Americana: The rules of American etiquette
Bethy, Bethy, strong and able, get your elbows off the table, this is not a horse’s stable but a decent dining table!
That chant resounding through the girls camp dining room shamed the errant girls who committed table manner errors.
However, self-proclaimed experts agree that it’s perfectly acceptable to put your elbows on the table between courses or after a meal as you’re conversing. Other rules are not so lenient. And though they may seem like silly affectations, all rules of table etiquette are based on courtesy to your host, the cook and to other diners.
So here are the rules, for both children and adults.
Do turn off your cell phone before coming to the table.
Don’t ask “what’s for dinner?” You’ll find out soon enough.
Wait to be seated and don’t sit down before your host/ess. Your host/ess will generally sit at the head of the table. A guest of honor should expect to sit opposite the host.
Place the napkin in your lap. Use it often to dab your lips, but don’t blow your nose at the table.
Wait until everyone has been served before starting to eat. Allow the host the opportunity to say grace or welcome the guests. Some hosts will offer a toast of welcome.
In a formal place setting with multiple glasses and utensils, use the fork or knife on the outside and work your way in. The utensils above your plate are for dessert.
The plate in the left corner of your place setting is for bread. In the U.S., it’s acceptable to butter a slice of bread and pick it up to take a bite. Some cultures require that you break off bites and butter them one at a time.
Another small dish above the plate is generally for salad.
If you are serving yourself, don’t take more than a modest amount that allows plenty for others. Wait to be offered seconds. Take no less than a bite or two of things you don’t expect to like.
It’s okay to eat foods with your fingers if your hostess is eating it with her fingers.
If you get something you can’t or shouldn’t swallow into your mouth, hide your mouth with your napkin as you remove it with your fingers and place it in a corner of your plate without comment. If you can’t do it subtly, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.
Sit up straight. Engage in conversation between bites. Do not speak with food in your mouth, but eat quietly with your mouth closed.
If there’s a spill, apologize and let the host direct you how to handle it. Wise hostesses apply Scotchguard to their upholstered chairs and keep a large towel handy for major explosions. Clean it up as well as you can and then let it go.
Hold stemmed glasses by the stem.
Never ask for something that has not been offered, other than water. It’s fine to refuse seconds, but the same rules apply to dessert as the other dishes.
If someone asks you to pass the salt, pass the pepper with it. Don’t add salt or pepper before tasting the food.
Don’t burp or make other bodily noises, and don’t discuss bodily functions or other disgusting things.
When you are finished, put your fork and knife across the plate at 10 and 4. If you need to leave the table, be gone no more than five minutes and do not announce why you need to leave the table.
Use your knife, not your finger, to push that last bite of food onto your fork.
Thank your host/hostess. Compliment the elements of the meal you particularly enjoyed but unless specifically asked, don’t mention the things you didn’t like.
Once, when I was a girl, a woman from our church invited herself and her two young boys to stay to dinner. My mother hadn’t planned a company meal and we were having sauerkraut and weenies. Halfway through the meal, one of the little boys vomited all over the table. His mother said, “What do you expect when you feed him garbage!”
No matter what your etiquette mistakes might have been, they won’t be as bad as that.
Only in America, God bless it.