The art of having better table manners
I can hardly contain my excitement for this post. I’ve been eager to write something like this for a long time, and the opportunity finally presented itself.
As you know from reading A Lady Goes West, I’m a stickler for proper grammar, but something I’ve never really touched on is my passion for proper manners and the art of being polite. While I’ve had no formal training on how to behave in social situations, I credit my Mom and my time in the corporate world dining with superiors for giving me a hearty arsenal of “soft skills” to pull from.
And even if you don’t go on business lunches, nor have a need to network, I’m sure you eat at a table at times and like to put your best foot forward. Therefore today, I’m bringing you tips on how to have better table manners — any time, any where.
Top five tips to help you have better table manners
In order to put some meat behind this post, I reached out to a professionally trained etiquette consultant, Sara Wierhake of The Sterling School of Etiquette, for the most official information. I’ll share more about the lovely Sara and her business below, but first, let’s get to the tips …
1. There is a way to hold your silverware, and it does not include using your fork like a shovel.
There is an American way of holding silverware, as well as a Continental way. In America, you should hold the fork like a pencil with your dominant hand. You then switch back and forth or “zig zag” by using our knife to cut with your dominant hand. This requires you to switch the silverware between hands, between bites, placing the silverware fully on the plate during the transition. The Continental way of dining does not require the switching of hands. You simply hold the fork like a pencil with the tines down, and keep the tines down as the food heads up to your mouth. (This is often how you see actors in movies at fancy restaurants eat. Look out for it, because if done well, it looks quite effortless and fluid.) At no point should you hold your fork or knife like a shovel or a paintbrush. Just don’t.
2. Eating should be a “shared experience,” so always keep pace with those you are eating around and bring the food to your mouth — not vice versa.
Even if you are starving, you should not begin eating until everyone at the table has their food. And once you get into your meal, take your time. Always sit up straight and bring the fork or spoon of food to your mouth, not your mouth to the food. Sitting erect with good posture will not only aid in your digestion, but it just looks better than hunching over your meal nearly licking the plate. If your dining companion is eating slowly, you should too. We’re all guilty of eating too quickly, so take smaller bites and pull back on that speed, folks. Enjoy the satisfaction and make it last longer.
3. You have a napkin for a reason.
You should always use a napkin. As soon as you sit down at the table, whether at a fast-casual restaurant like Chipotle or a fancy steakhouse, or even your own kitchen table, your napkin should go directly into your lap. During your meal, you should access your napkin to dab your mouth between every few bites. And you should always dab the corners of your mouth before taking a sip of your beverage. Why? It’s the right thing to do. If you get anything on your hands, quickly wipe it off. Use the napkin. Just use it. And no, you should never blow your nose into your napkin. Excuse yourself for that.
4. Keep your junk off the table.
To all my fellow bloggers and Instagrammers, this one can be hard for us in this day and age, because we are constantly taking photos of our food. I’m totally guilty of keeping my phone on the table, and I need to stop that bad habit right now. No matter where you go to eat, you should always put your purse, sunglasses, hat, bag, laptop and any personal items below the table. If there is an open chair, place all of your items there or on the floor. The table should always be clear for food, plates and drinks only. Just turn those cell phones to silent and avoid them for a few minutes, my friends. It’s not that big of a deal. (I’m really going to work on this one with you. Let’s do it together!)
5. If it’s not food-related, please don’t do it at the table.
You really shouldn’t be reapplying your lipstick, picking your teeth or looking in a pocket mirror at the table. All things grooming need to be saved for the restroom, so just excuse yourself to take care of whatever you need. This is another one I am sometimes guilty of, because I always like to put on an extra coat of lipgloss once I have finished eating. Whoops!
There you have it, folks! While these points may seem trivial, they all add up to help you present yourself in the best possible way. Etiquette and table manners are traditions that I think need to be preserved, not retired. I’m standing strong on these points and am happy to be sharing them with you.
Learn those ever-important “soft skills” from a professional
A big thank you for the tips in this post goes to Sara Wierhake, the founder of The Sterling School of Etiquette. Sara is a dear friend of my Mom’s in Florida. And when my Mom told me about Sara’s booming business, I knew I wanted to pick her brain and talk about all things manners, because it’s something I love.
