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13 Essential Table Manners

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For many months now, I've been thinking about starting a series of articles about table manners. While I haven't ruled out the idea completely, I've decided against it for now until I can find a good, positive way to write about the worst offenses I encounter in an anonymous and un-offensive way. After all, the only thing worse than having bad table manners is making people feel inferior by publicly pointing out their deficiencies. I don't want people to feel offended when they read my articles about table manner infractions, so until I find a positive way to do this, (and in a way that preserves anonymity), I'm going to hold off. It's not about putting people down, it's about helping people be better…

In the meantime, I decided that I would compile a list of the most common offenses I encounter and the ones that offend me the most. My list amounted to thirteen items, but before I share these 13 essential table manners with you, I thought I should first go over why table manners are so important. (If you really must, you can skip ahead to the list below.)

Why Table Manners Are Important

Bad table manners are a big pet peeve of mine, but it's not because I'm uptight or trying to be refined. Table manners aren't there so you can impress people with how high class you are; it's not about being formal and they're not supposed to create an uptight and stuffy atmosphere. If that's how you feel about table manners then you're doing it wrong and for the wrong reasons. The whole point of table manners is so that you don't offend anyone – it's a way to show respect to those whom you're sharing a meal with and they help to set a universal minimum acceptable standard so that everyone can be comfortable. Even if you're not as sensitive to them as I am, bad table manners can be extremely offensive, even if you're not aiming to offend. Having to endure rude, offensive behavior is not comfortable for anyone, especially at the table.

No Formalities

If practicing good table manners makes you feel uptight or like you're being too formal, then read the above paragraph again. It's not about formalities, it's about setting a universally minimum acceptable standard to make sure that everyone can enjoy their meal in a comfortable setting. As a host, it's important that you do everything you can to make your guests comfortable, and as a guest, it's important to reciprocate by making your host feel comfortable as well. If you don't want your guests to be comfortable, then why would you invite them in the first place? (And vice-versa.) Once again, if you feel like good table manners are uptight or too formal then you're doing it wrong and for the wrong reasons. Good table manners aren't formalities, they're the minimum acceptable standards that are essential to ensure everyone feels comfortable.

When talking about table manners, so many people focus on the tiny details rather than the big picture – Which fork do I use? Why is it rude to open your dinner roll with a knife? How much should you fill a glass? Why do I serve to the left and pick-up to the right? etc. I could go on for days about these details and why they exist (and I might in the future if I do decide to create a series of articles about table manners) but in the end, they're just small details – the big picture is far more important. Good table manners are there to make everyone feel comfortable – that's the whole point.

Practice Makes Perfect

If bad table manners really have the power to be extremely offensive, and if good table manners are truly there to make everyone feel comfortable, then why do table manners feel so unnatural? Practice makes perfect, that's why. Good table manners are not something most people can just turn on and off like a switch, (nor should you ever want to), so for table manners to feel more natural, they have to be practiced. At home, Michelle and I always force ourselves to exercise proper etiquette and practice good table manners at every meal. (Some people would think that last sentence should start with "even at home" but Michelle and I believe we should treat each other better than we do everyone else – that family deserves better than just scraps, but that's a whole other topic…) The more you practice good table manners and make it a part of your daily routine, the more natural they will feel – you'll get to the point where you don't even have to think about them anymore and it just becomes second-nature to you. Comfortable. This is one reason why I say that if practicing good table manners makes you feel like you're being uptight or too formal then you're doing it wrong. If you think you can eat at home with "no formalities" and then magically flick a switch and turn on good table manners in the presence of others, then I would say two things to you: first, good luck with that. And second, why would you want to treat your family worse than everyone else? Don't expect to be able to turn them on only when you think you need to – it will feel unnatural, very uncomfortable and you're much more likely to offend someone without even realizing it. Practice makes perfect.

The worst offenses I've had to endure are: someone belching at the table, and more than once I've sat at a table where people felt so "comfortable" that they loosened their belts and unbuttoned their pants. (Yes, at the table!) But rather than focusing on extreme examples, I thought my list should be of the most common offenses I encounter, as well as the things that offend me the most. The good news is, they're also the easiest to fix and put into practice. So without further ado, here's my list of 13 Essential Table Manners in no particular order:

