Mind Your Manners, Pt. I

Do you break out in a cold sweat just contemplating a lunch interview? Does the thought of attending a firm formal fill you with trepidation? How about the myriad dinners scheduled for summer associates? When I was a new associate, I had pretty much mastered fork placement, but several other dining etiquette conundrums had me stumped: Could I order that crab dinner that looked so appetizing? Was it acceptable to order an alcoholic beverage at dinners? When they served lamb as the main course, could I gracefully decline and request an alternate?
 
I purchased Miss Manners’ Guide to Etiquette, and it certainly stood me in good stead. I highly recommend purchasing an etiquette guide, stuffy though it may seem. Good manners are de rigueur for any professional, so being aware of what is expected of you is essential in making a good impression at your firm. While exhibiting good manners is expected every day, perhaps at no other time are manners more on display than during a function where food is consumed, so it’s important to mind your p’s and q’s.
 
Dining Etiquette Basics
 
Prior to Dining
 
Try to arrive 10 minutes prior to the beginning of the scheduled event. Greet your host by shaking hands. If you are wearing a coat, ask where you should place it. If you have brought a guest and need to make introductions, address the senior or most prestigious person first: "Mister Smith, I'd like you to meet my friend, Jane Doe. Jane, John Smith is the Managing Partner of Smith, Johnson, and Parker and is hosting this dinner." If cocktails are served prior to dinner, limit your consumption, particularly if the function is part of a job interview or if you need to drive.
 
Leave one hand free for shaking hands or eating. You can accomplish this by holding everything in the other hand. Fold your napkin loosely around your little finger, balance the hors d'oeuvre plate between your ring and middle fingers, and hold your glass or cup between your index finger and thumb. If you can’t master this, simply choose to either eat or drink: you should not hold food in one hand and a drink in the other.
 
Never take your seat for dining before being invited to do so by your host. Prior to being seated, women should blot their lipstick to prevent soiling glasses and cloth napkins. If you are wearing a suit, you should continue to wear the jacket until dessert is served unless the heat is unbearable, in which case you can place the jacket around the back of your chair.
 
Beginning the Meal
 
After being seated, you should wait until your host places his napkin on his lap, and then you should follow suit after folding the napkin in half lengthwise, if it is large. If the napkin is small, you should completely unfold it. Keep the napkin on your lap throughout the meal. You may use it to gently blot your mouth, but under no circumstances should you use it to wipe your nose. If you leave the table during the meal and intend to return, place your napkin on your chair. Placing it next to your plate signifies that you are finished eating, and you may return to find that your plate is gone.
 
Do not turn over glassware that you do not intend to use. If a beverage is served during the meal that you do not want, simply hold up your hand and quietly decline. Under no circumstances should you place any bags, purses, sunglasses, cell phones, or briefcases on the table. Put your cell phone on vibrate, and place it in your pocket or purse. A woman should place her handbag on her lap or on the floor to the right side of her feet or chair.
 
Ordering
 
If you are ordering from a restaurant menu, avoid asking for changes to the item, choosing the most expensive meal, or ordering food that will likely be messy. If your host suggests a more expensive entrée to you, such as prime rib, you should take that as an indication that ordering it would be acceptable, even if it is pricey. If you are unsure about the ingredients or how a meal is prepared, you should ask your server rather than order something you cannot eat.
 
If you are asked to order the wine, the easiest approach is to ask the host or waiter to recommend something. Order white wine with fish, chicken, and vegetables, and red wine with red meat and heavy dishes. The server will pour a small amount of the wine into your glass to taste, if you have ordered the wine. Smell the wine, sip it, roll it on your tongue, and swallow. Unless it is truly awful, nod your head and say, "Very Good" or something of the sort.
 
The Formal Table Setting
 
If you attend a formal dinner with pre-set place settings, you will likely see the following: On the right, glassware, cup and saucer, knives, and spoons, as well as a seafood fork if the meal includes seafood; on the left, bread and butter plate (including small butter knife placed horizontally across the top of the plate), salad plate, napkin, and forks. The general rule is that liquids are on your right and solids are on your left. Make sure that you remember this to avoid consuming someone else’s food or drinks. Also, you should replace glassware in the same position.
 
The Formal Table Setting
 
The Main Event
 
Wait for everyone at your table to be served before beginning to eat, although if someone’s meal is delayed and he or she urges you to begin, feel free to do so.
 
Certain items, such as roll baskets, butter, cream, and salad dressings, will be closer to you than to others. It is your responsibility to initiate their use by picking them up and passing them to the right. Refrain from helping yourself first. Those items should make a complete pass around the table before you get your turn, although if you simply must have first dibs, ask the person to your right if he or she minds if you help yourself first. Whenever you pass something with a handle, pass the object with the handle facing the other person so that he or she can grasp it easily. Always pass the salt and pepper as a set, even if only one was requested.
 
