16 Jun 2022

A Practical Guide to Table Manners

The cause of much social anxiety, table manners are all too often associated with an arcane list of duties and proscriptions. Many anxious diners have been brought to the verge of nervous collapse
when faced with a daunting array of cutlery and tableware, a host of waiting staff, and a bewildering selection of glasses.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, console yourself with the fact that only a deeply sadistic host would actually take pleasure from your embarrassment, and remind yourself that an over-punctilious insistence on the niceties of table performance is probably a sign of entrenched snobbery or social discomfort.

That is not to say, however, that table manners do not matter. There are certain basic codes of conduct that matter very much indeed. At the bare minimum, you should eat with your mouth closed, never talk with your mouth full, help other diners to food before serving yourself, ask for food to be passed across to you (rather than reaching across the table), and sit up squarely to the table, with your elbows tucked in. If you adhere to these simple rules, your manners will never cause revulsion or distaste, and – better still – you will not bring attention to yourself.

If you are in a formal situation, and you feel more is being asked of you, observe your fellow diners closely and copy what they do. Work the cutlery from the outside in, and bear in mind that the bigger, rounder wine glasses are for red, and the taller, thinner ones are for white. Put your napkin on your lap, don’t tuck it in your shirt.

Avoid using your fingers – though it’s fine to pick up asparagus (without a sauce) and the only way to peel off the leaves of a globe artichoke. Fingers can also be used for fruit, such as grapes and oranges. Pips and stones should be discreetly spat into a cupped left hand and deposited on the site of the plate. That’s really good enough.

If your concentration lapses, and you find yourself eating the meat with a fish knife and fork, drinking mineral water from the wine glass, slurping water from the finger bowl, just carry on. With any luck no one will notice, and if they do, your fellow diners may actually admire your insouciance.

Mistakes of this sort are only serious if you let your embarrassment get the better of you… On the other hand, eating with your mouth open and grabbing food from under other people’s noses is genuinely offensive.

Table Manners Top Tips

  • An over-punctilious insistence on the niceties of table performance is probably a sign of entrenched snobbery or social discomfort.
  • Basic good table manners, such as sitting up straight and chewing with your mouth closed, will ensure that you never cause offence to your fellow diners.
  • If you’re really flummoxed by an unusually challenging delicacy or baffled by an obscure utensil, you can always make light of it and ask your neighbour for advice.
  • Always ensure that other people are served first, and don’t fall on your food with barely disguised greed.
  • If you feel out of your depth, just copy your fellow diners. A few minor errors should never count against you as long as you remember the fundamentals...

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