Sara was kind enough to spend some time talking to me about what she’s seen and heard from her many years in the business world, and she’s a wealth of knowledge. If you, your business or even your family is in need of some help with table manners, making first impressions or networking, reach out to Sara today at email@example.com. She travels throughout the nation to teach people how to improve their “soft skills,” and she may be just what you need. Thanks, Sara! I’m so glad my Mom has good friends like you.
Alright folks, have a wonderful Thursday. I’m teaching extra classes at Orangetheory Fitness this morning and a double-header of BODYPUMP and a core blast tonight. But I’ll be back tomorrow for your weekly “Friday Favorites.” See you soon!
Questions of the day
Are you interested in learning more about etiquette with a second installment of this series?
What is one “rude” behavior that bothers you?
What is one “polite” behavior that you love?
I love all of your helpful posts! These manners remind me of putting away my food (so guilty!). I’d like to think I have good table manners, but they definitely are more lax when it’s a fast food dinner or something thrown together instead of something elaborate.
Hi Heather! Oh of course, it’s hard to think you need to be “proper” at McDonalds, but it can be done hahah! 🙂 Have a wonderful day, glad you enjoyed this one.
Chew. with. Your. Mouth. Closed. There should not be gratuitous noises when you eat. Also, sit up straight. This is not a lounge.
Oh, I have so many. I come from a proper southern family, after all!
Yes, Susie — the sitting up straight goes with the “don’t go to the food, bring the food to you” for sure. And I bet these were beaten into you as a Southern gal! 🙂 Hope you’re doing better today, lady!
I couldn’t agree with Susie more! Chewing with your mouth open is so annoying to me or chomping really hard. I can’t stand listening to someone on their food. It’s gross. And always offer to help cleanup.
Hi Megan! For sure, chewing with your mouth open really gets to me. As does talking with your mouth full. So many things!! 🙂
omg YES! i hate hate hate bad manners!!! that is one thing that all the kiddos in my family have – great manners!
That’s awesome you’re a manners gal, Linz. It’s pretty important in the real world. 🙂
The only thing that really bothers me is people chewing with their mouth open. It’s so gross!
I’m terrible for eating fast but I like my food hot!
Hi Jen, Oh that’s a given, I hate mouth-open chewing or talking with a full mouth too. Keep it shut people! 🙂 heheh!
I love this Ashley! My parents were always really big into table manners growing up, so it’s something that I always notice about people. In college, my major held etiquette dinners with corporate sponsors so we could practice eating a fancy dinner, learn some etiquette tips, and network with companies. One interesting tip I learned was that you shouldn’t cut your bread in half and butter each half- you should instead cut off a bite sized piece and just butter that section. It takes longer but apparently is the “proper” way to eat bread!
Hi Gretchen! That’s something that I learned about bread while writing this post too. And the bread plate is the “trash plate” for all the things you don’t need after using them. Like sugar packets, etc. I love that your college had you guys practice this stuff. Such good training! 🙂 Happy Thursday, lady!
i could use more table manners. thank you for sharing this 🙂
Glad you enjoyed it, Dixya! 🙂
I loved this post! My parents were strict with table manners and I’ve always appreciated that I was well trained. Now I’m trying to teach my kids table manners…..it’s coming along but I’m afraid I’m not as diligent as my mom!
One thing I was taught was to keep my knife hand in my lap- or wrist gently on the table – while I used my fork and wasn’t using my knife. I was talking to an English friend about this and she said it’s rude in Britain to have a hand in your lap and she thought people here just had bad manners when they did that- she didn’t realize it’s considered polite. Your thoughts?
Hi Amy! That’s funny, but yes things are different here than overseas. I also think that it’s okay to have your hand in your lap when using your fork. Perhaps the Continental dining doesn’t agree, because they usually hold on to their knife the whole time in the same hand? Hmmm… I love that you are teaching your kids manners! Let’s hope they remember them out in the big real world heheh! 🙂 Have a lovely day!
Hi Amy, You are correct- in American style of dining once you’ve cut a bite of food the knife is placed in a “resting” position at the top of the plate. From there the fork switches to the dominate hand and traditionally the other hand is placed in the lap. In Continental style of dining the wrists rest lightly at the edge of the table between bites. SW
Great tips, Ashley! I’m always conscious of putting my elbows on the table because I was told its not polite but I catch myself doing it all the time. And I occasionally blow my nose because it run constantly whenever I eat. I know that’s probably not polite but I try to do it as discreetly as possible! 😉
Hi Sarah! I think if you’re not using your napkin to blow your nose and you do it quietly, it’s probably not a huge deal when you’re with family or friends. However, at a business meal, might as well move away from the table. 🙂 And you can put your elbows on the table between courses I believe, but generally, not very often.
