Manners Matter When Dealing Over Dinner

How to make a good impression at the table

In a column called “Managing Your Career” that appeared last year in The Wall Street Journal, writer Hal Lancaster observed, “Employers complain that young managers reared on microwave meals have not been trained to dine in polite company.” This is an unfortunate phenomenon, since many a deal has been made over a meal.

Mealtime manners may not make or break a career, but table companions notice how their fellow diners hold their utensils, practice the art of conversation and even how they use their napkins. The following are reminders of how one should and should not act at the table.

Sometimes diners are confronted with a mind boggling array of utensils, often two or three forks to the left of the plate, two spoons and a knife to the right, a dessert spoon and fork above the plate and a butter knife on the butter plate. There are some general rules about choosing the correct fork or spoon, no matter the setting.

  • Begin using the outermost silver, to the far left and far right of the plate.
  • Use the knife on the butter dish to serve a pat of butter onto the butter plate, and use the knife on the bread-and-butter plate to butter the bread.
  • Use the silver above the plate for desserts.
  • When finished with a course, place the knife and fork together on the plate at 4 o’clock, handles to the right and knife edge inward. After finishing soup, place the spoon to the right of the bowl on the plate on which the soup was served.
    While understanding glassware may be the most straightforward part of mealtime manners, there is a bit to it.

  • Water glasses are typically the first ones set, above the knife. The rest are placed to the right of the water glass.
  • A milk or soft-drink glass is brought by request and is placed just to the right of the water glass and closer to the table edge.
  • Wine glasses are placed farthest to the right and closest to the table edge.
    Any discussion of table manners is incomplete without pointers on the appropriate use of the napkin. During the meal, a napkin helps save face literally and at the end, the proper napkin placement signifies the diner has finished.

    Napkins can be set in several places: to the left of or under the forks, in the center of the plate or in a water goblet or the coffee cup, both of which would be to the right of the plate. It is important to select the correct napkin; taking the wrong one can leave someone across the table without one. Everyone at the table should put their napkins in their laps after the host has done so; this signals the start of the meal.

    During the meal, the napkin is used to clean the mouth before taking a drink, to cover a cough or sneeze and to wipe tears away after a particularly well-told story. Never use the napkin to polish silverware (discreetly ask the server to bring a new piece) or to cover an item of food. People who excuse themselves during the meal but plan to return should place their napkins on their chairs.

    At the end of the meal, diners should take the napkin with one hand and place it on the table, but not on the dishes. Do not refold the napkin.

    A few final dining tips:

  • Do not touch anything on the table until the host picks up her napkin or takes a sip of water.
  • Diners should avoid discussing their diets during the meal. People do not want to hear how unhealthy a dish is as they take a bite.
  • Those wearing lipstick should wipe their mouths with the napkin before taking the first sip of any beverage.
  • Chewing ice is always inappropriate.
  • When ordering à la carte, avoid messy foods like ribs, sandwiches and spaghetti. These choices can cause distractions and end up on clothes.
  • Any food problems should be brought to the waiter’s attention away from the table to avoid subjecting other diners to a scene.
  • When a toast is given, the honoree never takes a drink. Doing so would be equivalent to applauding his own speech.
  • When the meal is over, any facial fixing, like reapplying lipstick, should be done in the rest room, not at the table.
  • Jana M. Kemp is a Boise, Idaho-based time-management consultant. She publishes a quarterly newsletter called Better Meetings for Everyone (

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