The Common Etiquette For Passing Dishes That's Basically Defunct

Historically, dining etiquette has served two functions: promoting greater respect and consideration between fellow diners, and reinforcing class distinctions through rigidly defined social conventions. Fortunately, in the U.S., etiquette experts like the late Emily Post prioritized the former function over the latter, leading to a more democratic spirit in the country's etiquette. This trend has continued in recent years, resulting in the relaxation or abandonment of many traditional rules of dining etiquette.

Not all etiquette experts, of course, agree with the relaxation of certain dining etiquette rules, also known as table manners. Some still adhere to the "no elbows on the table" rule, for example, although this rule has largely fallen out of favor in recent years. The same is true for another rule that dictates dishes or platters of food should always be passed to the right or counterclockwise when going around the table. This etiquette instruction has also become defunct in the modern age.

However, there's a difference between the two rules. The "no elbows on the table" dictum may have been useful in centuries past when tables were makeshift and prone to tipping over, but now it is not. On the other hand, the "pass to the right" rule has a reasoning behind it that is still very much relevant, even if the rule itself is no longer considered necessary. Its purpose is to establish a sense of organization during the process of passing food.

The logic behind passing dishes to the right

The "pass to the right" rule is rooted in logic. If people are passing food in two different directions, it can make family-style service chaotic and confusing. That's why, traditionally, there have always been etiquette rules governing the directional sharing of food and beverages in fine dining situations. Beverages were shared in a clockwise fashion, while food platters were passed counterclockwise to the right. The former rule, for example, still lives on in British port rituals, where the postprandial decanter is always handed off to the person on one's left.

The Emily Post Institute Inc. still advocates for the "pass to the right" rule, albeit with a pragmatic twist. If a fellow diner requests a second helping of a particular dish and they're seated nearby but to your left, it's more efficient and still proper to send the food to the left rather than routing it laboriously around the table.

However, aside from Emily Post adherents, the "pass to the right" rule is now largely ignored, at least in the U.S. You can pass to the left if you prefer, and not just to those closest to you. But it's still a good idea to decide which way you'd like food to be passed at the table and stick to it; otherwise, dinner service may become a bit disorderly.

Try to be considerate during family-style service

The "pass to the right" rule was primarily relevant for one type of service: family-style. This service style is defined by the presence of shared platters rather than individually prepared plates. It's less structured than formal fine dining and often more casually intimate. However, it's worth noting that several other etiquette rules are still practiced in regards to family-style service. Not all of them are becoming antiquated notions, like the unidirectional food passing.

Thank-you notes for being invited to family-style meals are still appropriate, although admittedly, fewer and fewer people write them. Considerate gestures, such as those Emily Post was fond of, are still appreciated. For example, one should never take the last item from a platter without first offering it to those sitting next to you at the table. It doesn't matter whether you offer it to the person on the left or the right first; what matters is simply that you're considerate.

Similarly, it's considered impolite to decline to try a dish without offering some sort of explanation. An allergy, for instance, is certainly a reasonable reason for declining to partake of a particular food dish. Otherwise, it's advisable to sample sparingly if you don't think something will be to your liking.