Awesome post. I had to take cotillion growing up and am so happy I did. Sometimes the most simple of manners are forgotten, and it bugs me to no end. Keep the posts coming! I can always use a refresher/learn something new! 🙂
I CANNOT stand people who use their phone mid meal. What text is SO important that you need to answer it now and not in 30 minutes when we’re done with our meal. Or if Instagram is so interesting, let’s do that on the couch at home instead of at dinner. Drives. Me. Nuts. #EndRant haha
AGREED, Jamie! I tend to pull my phone out at restaurants when Dave heads to the bathroom, because then it doesn’t seem as bad. But NOT when I’m actually with someone will I be on my phone. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed this one!
I’ve always been intrigued by Cotillion by the way, because I didn’t do it, nor did any of my friends.
“Elbows off the table please”.
I thought I’d chime in here, as your post reminded my of my mum’s frequently shriekings to my brother and I when we were younger. (And she still says this, lol) 😉
No kidding, Neil! She was right, take your elbows off and sit up straight, kids! 🙂 hehehe! Thanks for your chime!
Great post! Just like you I’m a huge grammar fiend and my family’s go-to for any kind of proofreading tasks. And along with that I’m also a fan of good manners – something that sadly seems to get lost these days. Your post was an unusual but much appreciated one to come across.
While I think my table manners are good as is I see room for improvement and definitely wouldn’t mind a second part here. Something that bothers me is when they bring up serious/uncomfortable conversations at meal times. That’s probably not necessarily seen as table etiquette but I still think it takes away from the pleasure of the experience.
Yes, Miss Polkadot, you are spot on. You are not supposed to discuss politics or religion in a business setting, unless you know the people very well and the host agrees to it. And I know this wasn’t an expected topic, but I like changing it up sometimes. 🙂 Thanks for saying hi!!
Playing with one’s food is the behavior that gets me. I’m not against a little silliness, provided the context is appropriate, but I’m otherwise opposed. My boyfriend likes to poke things (with his fingers, insult to injury) to see their consistency. That flies if it’s something we created at home and are curious about it’s crumble, say, but it’s not cool at a fancy restaurant when he’s crumbling the remnants of the breadbasket because he’s “bored.”
I also think it’s immature when people present as somehow being proud of being impolite and unfairly conflate manners with snobbery. A slavish adherence to manners just for manners’ sake, sure, I get it, no need to take things overboard, but a little etiquette is just respectful toward your fellow diners.
Hi Julia! Agreed completely. Your boyfriend’s habit sounds funny, but not something you want him to do at a white tablecloth dinner out hehehe. And no, I don’t think people should be all “holier than thou” with their manners, but they should know how to use them when they need them. Thanks for chiming in on this! Your boyfriend sounds funny! 🙂 Have a fabulous day, lady!
Oh man there is nothing worse than a shovel-er! I love that you mentioned to bring food to your mouth, not your mouth to the food – although that really does get me in trouble sometimes (I’m a bit of a clutz). These are great tips!!
Thanks, Sam. Glad you liked this one! And when you’re rushing through a meal, it’s easy to shovel hehehe, but perhaps not the best choice. Smaller bites are better too, but I have trouble with that one – I just get so excited about my food heheh! ) Have a fabulous day, lady!
As server always people mentioned, I HATE it when people chew with their mouth open or talk with their mouth full. It makes me cringe!!
Enjoy your (busy!) day!
Totally agree, Heather! I hate it when people talk with a full mouth. Just chew first. Your response can wait. heheh! 🙂
love this! would definitely want to see more posts like this. depending on who i’m out with, how i act can change, as well as my tolerance of good/bad behavior at the table. 😛
Hi Suki! Glad you enjoyed this one on manners. And yes, of course, you can be a little less formal depending on your company for sure. But sometimes I think people don’t know how to act the right way when the time is right at all. You know? 🙂 heheh! Hope you have a great day!
I know my parents taught me good table manners, but I had no idea about the first one with the fork! I totally use it the American way. And I can picture so many movies where they use the fork the Continental way, it all make sense now. I agree table etiquette needs to be taught to our younger generation and not disappear. I get annoyed when people are on their phones during any dining experience. It should be a time to gather and talk about your days or enjoying the company with the people you’re surrounded with.