1.) Remove your hat at the table.
Whenever I go out, more than 90% of the time I'm wearing one of my apple ball caps, but whenever I go indoors, the hat always comes off. I realize that may be a little too old-fashioned for most people, but removing your hat at the table isn't old-fashioned at all.
You wouldn't pass gas at the table only sometimes, right? Then even at a fast food joint or at home, take off your hat and show the people you're with the same respect every time – they'll appreciate it!
2.) Wait for everyone to be seated and served before starting.
No one likes feeling left out or like they've missed part of the action – it's not going to kill you to wait, is it? Show your fellow diners that you respect them and appreciate their company. And likewise, when called to the table to commence the meal, be punctual and don't make people wait for you forever.
Occasionally I'll hear a host say not to wait and to go ahead and start without them. Most times, this is just a polite gesture and it's best to wait until everyone is seated. But if they insist, the polite thing to do is to start eating. As a host, try to not start a meal until everyone is ready though so that this can be a rare exception and not the rule. No one likes eating alone and your guests probably accepted your invitation because they enjoy your company and want to eat with you.
At a restaurant, most servers understand that people want to eat together and they're usually very good about bringing out everyone's food out at the same time. Show some respect and wait until everyone is served before starting – it's never a long wait.
3.) Place your napkin on your lap.
No one wants to see your soiled napkin on the table – that's disgusting.
If you have to get up from the table (to use the bathroom, or whatever else) then always leave your napkin on your chair. No one wants to see your used napkin on the table. Only place the napkin back on the table at the very end of the meal.
As a host, make sure you always provide napkins before the meal has started, even if you don't think they'll be necessary. Make your guests as comfortable as possible by not making them have to ask for a napkin and feel like they're inconveniencing you half-way through the meal.
4.) Think of others when serving yourself.
When eating "family style", don't just serve yourself – think of others first. I don't just mean assisting others to serve themselves before you serve yourself, I also mean not piling massive portions that you can't finish onto your plate, only to leave others wanting more.
Pass to the right! It's a huge pet peeve of mine to see people passing food in random directions across the table. It's inefficient and complicates things unnecessarily – chaos is a terrible way to start a meal! This isn't just a nit-picky detail, there's a very good reason for this. Remember, I started by saying that good table manners aren't about the tiny details – they're there to make everyone feel comfortable. (I don't care so much if you pass to the right or pass to the left as long as it's only in one direction.) When food is passed randomly across the table, it's more likely that someone will be missed. No one wants to interrupt everyone by asking to pass a dish that's at the opposite end of the table, especially if people have already started eating, so they'll often go without. Plus, when food is passed around the table in a single direction, it's much easier to see who has and who hasn't served themselves yet – it's easier to make sure that there's enough for everyone when there's only a limited amount to go around. Don't be barbaric, if you really care about everyone at the table being comfortable, eliminate chaos and pass to the right to make sure no one is missed. Think of others – simple.
5.) Don’t reach across the table.
It's really not that hard to ask "Can you pass me the ___ please?" and it won't take that much longer. (If that's your reason for reaching, then shame on you for being in such a hurry to eat!) Usually, when I see people reach across the table it's with good intentions because they don't want to interrupt others while they eat – but it's much easier to offend someone by invading their personal space than it is to offend someone by politely asking for five seconds of their time, no? And another thing to consider: what if when reaching across the table you accidentally knocked over someone's glass, or caused them to spill something while they tried to assist you in haste? Don't reach, just ask – it's safer and much better.
When you absolutely must reach for something across the table, don't forget to excuse yourself with "excuse my reach" but this should be reserved for exceptions. Don't get into the habit of just reaching all the time and excusing yourself. It's no different than getting into the habit of continually belching at the table and pardoning yourself all the time…
6.) Learn to use a knife and fork properly.
This is probably the most common offense I encounter at the table, and it's usually because people don't practice eating with a knife and fork enough, so when they have to use them, it's very uncomfortable. If you can't eat chicken on the bone with a knife and fork and have to pick it up with your hands, then you're out of practice! How do you expect to be good at it, or to find it comfortable, if you never practice?
I was at a table once where someone commented that they were going to eat their saucy chicken with their hands (and not a knife and fork) because they "didn't want to waste any". I then proceeded to eat mine with a knife and fork and went out of my way to strip the bones of all the meat – I left them very noticeably bone dry (pun intended) and there was much less "waste" than on their bones. If you feel like you have to waste food when you use a knife and fork or if you feel like it's less efficient than using your hands, then that's a perfect example of why table manners are so important to be practiced all the time, especially at home. Practice makes perfect.
