A Quick Guide to Table Manners

Tulipes Noires by Gien at Arthur Quentin

Stylish entertaining does not exist without practicing the rules of etiquette. Since we are in the main season for conferences, seminars and dinner events, it is appropriate to start by reviewing table manners. I wrote them for a conference sit-down lunch event but they apply to all occasions.

Before we start

Good manners transcend being polite; it is a way of living in society. Since there are a lot to say of the subject, this is the first of a series. The schedule will be announced when I determined the best format.

Let me state that etiquette is always a touchy subject due to cultural differences. If you follow my blog, you probably know that I am a French Canadian. I was raised in the French style of entertaining. I lived 5 years in Toronto, Ontario. I traveled enough in North America and Europe to integrate the best of both worlds in my way of living.

Having said that, I may pinch in comments about what I consider to be good manners. But for now, let just go over 5 basic table manners. There are so basic that these table manners even apply when you eating at home with the people living with you.

1 | How to use the napkin?

Napkins are a must at every table. After you sit down, you take the napkin, unfold it carefully and lay on your lap. If you need to get out of the table during the meal, you deposit your napkin on the table at your left. You casually and quickly fold your napkin before resting it on the table. You are folding it so it takes less space. It should never invade your neighbor area and not touch your dirty plate.

At the end of the meal, leave your napkin at your right side. It is not polite to put your napkin on your chair, at least in North America. Why the right side? My guess is to follow the service path. We serve food from the left side and we remove dishes from the right. So the right signifies that you finish your meal.

2 | When start eating?

The rule is when everyone has been served. You should apply the rule at every course. If the hosts sit at your table, you must wait until they start eating or they invite you to begin.

In business events, because we are often pressed on time, it is acceptable to start eating when at least 70% of the people have been served. If you wish to start eating before everyone is served you must ask the permission first to the persons that have not yet receive their food.

Personally, I feel that the 70% rule is proper only in extreme circumstances, like there is a delay and you do not wish your food to get cold. My advice is to use the 70% rule wisely, especially when you sit at a table with people that you do not know.

3 | How do you indicate to the waiting staff that you have finished your plate?

Whenever you eat at a public places and at home according to the British eating habits, there is no need to eat everything on your plate. When you have finished eating, you position the fork and knife parallel at 4 o’clock with the handles pointing to your right. 

If you need to momentarily deposit your knife and fork during the meal, rest them on the top rim of your plate, the blade facing you and the fork thumbs down. Never place back on the table cloth, utensils that you have started eating with.

In the course was dished with a plate underneath like a soup, deposit the utensil on the accompanying plate once you finished.

4 | What is the order for utensils?

It is really simple. Just remember that the order follows an outside in pattern. So you start with the utensils further from the plate.

Dessert utensils can be placed on top of your place setting. For a more elegant event, it is customary to bring the dessert utensils at the table just before serving the course. I will talk about place settings in another column.

5 | How to hold your glass?

What is important to remember about this rule is that you hold any beverage in such a way to not warm up any cool beverage. Therefore, you always hold a martini glass, a champagne glass and a white wine glass by the stem.

With the trend towards stemless glassware, the right way to hold the glass is to grab it at a level higher than the liquid. For that reason, when you are serving white wine in a stemless glass, it is best to leave out a gap of at least 1 inch and a half at the top.

It is not a faux pas to hold red wine by the bottom part of the glass. I just feel it is less elegant. But I know it feels more comfortable. So if you wish to evolve in the elite circles, you can practice always holding by the stem all the times. But do not feel bad if you prefer not doing it when you are drinking a red wine.

It is good to know that the white wine glasses are always smaller than the red wine glasses. It is like that so the wine stays cool longer. Water glasses are usually the biggest glass on the table. The white wine glass rests at your left, then the red wine glass and the water glass near the center.

That it is for my first etiquette lesson. Stay tuned for more in the following weeks.

My favorite fall pattern: Gien’s Tulipes Noires dinnerware

I like to thank Arthur Quentin where I took this picture last month. This casual table shows off the beautiful Tulipes Noires dinnerware collection by French maker Gien. This is my favorite pattern this fall. You would be surprised how stunning Tulipes Noires could look on a Christmas table.

Photo credit: Table done by Arthur Quentin featuring the Tulipes Noires dinnerware by Gien – price: $32 CAD for the dinner plate

  • Jerome Paradis
    November 13, 2007 at 17:08

    I must confess that leaving the napkin on the chair is the rule I most often forget! When you come back to the table, you always find it on the floor!

    I should also add that if you are leaving the table to go to the rest room, you should never inform the rest of the party that you really need to go to the bath room! Which is easy to forget since you should try to stay at the table at all time. But sometimes you need to go and you are looking for an excuse in order to not offend the other guests by leaving the table…

  • patricia gray
    November 13, 2007 at 22:31

    Bravo to you for posting these table manners. I am right now teaching my grandsons proper table etiquitte. It is a lost art, but one we can persist with. I once had a boyfriend who pushed his food onto his fork with his fingers, instead of his knife. I couldn’t go out with him again.

  • Marilee
    November 16, 2007 at 15:10

    What a wonderful idea. There are so many children, not to mention adults, today that have no sense of table manners. I also believe that there are many who have no idea of what to do with a cloth napkin. How sad for them.they are missing out on a real treat.

  • Alessandra
    November 20, 2007 at 16:36

    good article, but I don’t undestand what you mean when you say “you position the fork and knife parallel at 4 o’clock, the handles pointing to your left”. Aren’t the handles meant to be your right, with the handles over the 4 o’clock mark? You seem to imply the handles are at the 10 o’clock mark. I am confused!
    A photo would help!
    thanks in advance.

  • At Home with Kim Vallee
    November 21, 2007 at 01:03

    Alessandra: Thank you for pointing the error. I always mix up left and right when I am talking! I corrected the text.

  • Elizabeth
    March 8, 2008 at 16:44

    Yesterday I went to a dinner where several Mayors attended and other government officials from my community.It was in a nice hall in a lovely hotel. There were over 50 round tables sitting 8 people each.
    A nice hostess came to each numbered table to inform when it was your turn to go to the buffet.-The food was spectacular!-. Of course many people started eating way before others.
    I have a problem with one of the Mayor’s manners.He went out to each table, while people were eating, to shake hands and have a little talk. I almost didn’t want to shake his hand but I had to. I felt he was basically picking up germs with his hands and spreading them to those who were still eating.
    Is there a rule where one should not extend the hand for a shake when others are EATING! I hope so.
    I also felt uncomfortable with the fact that I was sitting..eating…with not much room to move…and this man’s crutch is right at my eye level and he extends his hand which I have to shake…