Yes, Patricia. Once I learned the Continental thing it all made sense too. And the phone thing has been getting worse and worse these days. We need to ban together against it! 🙂 hehehe!! Enjoy your company, not your technology!
Agree with everything- however some of these tiny simple things can be the most difficult! Specially waiting for everyone to sit down when you’re starving, staying off of your phone, and using silverware the correct way (without your hands :P). I also would add chewing with your mouth closed (obviously), because it is very off-putting when you see someone half chewed food in their mouth as they are trying to have a conversation with you! I always try to make it an effort to cover my mouth when I speak.
Hi Niki! No, it is definitely not easy to have good table manners, I totally agree with that. And of course, chewing with the mouth closed is MANDATORY! AHHH!! 🙂
This was very informative Ashley! Especially given the fact that I’ve never bothered to look into it myself and just took my grandmothers word. She told me you HAVE to keep your knife in your right hand, which has always resulted in me being a slob by holding my fork in my non-dominant hand. For Continental, I assume you can hold your fork in your right hand??
Dabbing your mouth before you drink? I had no idea!!
Hi Jill! Ha! So Grammy was a stickler for table manners? I think you always hold the knife with your dominant hand in Continental, so the fork is being used perhaps by the non-dominant the whole time. And I didn’t know about the mouth dabbing either until now. It makes sense though, because it also helps to slow you down when you eat. Right?
My mom was a stickler for table manners. She even had a whole song to get our elbows off the table!
No way, Dani! A song for manners? Sounds like fun. Did she make it up? eheheh! Love it.
Wow, the one that really struck me was, ‘Keep pace with those around you.’ I used to be even more guilty of inhaling my food, but I’ve watched some of my sisters who take a long time enjoying their food and learned from them. I also really don’t like people scraping their plates to get them clean, but I’ve learned to be somewhat patient. O_o Sometimes.
Hi Emily! It’s so hard to slow down, especially when you’re with a slow eater. I get it! And yes, getting the last drop off your plate is not super polite either – but I definitely do that one at home! 🙂 heheh!
Table manners are so important. I find it incredibly rude when people do not wait for everyone to be served or ignore their napkin. I am guilty of the phone etiquette myself. And sometimes sunglasses…
Great advice Ashley. The other things I consider rude are eating with an open mouth, and even more so, people who are rude to wait-staff. That makes my blood boil! I know it’s eating 101, but unfortunately both are very common. There are definitely things I could improve on at home, however, I do try to stick to the table manners when out and with other people. xx
Hi Krissy! Oh yes, I agree with you on those. Chew with your mouth closed and be kind to servers! True stuff. 🙂
Thank you for this. I love etiquette and grew up in a home with Post manuals.
My biggest pet peeve is certainly the phone on the table.
For starters, the server is going to spill something on your phone.
2. In most restaurants there is limited real estate on the table, your phone is taking room away from my glass of wine.
3. My girl friends and I have a half way rule. Half way thru the meal we get a 5-10 min “stop and check your phone” moment. I get it. Husband could be calling about a sick kid, boss about something important, mom just to catch up. Otherwise, if you check your phone at the table…you pick up the bill.
Total side note: some people I have encountered do not put the napkin in the lap until the menu is removed or the first item of food has reached the table, it is what they were taught.
Hi Sabrina! Ahhh a manners stickler, much like myself, are you? I love that you know the Post manuals. And I also love your “phone break” at meals with your friends, because you are not being rude at all if you all agree on it. And the napkin? I know, I know. Thanks for chiming in, lady! Here’s to a manner-filled weekend for us both!
Great to see all the energy and discussion around this topic.
Sara from Sterling Etiquette recently helped us with a review of ‘how to’s’ for ‘Toasting’. The Toast was for a very special person at a very special dinner: Daughter’s completion of her doctoral program.
With an audience of extended family as well as her fellow PhD candidates we wanted to get it right.
We joked afterward the tips were worth their weight in ‘Sterling’, making all the difference in our preparations and set the tone for everyone to have a memorable evening.
Hi Robert! A toast is a very important moment, so I’m glad Sara and her Sterling tips were able to get you prepared. Manners and presentation in social situations are not things to be taken lightly. Thanks for saying hello! 🙂