By Jimmy Mwangi
I recently attended a diplomatic dinner; the black-tie kind event that includes a lengthy course menu with the choicest seasonal delicacies and fine wines. Most first-timers to such an elaborate layout would understandably be nervous to avoid any dining faux pas.
The gentleman in a jumper was visibly most uncomfortable as he stuck out from the crowd resplendent in penguin suits. I, too, fumbled on a few occasions prompting a refresher reflection on table etiquette.
The word etiquette is French for “label” or “tag”, first used in the English language from around the mid-18th century. These rules became prevalent in the French and British court. Etiquette was a way to showcase superiority in the art of entertaining and display of good manners.
Even presently as it was then, having good manners and being polite is a positive personal trait and will leave the impression in any social circles that you are a good and well-behaved person with the right attitudes.
If you want to be the well-behaved person that everyone will admire, here are a few tips to get you through:
- The rule of thumb in party wear?
When in doubt, it is better to dress down (slightly) than up. Or, better yet, do some checking. Ask your hosts, or another guest, to clarify the type of clothing and degree of formality for the upcoming occasion.
- If a specific time is given, arrive at the time stated, or shortly thereafter, never early.
- Do not walk with a cocktail plate and drink in your hands.
You should hold one or the other to free your hands for greetings. Also never take more than one or two pieces of hors d’oeuvres at a time; it is impolite.
- In a restaurant, the guest of honour should sit in the best seat at the table.
Usually that is one with the back of the chair to the wall. Once the guest of honour’s seat is determined, the host should sit to her left. Other people are then offered seats around the table. Generally, the oldest or most important man sits on the right of hostess and the second most important man sits left of hostess.
- At a small table of only two to four people, wait until everyone else has been served before starting to eat.
At a formal or business meal, you should either wait until everyone is served to start, or begin when the host asks you to.
- The first toast given during dinner is normally offered at the beginning of the meal.
Traditionally, it is offered by the host as a welcome to guests. Toasts offered by others start during the dessert course. When toasted, the “toastee” does not stand, nor do they drink to themselves. All the recipients need do is sit and smile appreciatively. Once the toast is finished, the toastee simply acknowledges the toast with a “thank you.” They may then stand and raise their own glass to propose a toast to the host or anyone else they might want to honour.
- When dinner is announced, wait until the hostess moves toward the door, then rise.
Women should not serve themselves.
- To help navigate table turf, memorise two simple rules: Your glasses are on the right; your bread plate is on the left.
If you forget, think BMW, for “bread, meal, water” - the left-to-right order of items when you’re seated at your place.
- Use the right utensils starting from the outside and working your way in toward the plate as the meal progresses.
Usually the big fork is for the entrée; the big spoon, for the soup. Any utensils placed horizontally above your plate are meant for dessert. When in doubt, the host and hostess should be your guides. Use whatever they are using.
- When passing food, always remember to pass to the right (if the item is not being passed to a specific person).
One diner either holds the dish as the next diner takes some food, or he hands it to the person, who then serves herself. Any heavy or awkward dishes are put on the table with each pass. Always pass the salt and pepper together.
- If the loaf is not cut, cut a few pieces, offer them to the person to your left, and then pass the basket to your right.
Do not touch the loaf with your fingers, instead use the cloth in the bread basket as a buffer to steady the bread as you slice it. Place the bread and butter on your butter plate - yours is on your left - then break off a bite-sized piece of bread put a little butter on it, and eat it.
The more formal the meal and setting, the less inclined you should be to eat with the utensils you were born with. There is, however, a lengthy list of acceptable finger foods: bread, crisp bacon, pizza, hors d’oeuvres, corn on the cob, asparagus (provided it is cooked al dente and is not dripping with sauce), fried chicken (though perhaps not the breast), French fries (unless you are eating the rest of the meal with a knife and fork), and tacos (except for any filling that falls out, which you should retrieve with a fork).
Of course, if your host is using a fork, you should do the same.
- Hold the soup spoon by resting the end of the handle on your middle finger, with your thumb on top.
Dip the spoon sideways at the near edge of the bowl, then skim away from you. Sip from the side of the spoon. To retrieve the last spoonful of soup, slightly tip the bowl away from you.
- Kindly note how you leave your knife and fork on your plate when taking a break or are finished eating.
Once a utensil has been sullied, it never goes back on the table. When you’re taking a break, rest your fork and knife entirely on the plate. When you’re finished, place them diagonally on the plate, side by side, with the handles at four o’clock.
The knife blade should face the centre of the plate, not point out toward another guest.
- To signal dinner is concluded, the hostess catches the eye of the host, lays her napkin on the table, and suggests that everyone go into another room for coffee and after-dinner drinks.
The hostess rises from her chair. When it’s time to leave, rather than detain one’s host with a lengthy good-bye, make the departure brief but cordial.
- Napkin guide
Placing the napkin in your lap: Place the napkin in your lap immediately upon sitting. If there is a host or hostess, wait for him or her to take their napkin off the table and place it in his or her lap.
(An exception to this rule is buffet-style meals, where you should unfold your napkin when you start eating). Unfold your napkin in one smooth motion without “snapping” or “shaking” it open.
The size determines how you unfold a napkin in your lap. Large napkins are unfolded halfway. Smaller napkins are unfolded completely and cover the lap fully.
Refrain from tucking a napkin into your collar, between the buttons of your shirt, or in your belt.
Using the napkin
Use your napkin frequently during the meal to blot or pat, not wipe, your lips. Blot your lips before taking a drink of your beverage.
- Napkin Rings
If a napkin ring is present, after removing your napkin, place the ring to the top-left of the setting. At the end of the meal, grasp the napkin in the centre, pull it through the ring, and lay it on the table with the point facing the centre of the table.
- Temporarily leaving the table?
When leaving the table temporarily, put your napkin on your chair. If the chair is upholstered, place the napkin soiled side up.
- Placing the napkin at the meal’s end
The napkin is loosely folded at the end of the meal. If a plate is in the centre of your place setting when leaving the table lay the napkin to the left of the plate. If the centre of your place setting is empty, the napkin is laid in the middle of the place setting. Leave your napkin in loose folds that keep soiled parts hidden.
If after-dinner coffee is served at the table, the napkin remains on the lap.