Table etiquettes or table manners are ‘a set of principles which define behaviour exhibited while eating’. This includes the appropriate use of articles like napkins, utensils etc. In addition, the body posture as well as whole demeanour contributes to table manners.
Before the Meal
It is your obligation to respond to an invitation well in advance so that the host or the hostess is well aware of the number of guest attending. Always dress according to type of the occasion or the recommended dress code, if any. Also in some social circles, it is considered ‘against the rules’ to attempt to ‘out dress’ the hostess! Always consider taking along a gift like a bottle of wine or champagne. Flowers and chocolate would suffice in a culture where wine is still a social taboo.
Try to be on time – reach at the time promised by you. If you are going to be late, it is your duty to inform about the same. Check with the host if you are allowed to bring along a friend. Never mix people or groups whose interests and pursuits in life do not match. You might end up being a source of scorn for either of them if they don’t enjoy the social meeting. If however, you are host or hostess, and any of guests arrives with an unexpected friend, don’t bother. Just welcome him or her as your friend. Also, it is a prime responsibility of a host or hostess to mingle with everyone. None of the guest should be left feeling ignored.
Table setting, as the name suggest is the way a table is set using tableware and dishware and utensils—for the purpose of serving as well as eating.
While setting the table for dinner, certain rules are followed as to what goes where. Knives are always to the right, and forks are always to the left. When soup is served as the first course, the soup spoon will be on the extreme right. Dessert cutlery for the dessert will always be at the top of the place setting with the fork facing right and the spoon positioned above this facing left.
For the guests, the rule is to always work from the outside. Use the outside knife and fork for the first course of the meal and then work towards the inside for each subsequent course.
For the purpose of serving and drinking wines, various kinds of glasses are used. These will be positioned on the table above the knives. The glass of water is placed to the extreme left, with the subsequent glasses from the left to right being for champagne, white wine, red wine and then dessert wine.
Plates and Napkins
A base plate (place plate) sits in the middle of the cutlery. This will usually have the folded napkin placed on it. In some cases, the first course may already be served in this plate; the napkin will be then be kept to the left of the forks. The side plate, also called the butter plate lies to the left of the forks with a side knife or a butter knife laid across it.
Proper Eating Style
If you are the host or the hostess, always remember the manner in which you are supposed to serve food. Generally, the lady sitting to the right of the host is served first, then the other ladies in a clockwise direction, and lastly the gentlemen in the same pattern. Once seated at the table, the first thing to do for a guest is to unfold the napkin and place it across the lap. It can be used occasionally for wiping your lips after sipping something or for wiping your fingers.
Always wait for the host to give a go ahead to start eating. The handles of the knife and the fork are to be held in the palm of the hand, with the forefinger being on the top and the thumb underneath. You can place the knife or the fork on either side of the plate between mouthfuls. Forks should not be turned over to the right hand unless being used for eating foods like peas, sweet corn or rice. At the end of the dinner, place them side by side in the middle of the plate. Desserts can be eaten with either a spoon or a fork.
Ask the guest sitting close to you to pass you the food you need. Under no circumstances are you supposed to reach for them by stretching across the table. Talking with one’s mouth full is unpleasant, not only to the eater but to the onlooker as well. Slurping or burping while eating are considered very impolite. Also, licking fingers or picking teeth is sure to put people off.
Always inform the host and hostess while leaving, pleasantly thanking them for their hospitality. A personal thank you note can also be sent subsequently.
Differing table manners across the globe
Table manners and eating styles vary from continent to continent. In American society, as opposed to continental European style, it is acceptable to cut one’s food using the knife with the right hand, and then transfer the fork to the right hand to use it for it before eating. In Continental Europe, the fork is always in the left hand with the prongs always facing downwards.
While in the west, it would be considered impolite to reach out across the table, it is quite acceptable in the Chinese culture. Whereas, slurping and burping is considered an unpleasant thing in the western world, it is considered a sign of the food being tasty in the Indian culture. Whereas the Chinese use chopstick instead of spoons, knives or forks, the Indians use bare hands to eat food. The Chinese always leave a little food in all the plates, while in India; it is considered an insult not to empty the plate completely. In the American culture, it is generally impolite to put elbows on tables since doing so creates a risk of tipping over bowls and cups. In most parts of the civilised western world, people have food on a table; however, that is usually not the case in the Middle East, Asia or the Far East.
To conclude, each country, culture and religion has its own set of principles or etiquettes laid down for dining. Although, they differ drastically in some instances, they are designed to make eating, either as a social event or otherwise; a pleasant experience!