american table manners

American Table Manners

Photo by Kevin Spencer
The Role of Manners?

There is not much call for a complete working knowledge of table manners in America today. Many families only gather all at once around the dinner table at holiday feasts, and most restaurants are too casual to require, or even to allow for, more than basic good table manners. If, having dropped his napkin, a diner at a bistro were to attempt to practice proper etiquette by signaling a member of the staff to bring a fresh one, he would probably have to do without a napkin at all. Try as he might to make eye contact and indicate the nature of the problem with a subtle wiggle of the eyebrow and downward flicker of the glance, he is likely to succeed only in causing his date to think he is making a play for the server. Although strict good manners forbid placing a used eating utensil back on the table, the server removing a plate on which a fork has quite properly been positioned “pointing at 11 o’clock” might just plop that item back where it started, making more of a clatter than if the diner had simply done it herself.

From time to time — perhaps at an important business dinner, a romantic date at an expensive restaurant, or a first dinner with the family of the person who may be “the One” — it is necessary to display a more sophisticated knowledge of table etiquette. This is not difficult, once you have mastered the basics. Anyone armed with this core knowledge and the ability to adapt smoothly to the situation at hand will be able to handle even the most formal event. The goal is not, after all, to demonstrate utter mastery of the most arcane details of etiquette (which would be quite difficult considering the wide variations of customs in different cultures and from generation to generation), but rather to behave with graciousness and poise at the table.

Mastering the Basics

Much of the difficulty encountered in learning table manners derives from the struggle to master the ritual handling of the various tools involved. In order to display the right social veneer, it is necessary to sit at the table with elegant ease and wield the utensils with aplomb. The diner who leaves the napkin folded on his plate until it obstructs the placement of his appetizer plate reveals his lack of training. The dinner party guest who observes with dismay the array of flatware on either side of her plate, need only take the time to learn the simple secret to the plan. There are, of course, a few tips and pitfalls to be aware of, as well as the occasional surprising item you can eat with your hands. Here is a quick guide which will help steer you through even the most formal of occassions.

The Secrets of the Formal Place Setting
How to Use the Fork, Knife, and Spoon
How to Use a Napkin
Tips and Pitfalls
What You Can Eat with Your Fingers

Reading List:

  1. The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners by Margaret Visser. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
  2. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Book of Common Sense Etiquette by Eleanor Roosevelt. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962.
  3. Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium by Judith Martin. New York: Pharos Books, 1989.
  4. Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior by Judith Martin. New York: Warner Books, 1982.
  5. Elements of Etiquette: A Guide to Table Manners in an Imperfect World by Craig Claiborne. New York: William Morrow, 1992.
  6. Meal Time Etiquette by Rose V. White. New York: Emily Post Insititute, 1964.