Little did I know that the many times my mother told me to take my elbows off the table or chew with my mouth closed, she was really preparing me to feel comfortable at any dinner table. She wasn’t critical or nasty in how she corrected me, but without a doubt it was important that I listen and do as she instructed. She knew she was preparing me to feel confident whether I was eating with the most important dignitary, a prospective employer or my new friend. Even more important was that I was learning how to make sure others at the table felt comfortable too. Making sure others are comfortable is the essence of good manners.
Mom could subtly clear her throat thus catching my eye, raise an eyebrow, and look pointedly at my elbows. It was an art form I worked to perfect myself as my children grew up. The dinner table was not just a place to eat, but also an entire learning lesson.
Setting the table:
Moms are crafty about how they can turn anything into a learning opportunity! My co-worker was relaying a story about how she loved spending time with her mom, and that every night they would set the table together. As they talked about school or whatever else was on their minds, her mom was teaching her how to set the table correctly, and that it was important to have the table be neat and ready for the diners. Check out this site for the basics in table setting.
Napkin goes on your lap: If you need to leave the table for a few minutes, then leave the napkin on your chair. When finished with your meal, you may leave it on the chair or back on the table.
Wait to start: You may start eating when everyone has been served and the host/hostess has started. The meal is not finished until everyone has finished and the host/hostess excuses the table.
Sit up straight: I cannot tell you how many times I heard this instruction. Sitting up straight is important for many reasons. By keeping the back straight and leaning slightly over the table and bringing the fork to your mouth (never the mouth to the fork), one is less likely to spill. Also, if you are sitting up straight, then you are more prone to look others in the eye as you converse, thus conveying interest in what your dinner partner is sharing.
Elbows off the table: Just as you should not slouch, elbows do not belong on the table. It tells your dinner partners that you are just too tired to be interested in them. Emily Post (social etiquette expert) says it is OK to put your elbows on the table once the meal is over.
Take one bite at a time: Cut one piece of food at a time and do not overstuff your mouth. Chew with a closed mouth. Do not take a sip of your beverage until the bite has been swallowed. No one actually wants to see your food as you eat it! Also, try to pace your eating at the same rate as others so everyone finishes at about the same time.
No electronic devices: Put all electronics away and off. There is plenty of time to use them later. By constantly checking one’s phone, you are sending the message that the others at the table are not important to you.
Say Please and Thank You: These words have magical powers. The simple courtesy of these words conveys our respect and consideration of others. This applies to the servers in restaurants as well.
Which fork to use when: Like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, knowing the “Outside-In Rule” helps one feel confident even when you don’t know which forks are to be used with which dishes. Utensils that are not needed should never have been set on the table, so you can’t go wrong. This is why, if you have the chance to dine in a fancy restaurant, the waiters will be switching out the utensils based upon the dishes you ordered. No need for a shrimp fork if you didn’t order shrimp. Additionally, my other advice is to take your time and watch the other diners at the table.
Resting utensils: If you are taking a break (taking a sip of your beverage, etc.), then place your fork and knife at contrasting angles 8 and 4 o’clock). When you are finished, place the fork and knife parallel with each other at the 4 o’clock position. This allows the host/hostess to know when everyone is finished so the table can be cleared.
Break your bread: Once bread is on your plate, break off a piece with your hands, butter, and enjoy. Never cut bread on your plate with a knife.
Touching food others may eat is a no-no: Same with “double-dipping.”
Serving and passing food: Serve from the left of a diner and clear from the right of the diner. Pass salt and pepper together. Do not reach across the table, but ask for the item to be passed. Do not pass across others, but pass from person to person towards its destination.
Soup: Dip your spoon away from your body towards the outside of the rim, and then bring to your mouth. No Slurping! You may tip the soup bowl away from your body to get the last of the soup into your spoon. When finished, rest the spoon next to the bowl. Check out this video for the proper way to eat soup.
Conversation: By not having to worry about which fork to use, we can concentrate on the conversations at the dinner table. All those family dinners were teaching us how to converse with others. Taking turns, listening, asking questions, healthy debates, being exposed to world politics as well as what is bothering someone helps both children and adults become empathetic and engaging conversationalists at the dinner table. Check out this article for great dinner conversation advice.
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