The most effective table manners are the ones that will never get you noticed, or cause dismay or consternation in your fellow diners. If you sit up straight, chew with your mouth closed, serve other diners, resist bolting your food and manage to talk civilly to your neighbour as well as eating, you will certainly pass muster. The main aim is not to look greedy or voracious, and any small errors in relation to the more arcane rules of cutlery-wielding, salt-shaking, bread-buttering, and fingerbowl-dipping will be overlooked because your demeanour is civilised and courteous.
Follow these general guidelines and you will ensure that your table manners never fall short or let you down.
• Sit up straight
When taking a seat at the table, sit a comfortable distance away, so that with the elbows bent the hands are level with the knives and forks. Do not tilt the chair or hunch forward over the plate. Sit up straight, sit square with hands in the lap and do not fidget. Do not put elbows on the table.
• Assist fellow diners
Make sure others have been offered anything they might want from the table, such as butter, water, salt or pepper. Help yourself last and never stretch across people. When things are out of reach or have not been passed along, ask a neighbour if they are going to have whatever it is, as a hint, or simply ask them to pass it.
• Serve with civility
Use the serving spoons and forks, not your own cutlery, to take food from a communal dish. If a spoon and fork or two spoons are provided, hold one in each hand, not in just one hand like a waiter. Use any spoons or ladles for sauces, rather than tipping from the gravy boat or jug. Salt is put on the side of the plate rather than sprinkled over the food, even if served from a grinder.
• Starter’s orders
Generally, do not start before everyone has been served, so look around and take a lead from others. An exception may be if it is a large party and the host asks people to start, as the food may get cold. Those who cannot tolerate very hot food should still pick up the spoon or knife and fork and look as if they are starting at the same time; this will ensure that their neighbours do not feel obliged to wait as well.
• Eat and talk
Never eat with your mouth open or talk with your mouth full. It is fine, however, to carry on eating during a conversation. This can be awkward if one person does not pick up their knife and fork out of mistaken courtesy, while the other person is talking. It is not rude just to nod, for example, or to wait a few moments for someone to finish a mouthful. Working out how to eat and talk is part of good table manners and an essential social skill. It is, however, impolite to continue eating during speeches or if there is a performance, such as singing.
• Pace yourself
Chewing food thoroughly, keeping the mouth closed as you do so, slows things down to a more civilised pace when eating with others. However, while bolting food is ill-mannered, so is making a production out of endless mastication or chewing in an exaggerated manner. The best table manners are always those that no one notices.
• Spitting out
When encountering an unexpected piece of gristle, or something that may be chewed to no avail, it is polite to be brave and to try to swallow it. If it is something which would be unsafe to eat rather than just unappetising, then cover the mouth with the hand, and quickly and discreetly put the offending item on the side of the plate.
• Noises off
Try to avoid making noises of any kind while eating, either with implements against the plate or teeth, or with the actual ingestion of the food, such as slurping soup. Avoid washing mouthfuls of food down with noisy gulps of water. It is best to leave a gap between eating and drinking and take small mouthfuls or sips of water or wine.
• Don’t double-dip
There are foods where dipping is part of the way of eating the food, such as satay or crudités. For most food, however, dipping into any communal bowl – say of mayonnaise – is not recommended. In the case of crudités with a communal dip, never bite the vegetable and then re-dip.
• Don’t mop up
It is very tempting to mop up sauce, or the last few mouthfuls of soup, with bread, but it should be resisted. Consume only what can be eaten easily with a fork or spoon.
• Behave discreetly
Express appreciation when the food first arrives but do so politely. Gestures such as rubbing the stomach or smacking the lips are inappropriate and look greedy. Similarly, when refusing a second portion, avoid big gestures and decline politely: a simple ‘no thank you’ covers most situations. There’s no need to say “I’m full” – if you want to soften your refusal a compliment such as “that was delicious” will go a long way.
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