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Having great manners never goes out of style. From tactfully letting the chef know about a food allergy to the proper way to eat finger foods, good table etiquette can go a long way.
For years, people have looked to the woman who quite literally wrote the book on manners, Emily Post, to answers these queries. But her 1922 best-seller, Etiquette: In Society, In Business, In Politics and At Home clocks in at over 600 pages! As someone who wants to be an engaging, polite and courteous dinner guest, you may not have the brain space to read hundreds of pages before an evening out. But fear not! No matter what dining situation you find yourself in, these 15 rules and tips should help you sail through with grace and ease.
1. If you have an allergy, tell the restaurant up front.
You can’t help an allergy. While most restaurants will honor special requests as best they can, giving them a heads up about any restrictions you may have will help make the meal more enjoyable for everyone. If you’ve been invited to a dinner out, don’t be shy about asking where you’ll be going. This gives you the opportunity to look up the restaurant and call or email them yourself to let them know when you’ll be dining with them and what you need to avoid. The restaurant will appreciate the heads up, and you won’t feel like an annoying dinner companion when it’s time to order.
2. Your phone belongs in your bag or in your pocket, on vibrate.
While some etiquette purists will demand your phone be turned off entirely during a meal, most of us can agree on where it should never be: on the table. If you leave your phone out in plain sight for everyone to see, you’re sending the message that more interesting things are on the screen than are in front of you. If you know you’ll be getting an important call, mention it ahead of time. When the time comes, politely excuse yourself to take the call, then make sure your phone disappears for the rest of the night.
3. Know your place setting: Water glass is on the right, bread plate is on the left.
When you’re sitting down to a fancy meal, you don’t want to accidentally steal your neighbor’s plate. Here’s a great trick that can come in handy at any formal gathering: touch your index finger to your thumb. The hand that makes the “d” is the side your drink sits on. The hand that makes the “b” is where you’ll find your bread plate. Done discreetly under the table, people will never know you didn’t know which cup or dish was yours!
4. When in doubt, don’t reach out.
Unless a plate of food is right in front of you, don’t reach across people to grab something — ask for it to be passed to you. On that note, when passing dishes family-style, always pass to the right so that dishes are going in the same direction. After serving yourself, pass it to the person to your right and offer to hold the dish (especially if it’s heavy) so they can serve themselves.
5. Taste first, season second.
No matter where you’re eating, taste a bite of your food before you reach for extra seasonings. The chef has worked hard to prepare your meal, and premature seasoning isn’t a great way to show appreciation. For this reason, some people avoid extra seasoning altogether so they don’t look rude, but there’s no need. Salt and pepper and any other seasonings found on the table are for you to use, so don’t shy away from a shake or two if the dish could use a boost. Speaking of seasoning…
6. “Pass the salt” means to pass both.
Picture salt and pepper as two magnets: Where one goes, so does the other. This clears up any confusion later in the meal (as both salt and pepper are probably passed multiple times), so no one has to wonder where that pepper shaker got to.
7. Your host is the captain. Follow commands accordingly.
So many dining snafus can be solved by following your host. Place your napkin in your lap when the host does. If he or she insists that you don’t stand up when they leave the table, follow their lead. And that first bite of your dinner? It comes after they’ve had a chance to taste their food.
8. Cut food, take bite, repeat.
When the waiter arrives with your juicy rib eye, avoid cutting it up all at once into bite-sized pieces — that’s for kids! Instead, cut and eat as you go. Not only is this the more polite way to eat your food, but it keeps it from getting cold too fast. It’s a win-win.
9. Elbows on the table is only okay when there’s no food on the table.
Emily Post herself wrote about this age-old etiquette rule throughout her life. Her final word is that while it’s fine to relax between courses and chat with friends while your elbows are casually on the table, once food is involved, it’s sloppy to keep them there. Noted!
10. When eating finger foods, follow the one-bite rule.
Ah, finger foods. Delicious bites that we’re always supposed to eat with our fingers, right? Not quite. If you’re dining with friends at their home and they insist that fingers are fine, go for it. If you’re out, a safe test is the one-bite rule. Can you pick it up and eat it in one (easy) bite? If so, you’re in the clear. If not, use your knife and fork. Better to be too safe than to spill something all over the table, the floor or yourself.
11. White wine glasses should be held by the stem. If they’re stemless, pick them up like any other glass.
This one’s easy! Generally speaking, you can hold a wineglass the way it feels most comfortable, whether that be by the bowl or the stem. The exception is for white-wine glasses. While red wine won’t mind a little extra heat from your hand, holding a white wine glass by the bowl will warm up the wine and change the flavor. Hold these by the stem to keep your beverage cool and crisp whether you’re at a table or a party (or even on the beach!). For a stemless glass, pick it up like any other.
12. Your bread should be eaten in separate bites.
If there’s a bread basket on the table, follow the rules for passing and then leave it near the center. Once bread is on your plate, take small bites by tearing off pieces as you go, rather than picking up the whole roll and taking a bite out of it. This keeps your mouth from being overly full and minimizes crumbs, too. And if there’s a communal butter dish on the table, pass it like you would anything else. Using your knife, section off some of the butter, then transfer it to your own bread plate. Then butter your bread from that portion.
13. Excuse yourself with a quick word.
If you need to leave the table for any reason (like in the phone example earlier), a quick explanation is all your dining partners require. Don’t be embarrassed, and resist the urge to ramble. A simple, “Excuse me, I’ll be right back” is perfect. Place your napkin on your chair as you leave (rather than on the table), and that’s that. Make sure you do say something, though. Leaving with no word might make people think you’re upset or angry.
14. Take part in the conversation!
Nothing will get you invited to dinner again faster than being an engaging guest. If you are seated around people you don’t know, take this opportunity to get to know them and learn from the conversation. If they talk about things that are unfamiliar to you, like a profession or hobby, ask questions! One of the best things to do in an unfamiliar social situation is to ask people about themselves. It’s a universally flattering conversation technique that will make people feel at ease around you and create connection.
Along the same lines, if you’re dining with a group of people who are new to you, tread softly around emotionally charged subjects like politics and religion. If someone wants to engage with you in these areas, listen attentively and speak when you have something constructive to add. Sometimes people just want to be heard, and being an active listener and acknowledging different views speaks volumes about your character without your having to say a thing.
15. Always thank the host.
Whether it’s a night out with friends, a client dinner or a dinner party, make a point to thank the host or whoever organized the event. It takes a lot of planning to put together even a simple meal for people, and a genuine expression of gratitude will be appreciated! To really make a winning impression, this thanks can start as soon as you walk in the door with a simple gift, like a candle, a box of chocolates or another token that you think the host will enjoy.
Most people underestimate the impact even a small gift can have, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Sending a handwritten note the next day is another great way to show your thanks, but even an email that night saying how much fun you had — at the restaurant they chose or at their home — is a nice gesture.
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