Back to Basics: Table Etiquette and Other Things

I was at an event the other day and someone leaned over to ask me which glasses were his. The waiter came and offered wine, hesitating when the fellow held out the largest glass, which wasn’t meant for the wine. The waiter hesitates nervously. I step in and explain that the gentleman’s wine glass is smudged. May we have a new one? The waiter nods and walks off. For the rest of the evening, my table companion glances in my direction before selecting any utensils or glasses.

Another person mentioned that she was at a function with her group and accidentally picked up her boss’ water glass at the start of the meal. Her boss glanced at her but didn’t say anything. He just picked up the glass to *his* left and everyone followed suit. She was mortified when she realized what had happened, and kept apologizing to her boss, who just smiled and chalked it up to her being nervous about the business meeting.

It’s so disturbing to see that so many wonderful people — smart, outgoing, hard-working — are never instructed on the basics of table etiquette, which seem silly at times but are actually quite important at formal dinner/business functions. It didn’t help, of course, that the people in these two scenarios were nervous about being at a dinner party with all their superiors and clients.

My suggestion? First, breathe and maintain a good sense of humor about little missteps. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in feelings of embarrassment or anxiety over… a fork.

Okay, so working clockwise from your plate:

@12 o’clock: Directly above your plate will be your dessert spoon (handle facing your right) and your dessert fork (handle facing your left).

@1 o’clock: Depending on the function, you may have between one and four glasses at the table. Yes, they are all yours. The largest one — usually a wide “goblet” — is for water. If there are two wine glasses, the larger one (usually with a mouth that curves in) is for red wine and the smaller one (without the drastic curve) is for white wine. On special occasions, there may be a champaign flute, a small “snifter” glass, etc. among your cluster of glasses. Coffee/Tea cups generally appear after everything but the dessert utensils has been cleared from the table.

@ 3 o’clock: Your knife and tablespoon. Sometimes there is an extended cluster of utensils because of special appetizers/delicacies that are being served. In such cases, you will see them in this order: Dinner knife, salad knife, table spoon, cocktail fork. The two knives tend to look the same, though in very formal dinners, the salad knife is slightly smaller (like the salad fork, which we’ll get to in a moment). The table spoon cues you into the notion that soup/long pasta will be served. The cocktail fork is for the consumption of shrimp, snails, clams, and other little delicacies that can’t be handled with the regular-sized fork.

@ 6 o’clock: Your napkin. Your napkin should remain on top of your plate until everyone is seated. Open the napkin up, fold it over once, and slide it over your lap from left to right. Don’t tuck it into your shirt or just leave it on the table “till you need it”….  Why? Because my Yiayia told me so and she is never wrong. 😉

@ 9 o’clock: The forks. The forks are always funny because wait staff never lines them up quite as they should be and people don’t tend to take notice most of the time. Here’s how to decode the forks: The dinner fork will have the longest prongs; it is usually placed closest to your plate (like your dinner knife), with the smaller salad fork next to it (to match where the salad knife is on the other side). There may be another small fork there for whatever other appetizer (antipasto, etc.) is being served.

@ 11 o’clock: The bread dish and butter knife. This is the small dish and the small dull knife.

@ Your Table Setting: A variety of plates and bowls may be in front of you. In very formal events you may see a “charger” plate, which is basically just a big decorative plate to mark your table setting. On top of it will be your (large) dinner plate. On top of that is usually the salad plate (unless the host has arranged for salad, appetizers, etc. to be brought out in a specific fashion). In place of the salad plate there may be a soup bowl, indicating the first course (again, unless the host has arranged for all preliminary courses to be served in a specific manner).

A similar strategic placement applies to formal breakfasts and lunch meetings. Tea Time has a completely different set up.


If someone “steals” your glass at the start of the meal: Don’t make a production out of it; just ask the wait staff for another glass if the table is full and there is no spare glass for you. It’s not generally a conversation piece.

You want bread/salt/pepper: Don’t cut anyone off to ask for these things, and don’t reach across the table or across a person’s face/plate for anything. Say “excuse me, can you please pass….” It seems like common sense, but many times the impatient or self-assertive want to do everything themselves.

You are not ready to have the plate cleared: You’ve started a debate with one of your dinner partners. You should set your utensils down in an “X” (fork pointing right, knife placed over it, pointing left) so the waiter know’s “X = don’t touch my plate yet, I’m just pausing.”

You are ready to have your plate cleared: Whether you’ve finished everything on your plate, setting the knife and fork side-by-side (both pointing to the left), the wait staff knows to remove your plate.

At a sit-down meal, never handle any food with your hands — with the exception of the bread, which should be cut into small, bite-sized pieces and buttered as needed.

Don’t be the condiment hog of the group: I love pepper, but I have to curb myself and set the shaker down after a moment and pass it along.

Don’t remark on everyone in the group: It’s very annoying to have someone always comment on what others are doing at the table. You are not watching a play-by-play of the Rangers/Bruins game. Chill out and keep the loud obnoxious commentary to yourself.

Don’t tell off-colour jokes: As a rule, when you’re in mixed company, you should try to avoid topics that are not appropriate for a general audience. If you’re at a gathering with close friends, the rules change a little, but try to err on the conservative side as much as possible, especially if you’re about to tell a potentially embarrassing story involving one of the people at the table.

Don’t get plastered! So many of these events end in a display of poor character by someone who has had too much to drink. Don’t be that person.

Don’t drink and drive! There will be no fishbowl for you to drop your keys in when you are attending a formal dinner. There will only be the valet to park your car. You must be responsible enough to make this choice — and smart enough to know when to accept a friend’s offer to call a cab or drive you home.

Did I miss anything?

If you’d like to add a “Do/Don’t” on table etiquette, please post it below!

6 thoughts on “Back to Basics: Table Etiquette and Other Things

  1. Bonnie BB says:

    Great post – I learned a thing or two! Any thoughts on cutting a piece (of meat or whatever) and then feeding yourself with the fork in your left or right hand? I was always taught to put the knife down and pass the fork over to the right hand, but I see this done both ways now.


    • Philo4Thought says:

      Hi Bonnie! There’s a whole etiquette on how to hold a knife and fork. We’re meant to keep our forks in our left hand (presuming that the left is the non-dominant hand) to pin the food article down, and we keep our knife in the right (dominant) hand to be able to apply pressure while slicing. Left-handed folks have to settle into a routine with this, but the traditional rules apply to everyone.

      The rule ISN’T the same for the “pasta spoon,” though! In this case the spoon goes in the left hand and the fork should go in the right hand! I’ve been out with folks who don’t know why I wait for the spoon.


    • Philo4Thought says:

      @mbiehl2013: Thank you for sharing the video clip! As the 21-year-old, “wiser” self indicates, it’s always important to maintain a respectful and positive attitude at the table for a variety of reasons.

      Note the way that the soup was handled in the video. Few people know the proper way to consume soup since the motion is a little counterintuitive. In most cases, however, you’ll find that table etiquette is basically just a matter of using one’s common sense, as we shall discuss in the upcoming workshop!


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