Table Etiquette Everyone Should Know
Real Simple’s etiquette expert explains how to behave once you sit down at the dinner table.
What is the etiquette around saying grace before a meal? We are Catholic and are hosting our friends, who are Mormon, for dinner soon. We normally don’t pray before a meal, and if we do, it is a traditional Catholic grace. We know our friends are very religious and use a traditionally Mormon style of prayer. Should we take the lead and use our method or defer to our guests? — C.S.
It is lovely of you to wonder. I would in this situation, as in most, defer to my guests. Invite them to pray: “We’re so happy to share this meal with you, and we’d love it if you would say grace,” you can say. They might decline or might, in turn, defer to you as the hosts. In that case, simply say your own grace instead, rather than letting the situation turn into a sitcom battle of politeness. Ideally, like the food itself, it’s all headed to the same place anyway. And whichever grace gets said, you’ll have been inclusive and welcoming.
I was raised to use my knife not only for cutting food but also for pushing it onto the fork. I notice that a lot of people push food onto their forks with their fingers. To me, this is crude behavior. I also notice that people often use a piece of bread to push food onto the fork, so I try to remember to serve bread or rolls when I have guests. What is proper fork etiquette these days? — E. S.
I asked my go-to etiquette friend, Lizzie Post, Emily’s great-great-granddaughter and the host of the podcast Awesome Etiquette. She explained the different orthodoxies of fork and knife use: the American style, which involves switching hands after cutting (which leaves you without a dedicated food pusher), and the English, which you describe above. Both of them are fine, she says. But I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that involving your fingers kind of defeats the purpose of the utensil. Unless it’s finger food, like corn on the cob or potato chips (or, if you’re at my house, green salad), try to keep your hands out of it. Beyond that, I’m not much of a stickler. Does pushing food around with a piece of baguette comply with the strictest etiquette rules? Probably not. Is bread better than fingers? I think so. Lizzie also offered this broader advice, which may help: “Proper knife and fork use is about having the most amount of control over and dexterity with your utensils. You want your dining companions to focus on you, not the awkward way you use your knife and fork.” That seems like a good goal more generally: Strive for excellence in table manners while remaining as inconspicuous as possible in the process.
As a senior citizen, I’m perplexed by the tendency of younger men to eat at a restaurant with their caps on their heads, often turned backwards. I was taught to never wear a hat during a meal. What is acceptable etiquette today? — K. S.
Indeed, times have changed. Fifty years ago, a man would no sooner have worn a hat at the table than shoes into the shower, and doing so would have been an etiquette transgression of the highest order. (Women, whose hats were understood to be decorative rather than functional, were exempt from this mandate.) Now, however, it is culturally acceptable to keep one’s hat on at a casual restaurant, such as a diner or a coffee shop. I say culturally rather than officially, because Emily Post agrees with you that men should remove their hats at mealtimes. Like it or not, though, standards are evolving. The odd backwards baseball cap is not intended as a sign of disrespect and, assuming the wearer is not at the Four Seasons or a house of worship, you might even take it as an innocuous style preference rather than an impropriety. Of course, please continue to remove your own hat. There are surely likeminded diners who appreciate this.
Is it acceptable for a woman to put on lipstick at the table after a meal in a restaurant? Or should she excuse herself and go to the ladies’ room? — A.J.
Lipstick at the table is slightly paradoxical. It’s vanity that compels you to apply it in the first place, and it’s vanity that gives you pause about doing so in public. Regardless, this hardly constitutes a major beauty revelation. It’s not as if you’re getting a Botox injection or coloring your hair during the salad course. Nor is it a grooming task with a high gross-out factor, like flossing or clipping your nails. I’m inclined to agree with Emily Post, who suggests that it’s fine to dab on a bit of lipstick, but only without a mirror or fanfare, and only if you’re not at a super-fancy restaurant or in a business meeting. And I would add: Don’t reapply lipstick only to leave a print of it on your coffee cup. Wait until the end of the meal.
While dining, is it OK to speak while chewing as long as you keep your hand in front of your mouth? This is something my mother taught me, and she has read many books on etiquette. My boyfriend argues that this behavior is not considered proper. — Name withheld upon request
Simultaneous chatting and chomping with your hand in front of your mouth seems like the worst of all worlds: a "solution" that creates a new problem without resolving the original one. You’re still talking while chewing (unpleasant to see, and a choking hazard to boot), and now you’re also conversing from behind a barrier, which runs counter to the process of communication.
If you absolutely must speak while eating—say, you don’t want a pepper mill–proffering waiter to be forced to wait while you chew and swallow—then, sure, say something brief, like "Yes, please," from behind your hand. But otherwise take smaller bites so you won’t have to wait so long to make your next point.
Additionally, allot more time for your meal so that there’s an opportunity to enjoy your fillet and share your stories. If you love to talk as much as my family does, then your favorite part of dinner might turn out to be after the food is eaten, when the candles are burning low and conversation can flow freely, with nothing in its way.
Is it polite to chew ice—at the table or anywhere? How do you address this with a loved one who continues to chew after he has been asked politely to stop? — A. H.
To answer your first question: Is it polite to chew ice? No, it is not classically polite. But in a world marred by deep and various unkindnesses, someone else’s pleasure in frozen water should rank toward the bottom of our concerns. My daughter loves to chew ice, and I stop her only because our dentist has suggested that she’ll damage her enamel if she keeps doing it, and her teeth are my business. If this ice-chewing loved one is not your child, decide if this is the battle you want to pick. After all, tolerating a friend’s or a partner’s idiosyncrasies is a crucial element of a healthy relationship. But if the behavior is simply intolerable to you, then you can make a stronger case for an end to it. So to answer your second question: Rather than asserting the objective rudeness of the ice chewing—and getting into a power struggle about it—describe its effect on you. “I’m sorry to harp on this, but ice chewing really bothers me, and I’d be so grateful if you would stop.” Look up misophonia—a condition in which certain sounds, including that of chewing, cause irritability or disgust—and decide if this describes you. If it does, add that self-diagnosis to your request.