From positioning your cutlery properly to tasting your food before applying salt and pepper, many aspects of dining etiquette that were considered common knowledge a generation or two ago are rarely known today.
While dining has certainly become more of a casual affair over the past few decades, dinner parties and special events still require us to put on our finest table manners and follow old fashioned dining etiquette.
From the perfect way to hold a wine glass to common faux pas Western diners make when using chopsticks, read on to learn how to become a more polite guest, whether you’re dining in London, New York or Tokyo.
PLATES AND CUTLERY: THE BASICS OF WESTERN DINING ETIQUETTE
From the correct way to hold your knife to the right order of forks, many aspects of arranging cutlery can be confusing. Worse yet, many differ between cultures, with a variety of customs considered polite in one place and unsuitable in another.
Bloody dog has eaten the pâté again. I should be annoyed, but at least he used the correct knife.— Milton (@BB_Milton) 22 April 2013
For the purpose of simplicity, we’ll use the British and American dining etiquette as the default throughout this guide. When there are small differences between the two – and there are at least a few – we’ll point them out to help you.
Let’s start with the basics. Hold your knife in your right hand with your thumb down one side and your index finger along the top. Never eat off your knife. Hold your fork the same way in your left hand with the prongs always facing downwards.
When you’re not holding a knife, your fork goes in your right hand. It’s also flipped upside down, with the prongs facing upwards. In the United States, it’s considered acceptable to switch your fork from one hand to another throughout the meal.
HOW HOLDING YOUR FORK WRONG COULD BLOW YOUR COVER
Did you know that during World War II, American spies were constantly intercepted throughout Europe because of their knife-switching eating habits? Today, using the wrong method is more likely to get you a dirty stare than an arrest warrant.
History lessons aside, let’s get back to cutlery etiquette. When you use a spoon, hold it in your right hand and eat from the side; never turn your spoon around so you’re eating off the front side at a formal dinner.
Use your cutlery from the outside inward; the knife and fork on the outside are used for the first course and the next for the second, and so on. Dessert spoons go above the plate and on the right side, knives are closer to the plate than spoons. This simple rule makes it easier to set the table if you’re hosting a multiple course meal, as well as for dining.
Only set out as much cutlery as you need; if you aren't serving dessert, there’s no need to place a dessert spoon on the table. Never set your cutlery back in its original place after you've used it. Instead, rest it on the plate between bites. When you’re finished eating, place your knife and fork together on the bottom half of your plate with the ends pointing to the centre.
ARRANGING YOUR PLATES PROPERLY
Salad plate on the… left? Bread and butter plate… where? Arranging plates can be confusing, but once you’re familiar with the basic placement of plates and drinks, you’ll rarely forget it.
The two smaller plates – the salad plate and bread and butter plate – are placed to the left of your dinner plate, just above your fork. Any drinks go to the right side of your plate, above your spoon. Food on the left side, beverages on the right side.
NAPKINS, SERVING OTHERS AND OTHER ETIQUETTE TIPS
Who should eat first? How should you use your napkin? Should you season before or after tasting your food? Sometimes the simplest parts of etiquette can be the biggest challenges. Read on for answers to these questions and many more:
- Unfold your napkin after everyone has been seated and fold across your lap with the fold pointing towards you. Don’t be afraid to discretely wipe your mouth with it throughout the meal – that’s what it’s there for!
- Wait until your host has sat down before taking your seat. Drink your water as soon as you’re seated if you’re thirsty, but don’t touch your meal or other drinks (especially alcoholic ones) until your host has done so first.
- Finger foods and bread basket etiquette can be easy to forget. If you pick up any communal plates first, offer them to the person on your left before you serve yourself, then share it with the person to your right.
- Feeling tired? If you need a cup of coffee, wait until you've finished the meal and order it with dessert.
- Taste your food before you season it with salt and pepper, even if the meal is traditionally heavily seasoned when consumed. Take a single bite to taste the food as it’s prepared before you customise it to your tastes.
- Eat with your mouth shut, keep your elbows off the table and avoid slurping your drink. Although this tip might seem a little too obvious, it’s actually one of the most common complaints shared by diners online.
- Drinking wine? Whether you’re drinking from a white wine glass, red wine glass or champagne flute, only ever hold a wine glass by the stem. If you’re a serious wine lover, holding it by the base is also acceptable etiquette.
CHOPSTICKS: TECHNIQUE, CUSTOMS AND AVOIDING SUDDEN DEATH
Did you know that setting aside your chopsticks the wrong way could be perceived as you wishing death upon someone? Eating with chopsticks is surprisingly simple, but there are a few common faux pas to watch out for the next time you use them.
Chopstick etiquette differs from between the East Asian countries, with the Chinese observing different customs than the Japanese, Koreans or Vietnamese. However, a few common chopstick customs are shared between all East Asian countries:
- Avoid transferring food from your chopsticks to someone else’s. Instead, put the food on a plate and let them pick it up on their own. In China, transferring food between chopsticks is only OK if it’s to a friend or family member.
- Don’t point with your chopsticks, even unintentionally. If you need to place your chopsticks on the table between bites, use a chopstick rest (these are mostly used in Japan – in China, the edge of your plate is fine) and ensure they aren't pointing directly at anyone else.
- When eating noodle dishes, use both chopsticks and the soup soon you’ll be given. Hold the chopsticks in your right hand and transfer food to the spoon, especially when you’re eating a soupy dish.
- Never stick your chopsticks vertically into a rice bowl. This symbolises the burning incense used in many East Asian funerals and is considered a sign related to death. In Japan, avoid crossing your chopsticks for the same reason.
Etiquette aside, simply learning how to use chopsticks can be difficult for many first-timers. This video from Geobeats shows the correct way to use chopsticks; keep the bottom stick stationary and move the top one to clamp down on food.Ready to host your first dinner party? Browse our extremely elegant dining room furniture.
WHAT’S YOUR WORST DINING ETIQUETTE MOMENT?
From spilling food during a business meeting to drinking your wine before the host had a change to make a toast, we've all committed a dining faux pas or two. What’s your word dining etiquette moment?