T.J. Sullivan

T.J.’s 10 table etiquette standbys

I am not an etiquette expert, by any stretch of the imagination.  However, my mother is from France, and she had an above-average intolerance for poor table manners.  She spent my entire childhood beating some basics into the thick redneck heads at her table.  We were pretty poor, and sometimes bought our food with Food Stamps, but dammit, we didn’t look “paisan” (peasant-like) when we ate at a table.  My mother made sure of that.

Today, I go to banquets and business dinners, and I am amazed at how many people eat with terrible table manners.  I frequently want to reach across the banquet table and smack the end of my knife against the elbow of a dining companion.

I don’t do it, but God, I want to.

I harass my sons with my mother’s lessons on a near daily basis.  They dread dinner time because they know I’m going to correct them a half-dozen times each.  Eventually, the lessons will take hold and  they’ll look a bit more cultured someday at a job interview or on a date with the girlfriend’s parents.

I thought – just for something different – I’d spend some blog real estate offering my most basic table manner tips.  As a student leader, you should know the basics or else run the risk of looking like a peasant at a leadership banquet or at a dinner party. This list is by no means exhaustive. Feel free to add any others in the comments section.

1. Salt and pepper, stay together

The salt and pepper shakers are never to be separated.  They are married.  They stay together.  If someone asks you to pass the salt, pass both shakers. Also, don’t use salt or pepper before you’ve tasted the food. I hate it when I spend a bunch of time cooking for guests and someone pours salt all over my food before even tasting it.

2. Silverware never returns to the table

After you’ve picked up a fork, knife or spoon from the table, no part of it should ever touch the table again.  It rests on a dish from that point forward.  Do not bridge it – with one end on the plate and the other end touching the table. In a crappy restaurant, they sometimes ask you to “save your fork” for the next round of food. I tell them, no, please bring me a fresh one with my entree. But, if you’re less brazen than I, put your used silverware on a bread plate or on a napkin.  Just don’t put it back on the table. That’s nasty.

3. Bring your food up to your mouth, not your mouth down to the food

This is the one that makes me crazy – people who bring their mouth down to the plate to eat.  Your mouth should not journey down to the table, ever.  Remove your lazy arm from its resting place and move the utensil UP to your mouth. If you’re worried about the food falling off your fork, then you’re putting too much food on your fork. Stop being a hog.

4. Lumpy on the left, runny on the right

No one seems to know which napkin is theirs at a banquet.  Which bread plate is mine?  Ugh.  OK, “lumpy on the left” means that your bread should be to the left of your dinner plate.  Therefore, the bread plate to your left is yours.  The coffee cup and glass that sits to the right of your dinner plate is yours. “Runny on the right.” If the napkins are stuffed in the coffee cups, then guess what?  Your napkin is the one stuffed in your coffee cup, which is the one to the right of your plate.

5. No elbows on the table.

Ever. I don’t care if you’re eating barbeque chicken. Get your damn elbows off the table.

6. Wipe your mouth before you drink

Have you ever seen someone’s glass get totally disgusting during a meal?  That’s because they’re washing every bite down with a drink and they aren’t wiping their mouth before putting the glass to it. Eat, quick touch with the napkin (in your lap), then a drink. No one wants to look at that glass smeared with your meal.

7. If someone asks for a refill, give it to them

I ask someone to pass me the water for a refill, they say “sure,” grab the water, fill their own glass first, then hand it to me.  No, no, no. If someone asks you for something, you pass it to them.  You don’t make them wait for you to refill.  If you want some also, take it back from them after they are done, and fill away. Same with food. If someone asks you to pass the peas, you don’t grab the dish, serve yourself some, and then pass it to them. Pass it to the requester, first and immediately.

8. Eat over your plate

When food is entering your mouth, your chin should be over your plate. That way, when you drop something, it goes back on the plate, and not in your lap or on the carpet of my dining room.

9. Don’t talk with food in your mouth

This is so basic, it’s embarrassing to include it.  But, at business dinners and banquets, people do it all the time. Ick. Swallow, then talk. If eating is keeping you from joining in the discussion, then eat less or eat smaller bites so you can chew and swallow more quickly.

10. Leave your jacket on

Guys, seriously. If you are wearing a suit or a jacket to dinner, it stays on while you eat.  It’s OK to take it off after dinner when you’re dancing your butt off at the wedding reception.  But, at dinner, it stays on.  I don’t care if it’s awkward. Don’t care if you’re warm. Jacket stays on while you eat.

Following these will not exactly prep you for a state dinner at the White House, but they’re pretty good ones to remember on a daily basis. Not everyone has the benefit of a French mother, so maybe these will help you. Do you have any to add?

7 Responses to “T.J.’s 10 table etiquette standbys”

  1. Josh Hedrick says:

    Thank you very much for this. You renewed my diligence to try to not look like a caveman while eating in public. Too many students aren’t even conscious of any of these rules–and it’s gross. And peasant-like.

    The one thing I’d like to add, is to stop pointing at things, especially if you’re sticking your hand/arm all in my face. I don’t like that. Monkeys point. Use your words people. I know what a bowl of peas looks like and I can readily locate it. No need to swing your arm across my plate and in front of my face.

  2. JB Goll says:

    TJ, great post, your top ten is right on. I most agree with point #10. It is so disappointing to attend a formal meal at a fraternity house or a banquet at a convention, when the first thing you see is all the brothers take their jackets off and place them on their chair.

    Another point to remember is you don’t want to be the first one done eating, if so you haven’t talked enough or made conversation with the others at your table. If you are the last one finished eating, you’ve talked too much!

    Finally, if you are eating out for a job interview or with a professor or advisor, be food conscious when ordering. Pasta, french onion soup, etc. are hard items to eat in a formal setting when you are trying to impress someone.

  3. Mom Lindy says:

    Since I will not be meeting with our new members until several weeks.. I forwarded your blog to them for the basics. Thanks for giving me a summary of some of the basics. Mom Lindy

  4. Alex Salinsky says:

    Another way to think about Rule Number 4, Lumpy Left and Runny Right, is to make the OK symbol with both of your hands. As you look down at them, your left hand will make a lowercase “b” (for bread) and your right hand will make a lowercase “d” (for drinks).

    Oh, and I’ve eaten with T.J. — he will correct you.

  5. Lexi says:

    My friends LOVE to give me hell about this, but my mother sent me to etiquette school when I was young. It was awfully embarrassing, but I sure did learn a lot. Consequently, I am the worlds slowest eater because the instructor required that you cut each piece as you ate it and return the knife to your plate in between bites. Add that to chewing and then talking, and you realize that you aren’t going to be done in 5 minutes. But, no one has ever had to correct me. On #3, my instructor always said “The ship goes out to sea, only to come back to me” In reference to your soup spoon. I repeat this frequently to others.

  6. Terese says:

    Great post. Question – I have an interview over lunch on Friday at a pretty casual place (we’ll stand in line to order and then our food will be brought to us). As a woman, am I as required to leave my suit jacket on during the meal as men are? Thanks in advance.

  7. I say leave it on. If the person interviewing you takes theirs off, then you can follow his/her lead if it makes you more comfortable to take yours off. But, an interview over lunch – even in a casual setting – is still an interview, and that suggests professional behavior. That means jacket on.

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