or even to put a device on the table nearby. A beautifully prepared meal is a chance to engage in scintillating conversation with fellow guests – definitely not the right moment to Instagram the pudding.

Emergency Etiquette

Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance, so it makes sense to know what to do in an etiquette emergency. These could range from an unexpected additional guest at the restaurant table (stand up while they join you) to an unexpected piece of gristle. Debrett’s, the trusted guide to all things proper, has excellent advice.

Even the most exquisite meal may spring surprises. If the surprise would be dangerous to swallow (a fish-bone for instance) then the proper procedure would be to remove it from the mouth as quickly as possible while covering the whole operation discreetly behind the other hand. It can then be laid quietly on the side of the plate.

If the surprise is merely unpleasant to eat (in this case, gristle, for example), the consideration for other diners trumps any personal discomfort, and the polite thing to do is to try to swallow the offending article.

Slightly less immediate, but no less fraught, is finding the steak too tough to cut. In a restaurant, go ahead and ask for a steak knife. However, in a private home, beware. Many a possible promotion has no doubt been lost when a host’s cooking is insulted by a tactless request for a sharper knife. When in doubt, tough it out!

Go Forth and Discover

There is a whole world of wonderful food out there. The world’s most inspired chefs are waiting to prepare dishes such as soupe de carottes au chocolat (yes, carrot soup with chocolate), roasted monkfish with oregano butter, and pan-fried snails in parsley for appreciative diners. So, no more hesitation – take these table manners out there, and enjoy.

Ali Emerson

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