No one should have to ask for a knife (or a fork). As a host, even if you think they won't be needed, always have a fork and knife on the table – this is the minimum.
7.) Pace yourself.
Whether you're the host or the guest, you should be pacing yourself, whether that means eating slower or eating faster, so that you all finish at the same time. You're eating together, right?
I have a natural tendency to eat quite slow but whenever I'm eating with others I always try to speed things up so that people aren't waiting on me to finish, but it shouldn't feel like a race trying to keep up with you! Have consideration for your fellow diners – if you have a tendency to eat quick, make a conscious effort to slow down, and if you have a tendency to eat slow, try to pick up the pace. If you value someone's company enough to share a meal together, then don't leave them to finish alone – eat together.
When talking about table manners, most people think of the extreme offenses such as not stuffing your mouth full of food. (Why are you in such a hurry?) But it doesn't have to be that extreme to be offensive. I didn't title this seventh item on my list "slow down", I titled it "pace yourself" because it's equally offensive to eat so slow that everyone has to wait for you as it is to eat like you're racing to the finish line. Pace yourself.
8.) Sit up straight.
Table manners are there so that everyone can be comfortable, but that means having consideration for others. Relax and be comfortable – eating shouldn't be an uptight nor awkward experience, but remember that a dining chair is not a lounging chair nor a bed – sit up straight; you shouldn't look like you're about to fall asleep in your chair. What message does that send to your fellow diners? Are they that boring?
You're likely sharing a meal together because you enjoy each other's company, right? Well, if you're hunched over your plate, (so it's easier to scoop food into your mouth), you're sending the message that you're in your own world, you've forgotten about everyone else around you and are unavailable for conversation; even asking you to "pass the ___ please?" will be a major inconvenience, and no one wants to be a bother… Yes, all that just from being hunched over! Avoid offending others without realizing it – just sit up straight!
9.) No sniffling at the table.
Anyone who's ever eaten spicy food knows that it has a tendency to give you a runny nose – it's apparently supposed to be good for your health for that reason. But that doesn't make it OK to be sniffling at the table non-stop. That's very disgusting and no one wants to hear it. Excuse yourself from the table, go to the washroom and blow your nose.
Did you read that last sentence? Don't blow your nose at the table, ever! Most people know not to pass gas at the table, but why some people think it's OK to blow their nose at the table is beyond me. Gross.
10.) Vary your table conversation.
Just how talking with your mouth full can be extremely offensive, inappropriate table conversation can be just be as bad. Rather than trying to keep a mental list of topics to avoid, (such as money, politics, religion, sex, death, age, gossip, etc.), just keep an eye on your guests and make sure everyone is comfortable and engaged – if not, change the subject.
I've had to endure a lot of "bullshit" conversations at the table that aren't at all interesting, usually very shallow and oftentimes conversations where people have their facts completely wrong and distorted, but delivered with all the conviction in the world… Why would you ever put your guests through that? I'm not one to open my mouth just to correct someone (especially if I'd be doing it constantly) and I usually give my opinion only when asked. (You could be making a complete ass of yourself, I may even be able to quote word for word the reference you're incorrectly distorting, and I'd still sit quiet looking like I have nothing to say while I try hard to be polite and act interested.) Most people will be polite and listen to what you have to say even if they're bored and even if they know you're full of shit – just because they don't correct you doesn't mean they're buying it… (Shame on you for talking about things you know nothing about with such conviction!) I've had to endure a lot of this so I've gotten good at acting interested even when I'm bored as hell, but I'm probably the exception. A lot of it could probably have been avoided by simply asking "what do you think?" but the absence of this question in these conversations serves to highlight the problem – are you considering your fellow diners at the table, or just shooting your mouth off and thinking only of yourself? Bad table conversation can really be very offensive. The takeaway from this is that if everyone doesn't seem to be engaged and participating in the conversation, change the subject and vary your conversation. Inappropriate table conversation isn't just a list of topics to avoid, it's anything that makes your guests feel bored, uninterested, disengaged or uncomfortable. The more you vary your conversation, the more likely you are to find something interesting to everyone.
In #4 above (think of others when serving yourself) I said "chaos is a terrible way to start a meal" and it's also a terrible way to end one. Everyone talking at the same time? That's chaos, (apart from also being very rude).
11.) Don't talk on the phone.
I think you should never answer the phone during a meal, even if it isn't at the table, but I know not everyone agrees with me on that. Even still, if your cell phone rings while you're at the table, it's extremely rude to answer it at the table. Always excuse yourself from the table first before you answer. If you're worried about not answering the call in time, press the button on your phone that accepts the call but wait until you're away from the table before saying hello – they won't hang up if they can hear you excusing yourself in the background, and if they do hang up right away then it wasn't important anyways, right?
