Mind your manners: proper etiquette at a formal dinner table

Have you ever been at a formal dinner event and wondered which glass or napkin belonged to you? Do you fear using the wrong utensil or all-out making a fool of yourself among the other diners? Don’t fret! You are not alone. Learning formal dining etiquette was once a staple of society long ago. But while the place settings haven’t changed throughout the years, our knowledge of what to do while dining has waned.

You may find yourself at a fine-dining business dinner where you will rub shoulders with your colleagues, company guests, and executives. Or you may go out to represent a boss and company—or just yourself—at a luncheon or gala where dinner and drinks are served. Otherwise, you may simply be an invited guest at a formal dinner. Whatever the reason is for the dining event, it’s important to have the proper table etiquette and manners expected of you.

Follow this simple advice to improve your table etiquette, and prepare you for such formal luncheons and dinners, so you won’t be left dining in ignorance or embarrassment.


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  • stand up to shake hands, if seated
  • defer to your host
  • place your napkin on your lap upon being seated
  • start with the outermost utensil and work your way in
  • say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’

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  • take out your mobile device while at the table
  • pick your teeth at the table
  • monopolize the conversation
  • snap your fingers at the wait staff
  • reach in front of others

Brian C. Haggerty‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do stand up to shake hands, if seated

One of the first true signs of refinement is knowing to stand up to shake anyone’s hand if you are seated at a table. While the Pope and Royalty receive people while seated, we are neither. Standing to shake hands demonstrates respect and proper etiquette. You’ll score very highly demonstrating your thorough breeding—especially if dining for a job interview or a prospective client.

Do defer to your host

If you are a guest to dinner, wait for your host to pick up his or her menu. Regardless of the price, if they recommend something on the menu, it is acceptable to order that item. If they do not, don’t order the most expensive item on the menu; conversely, you do not have to order the least expensive. Follow your host’s lead and never preempt him or her.

Do place your napkin on your lap upon being seated

After exchanging pleasantries, the first thing to do upon being seated is to place your napkin upon your lap—folded in half—with the fold facing you. This allows for you to use your napkin in such a way as to keep the soiled side facing up and therefore not getting food upon your pants or dress.

Do start with the outermost utensil and work your way in

The large array of utensils on each side of your plate can be intimidating. Sometimes, there are a stray fork and spoon lying horizontally above your plate. But this shouldn’t cause you any fear. The rule is that forks are always on your left; knives and spoons are always to your right. As as for those stray utensils seemingly all alone above your plate; those are for dessert and should stay there until it is served.

As for knowing which fork, knife or spoon should be used—and when—start from the farthest utensil from your plate. If the first item served is a salad, then you know to use the farthest fork. If it is soup, use the farthest spoon. Work your way toward your plate with each course and you’ll be ready for high society.

Do say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’

It might seem obvious to some, but saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is not always staple vocabulary for people. Nothing says politeness and refinement more than the use of these words. Not only will you earn the respect of others, but you will also be respected.

Brian C. Haggerty‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not take out your mobile device while at the table

Emily Post, a famous American author who wrote about etiquette, would turn in her grave if she saw our modern addiction to mobile devices. Under no circumstances should you ever answer a call, text, check email, Tweet, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or anything else related to your mobile device while you are seated at a dinner table.

First of all, it’s rude. Secondly, it’s highly unprofessional. If you are among the select people who is that important, or an emergency responder, or a doctor, or a parent with a young child, you should excuse yourself from the table and go elsewhere. And, please, don’t take a photo of your dinner when it arrives in order to share it on Social Media. We all have to eat and, frankly, we realize you have to, as well.

Do not pick your teeth at the table

You would think this doesn’t need mentioning, but you would be wrong. Most of the time, people are not aware of their behaviors. If you have something stuck in your teeth, ask to be excused and go to the restroom to remove it.

Do not monopolize the conversation

Less is always more. While we do enjoy conversing with new people, hearing your life story since birth, or all of the gory details of your recent surgery, is enough to make anyone lose their appetite. Make sure you show interest in the other diners at the table. Ask polite and simple questions about their lives and listen. If they know better, they’ll answer you and then ask you the same. But under no circumstances should you use the table as your own stage to perform your own monologue. Unless the others have come to meet you, leave your performances for the stage.

Do not snap your fingers at the wait staff

Unless you want to run the risk of having something added to your dinner without your knowing, I strongly suggest that you treat the wait staff nicely. Don’t snap your fingers or shout out to them. A good server is always looking. Just signal quietly with either a look or a quiet beckon and they’ll be ready to assist you.

Do not reach in front of others

Keep your hands to your own space. If you see something you’d like, whether it is the salt and pepper, appetizers, or the cream—never reach for it. Ask the person nearest to please pass it to you.


Dining is one of our oldest social traditions. It allows for people to gather, have good conversation and enjoy delicious food. The reason we have rules of dining is not to seem pretentious. The rules allow for the meal to flow without unnecessary interruption. It makes the meal easy and allows for a nice time.

Displaying good table manners also shows that we have class. Class is not something you can purchase, and is not dependent upon your intellect, social class, or income. It is a decision we each make to be the best that we can be, and to show respect for ourselves and others. As dining etiquette continues to decline, the effort you put into yourself and your image will not go unnoticed. Friends and family, colleagues and clients, and everyone in between will more likely take you seriously, seeing as you take yourself and your etiquette seriously.

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