You may not send a dish back to the kitchen because you don’t care for the taste; however, you may reject your food for the following reasons: 
1)  It was not cooked to order. For example, the steak was rare rather than well done.
2)  Your dish contains a bug or hair.
3)  The dish is not what you ordered.
4)  The food is spoiled. 
Silverware
 
Most people have heard the rule that when dining, one should work one’s way in toward the plate with regard to silverware. Start with the knife, fork, or spoon that is farthest from the plate and use one utensil for each course. The salad fork is on the outermost left, followed by the dinner fork. The soup spoon is on the outermost right, followed by the beverage spoon, salad knife, and dinner knife. A dessert spoon and fork will be placed above the plate or brought out with dessert. If coffee is served, it usually comes with a teaspoon to add sugar or stir. 
 
Remember to use your silverware delicately to avoid a lot of noise as it touches the plate. Once you have used a piece of silverware, never place it back on the table. Neither should you leave a used spoon in a cup; instead, place it on the saucer. Simply leave any unused silverware on the table.
 
Either the American style or Continental style of using a knife and fork to cut and eat food is considered appropriate. In the American style, the diner cuts the food by holding the knife in his right hand and the fork in his left hand, with the fork tines piercing the food to secure it on the plate. After cutting a few bite-size pieces of food, the diner lays his knife across the top edge of the plate with the sharp edge of the blade facing in and then moves the fork from his left to his right hand to eat, fork tines facing up. The European or Continental style is the same as the American style as to the cutting of the food, but it differs in that the diner’s fork remains in his left hand, tines facing down, and the knife remains in the right hand.
 
Particular Foods 
  • If you object to a pre-ordered meal for allergic, religious or vegetarian reasons, you should quietly deal with these when the server comes to your side. For vegetarian issues, ask if you may have a vegetable plate. For allergic or religious issues, provide the server with a short explanation and some options, e.g., if you are allergic to shellfish, ask if cod or flounder is available.
  • If soup is served, spoon away from you and sip from the side of the spoon quietly. This tip may help you to remember: “Like a ship going out to sea, I scoop my soup away from me.” You may tilt the bowl away from you to get the last little bit. Leave the spoon in the bowl when you are finished, or place it on the plate on which the soup bowl sits.
  • When butter is being passed, cut a pat and place it on your bread plate.
  • Tear off a small piece of bread to butter and consume. You should not butter an entire slice or half of a roll. You should be able to eat the piece that you have buttered in one bite. Lay your butter knife down on the butter plate with the blade to the inside.
  • Use your knife or a piece of bread to help move vegetables onto silverware; never use your finger.
  • A restaurant should prepare a salad so that it consists of bite-size pieces, but if your salad contains leaves that are too big to eat, use your salad fork to cut them into smaller pieces. If that will not work, use your dinner knife, but only if all other methods have failed because you'll need that knife for the main course, and you will have no place to put it after it is dirty.
  • If you put something in your mouth that you need to remove (seeds, pits, gristle), remove by the same method that it went in, e.g., back onto a fork, a spoon, or with your fingers depending on how you put the food in your mouth. Place the offending piece on the side of your plate.
  • Keep in mind that you should limit your alcohol intake so as to avoid embarrassing yourself. Even if everyone else is drinking alcohol, feel free to politely decline.
  • Do not use sugar or sweetener packets to excess. The rule of thumb is no more than two packets per meal. Do not crumble the packets; instead, partially tear off a corner, empty the contents, and place to the side.
 
Finishing Your Meal
 
Try to pace your eating to coincide with the other diners’ at your table. Eating too fast or too slowly will make others uncomfortable. After you have finished, leave your plate where it is. Do not push it away from you when you have finished. To indicate you are done, lay your fork and knife diagonally across your plate, side by side, with the sharp side of the knife blade facing inward and the fork, tines down, to the left of the knife. The knife and fork should be placed as if they are pointing to the numbers 10 and 4 on a clock face.
 
The host will signal the end of the meal by placing his or her napkin on the table, whereupon you should place your napkin neatly on the table to the right of your dinner plate. Don’t forget to thank your host for the meal.
 
Final Thoughts on the Basics
 
The best advice that I found in etiquette guides is this: Good manners is the art of making others feel comfortable. In no event should you point out the etiquette shortcomings of fellow diners. Doing so will only make you look petty and make everyone uncomfortable. If you are unsure of the proper procedure, follow the lead of your host. Above all, relax and enjoy yourself.