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Place your Napkin in your Lap: The art of etiquette and good ol’ fashioned table manners


By Taylor Aube 

What do you do with all those forks? Which way do you pass the gravy? Who eats first? Have you ever been stumped on what to do at the table? We can all relate to Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson in Titanic when he’s having a first-rate dinner with the first-class passengers. He eyes the line-up of forks and knives and spoons. “Are these all for me?” he asks Kathy Bates, playing Molly Brown. Her advice is simple: “Just start from the outside and work your way in.” She is correct.  


 The rich history of etiquette dates back to the ancient Egyptians, 3,000 B.C. to be exact. The texts of The Maxims of Ptahhotep elaborates on human relations and behavior, specifically truthfulness, self-control and kindness. As time progressed, philosophers from around the world further developed the idea of etiquette. From Confucius’ studies on social justice, to the rise of Louis XIV’s nobility and bourgeoisie behaviors, to the Enlightenment era, etiquette was an influential discourse that societies adapted to. These concepts led to the development of politeness, which throughout the millenniums to follow became a widely accepted social norm. Today that norm is simply known as manners.  

Etiquette was a way to influence society to live a moral life. Every culture has different traditions for manners, but the American South has one of the most deep-rooted histories of them all. From Gentleman’s Clubs to Debutante Balls, the South has an appreciation for kindness, respect and most importantly, Southern hospitality. Southern manners stress the importance of behavior, dress and dining. While some see dining manners to be a lost formality, there are ways to practice and appreciate these specific set of rules. With rules ranging from the way one holds an eating utensil to the appropriate posture at the dinner table, it is not hard to see that manners are truly an art form.  

Table Manners 

Although many Americans do not realize they are practicing proper table manners, or a lack there of, quite often they are taught at a young age how to hold a knife and how to speak at the table. According to Know Southern History, a website dedicated to exploring the heritage of the South, here are 25 table manners to conduct while eating. Challenge yourself to see which table manners you always adhere to and which ones you may not.  

Before coming to the table, be clean, neat, appropriately dressed (wearing a shirt and hair combed) and wash and dry your hands. Be on time. 

  • Your napkin should be placed in your lap, folded halfway. 

  • The first person to take a bite of food should be the person who prepared the meal or the host. 

  • Sit up straight with both feet on the floor. 

  • Never rest your arms/elbows on the table. 
  • Eat with one hand and rest the other in your lap. 
  • Men and boys can help women be seated (pull out their chair). 
  • Talk only of pleasant things at the table, and don’t interrupt another person. 
  • Don’t talk with food in your mouth. 
  • Never say you don’t like something that is being served. Take a small helping and eat it out of respect for the cook and host. You don’t have to have seconds. 
  • Food is passed to the right. 
  • Do not overload your plate. 
  • Chew with your mouth closed. 
  • When serving yourself use the serving utensil, not your own utensils. 
  • When eating soup, spoon away from yourself. 
  • Never reach for food, say, “Would you please pass the _____.” 
  • Before talking or drinking, be sure you do not have food in your mouth. 
  • Never spit food out if it is too hot. Drink water to cool off the food. 
  • Use your napkin to clean your mouth and hands before getting up from the table. 
  • If you must sneeze at the table, use your napkin and sneeze downward and away from others and your plate. 
  • You may leave the table when everyone is finished. Children may ask to be excused early if adults wish to stay and talk. Children should address whoever prepared the meal and say, “I enjoyed my meal, may I be excused?” 
  • When finished, place napkin to the left side of your plate, or if plate has been removed where plate was. 
  • When leaving the table, be sure to push your chair under the table. 
  • Men should remove hats or caps at table. 
  • If at a restaurant and if you drop a utensil, do not pick it up. The waiter will bring you another one. 

  • When cutting meat, if you are finished cutting, lay the knife on the plate and use your fork for eating.

Table Setting 

Table setting is one of the most important parts of a dining experience. Table setting can be broken down into two categories: informal and formal. Informal settings are generally for weekday meals and formal settings are generally holiday meals, special celebrations and for hosting honorary guests.  

According to Etiquette Scholar, an online encyclopedia of etiquette and manners, “during informal meals, all flatware is laid on the table at one time. At the host's option the dessert utensils may be brought to the table on the dessert plate. The following is a standard table setting for a three-course meal. Note the basic ‘outside-in’ rule. The piece of flatware that will be used last is placed directly next to whatever plate you are using.”  

The two forks should be placed on the left of the plate. The fork furthest from the plate is the salad fork. The fork next to the plate is strictly for the main course. The dinner knife is always placed on the right side of the plate. The blade of the knife must face the plate. Additionally, the spoon should be placed on the far right of the knife. The water and wine glasses should be placed directly above the dining knife, on the right side of the plate. 

The formal table setting is more elaborate and involves more attention to detail. The Etiquette Scholar explains, “To avoid clutter, the general rule for any table setting is to include no more than three utensils on either side of the dinner plate at a time. The exception is the oyster (or seafood) fork, which may be placed to the right of the last spoon even when it is the fourth utensil to the right of the plate. On the table should be five glasses, three forks and three knives arranged as outlined in the infographic. If you really want to impress your dinner guests, take the extra time to set a formal dining room table. 

Table Decor 

Once the table is set with plates, forks, knives, glasses, etc. garnish it with décor to create the perfect ambiance for your meal. Decorating a table space with a center piece of fresh flowers, silk flowers, fine china, glass, fruit or candles will offer a warm welcome to your guests or seasonal flair. Ornaments can work, too, but only if they match the occasion. This creates the opportunity to use family heirlooms or even Do-It-Yourself projects to decorate.  

For the centerpiece, the Etiquette Scholar gives three tips to remember.  

  • Don't let a centerpiece overwhelm a table.  

  • Don't have a centerpiece that blocks the views of people sitting across from one another. 

  • Don't create a centerpiece that hinders serving and dining.  

Candles create the perfect atmosphere for a dinner party. With a glowing flame and low light, they assuredly improve the dining experience. When used as table décor, candles can be in elaborate candle holders or plain tea light candles.  

Etiquette Scholar suggests candles be lit before guests come to the table and should remain lit until they leave the dining room. When the centerpiece is in place, a pair of candlesticks is placed at each end, about halfway between the centerpiece and the end of the table. The candlesticks or candelabra must be high enough so that the light does not shine into the eyes of those at the table. And finally, if the candles are used in addition to other lighting, two or four candles are adequate for a table of up to eight people. 

Napkin folding 

The final touch of décor is the napkin. One can create elaborate designs such as animals or roses by simple twists and pulls, transforming your napkin into a piece of art. For basics, try the napkin pocket, where you can tuck a set of utensils inside. First, fold the bottom edge of a napkin up to the middle. Second, fold the bottom up again on top of itself. Then fold the two sides to meet in back. Fold insides again, and place the napkin on the table. Tuck utensils neatly into the front pocket. 

For a more decorative design, try the candy wrap napkin. With a little creativity, you can surprise your guests when they pull at the ends of the napkin to reveal hidden sweets or a note tucked inside. (Directions via Martha Stewart) Follow the diagrams below to create this coiled effect. The dotted lines show where the creases should appear, while the curved arrows indicate where you need to flip over the fabric and the curly arrow means to roll it up. For a crisper look, iron the napkins before and after folding. 

 In Conclusion 

Maybe you already know these rules. Maybe you receive a gold star for your extensive table manners knowledge. In that case, try some napkin folding ideas to add extra pizazz to your next dinner party. If you (or someone you know!) have some room to grow, keep working. Luckily, there are three meals (or more!) in a day. That’s more than enough time to get it right.