It happens all the time – someone apologizes at the table and says "Sorry, I'll just be two seconds, I'll tell them I'm busy." and those "two seconds" drag on and on and on. It always turns out to be much longer than you think, so don't do it! Have respect for your fellow diners, show them you appreciate their company and don't make them feel like everyone else has the power to veto your time together… Don't answer your phone at the table and only get up to take important calls that can't wait.
I always put my phone on silent before sitting down at the table, out of respect. If I like them enough to sit down and eat with them, then they at least deserve that much from me, no? Even if I never talk on the phone at the table, just having it ring in my pocket is a big enough distraction and that's not comfortable for anyone, is it? Indeed, all unnecessary noise at the table is offensive.
If you're expecting an emergency call and absolutely must leave your ringer on during the meal, let your guests know ahead of time so they're not caught off guard and offended. The same way you would say "excuse my reach" every time you have to reach for something, don't assume that because it was OK to leave your ringer on during the last meal that it will always be OK – each and every time you sit down for a meal you should let your fellow diners know in advance if you're expecting an emergency call. But if you find yourself in this situation all the time, you're either addicted to your phone and have no concept of what is and what isn't an "emergency call", or you need to learn to manage your time better. Doctor? Lawyer? Real estate agent? Politician? Choose your excuses wisely – being so busy that you have to be rude and can't have proper table manners doesn't make you look more important, it makes you look extremely unorganized and like you don't have your shit together! I've enjoyed many meals with lots of "important" professionals who knew how to properly manage their time and putting their phones on silent for thirty minutes was never an issue.
12.) Respect the table.
I once sat at a table where half-way through the meal the host actually encouraged one of the other guests to sit their crying baby (wearing only diapers) on the table and allowed the baby's feet to touch not only the table, but the serving dishes as well. I lost my appetite (what a waste – I hate wasting food) and no word of a lie, I had to use all my strength to not gag. Just sitting there watching the kid sit on the table, contaminating everything with its dirty feet while I wondered if perhaps it was crying because its diaper was soiled, made me want to vomit. Yes, that's an extreme example, but it serves very well to show the importance of respecting the table and making sure that everyone is comfortable.
Respecting the table also means not loosening your belt at the table (I know I already mentioned this) and keeping your elbows off the table amongst other things. But don't try to memorize a list of things not to do at the table, or a list of things to keep off the table, instead, just remember that table manners are there so that everyone can be comfortable. If it only makes you or a select few comfortable, and not everyone else, then it doesn't automatically mean that it's not OK, it just means you should probably think very carefully about it first…
13.) Don't clean up the table until everyone is finished.
If you're pacing yourself (see #7 above) and everyone finishes at the same time, this should never be a problem, but occasionally, it does happen. Never start picking up plates or moving things around the table until everyone is finished. No one likes to be rushed – it's a terrible feeling. Why would you do that to someone? You started together, so finish together. You waited for everyone to be seated before starting, so wait for everyone to finish before getting up and cleaning up. Respect.
Most servers at a restaurant know not to start picking up plates before everyone is done, but when I encounter a server that doesn't know this, I always insist on keeping my plate in front of me until everyone is done. I have no doubt that this gesture is always appreciated, even if people don't understand it fully. To help you understand it, try eating with someone sitting across from you who isn't eating. See how it feels eating by yourself? Then put an empty plate in front of them and continue eating. It feels very different, much more comfortable, like you're eating together, no? Yet another example of how table manners are not just pesky details – they're there for a reason.

There you have it, my list of 13 essential table manners. You might have ones that offend you more than these, or some that you think are more important, but they're the offenses that I most commonly encounter personally.

In my explanations I've tried to show that table manners really aren't at all about formalities, old-fashioned rules nor small details that are there to make things feel uptight and stuffy. They're not a sometimes thing only for formal settings – they're the minimum that's always required to make everyone feel comfortable. (By now, the two words that stick out the most should be obvious – everyone and comfortable.) You want everyone to be comfortable all the time, don't you? Then proper table manners can't just be for formal occasions, can they? The more you practice them, the more natural and comfortable you'll feel (yes, you'll be able to efficiently eat chicken on the bone with a knife and fork and it will be easy). Hopefully after reading this, you now understand why they're so important.

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In closing, I want to end how I started… First, if someone sent you a link to this don't be offended – I'm sure it's not about putting you down, it's about helping you be better. And second, never forget that the only thing worse than having bad table manners is making people feel inferior by publicly pointing out their deficiencies. Be gracious, be discreet, be gentle.

If you read my whole article, thanks! Maybe this article is an indication that I should start a series of articles about table manners…?… Let me know what questions you have, they won't go unanswered.