Good table manners are the key etiquette rules to appropriately eating at the dining table. Tips to be the ideal host or the perfect guest at the dining table.
What good table manners are
Good table manners are the set of etiquette rules to properly eat and sit at a dining table. Such rules help avoid behaviors that can disrespect hosts or guests, or make you look unpolite.
If you are hosting, follow good table manners to appropriately serve and attend to your guests.
If you are a guest, respect good table manners to properly eat and enjoy social dining.
Good table manners guiding principles
When you do not know what to do at the dining table, remember the table manners guiding principles.
Good table manners include hundreds of rules. Such rules differ by region, culture, and many other factors. You may forget some of the rules, or you may find yourself in an uncommon situation. However, if you keep these 4 key principles in mind, you are likely to act appropriately.
I) What will the guest in front of you see?
Mind what the person sitting in front of you will see. Good table manners mean interfering as little as possible with the other guests’ dining experience. Avoid any behavior that may annoy or interfere with the other guests.
II) Follow the leader
Pay attention to what the host and the other guests do. When you are unsure about anything, watch others and follow their lead. If you are at a dinner party, pay attention to the hosts and follow their cues. If you are at a professional dinner, mirror what the most senior managers at the table do.
III) Do only one thing at a time
Avoid doing more than one thing at the same time. If you want to drink or pass food to another guest, rest your utensils first.
IV) Focus on people
Dining is a social activity. A pleasant host or guest focuses on what people do, need, ask, or say.
Good table manners: the key rules
1) Good manners before the meal
If you are invited to lunch or dinner, always respond. Even if the host did not request a confirmation. It is best to respond within 24 hours. If you respond late, it is still better than no response at all. It is not polite to ask if you can bring extra guests. If the host invites your family, it is polite to ask if you can bring your children.
Wash your hands immediately before seating. On any occasion, you should sit at the table well-groomed, with clean hands, a clean face, clean and combed hair, and clean clothes. Remove your lipstick to avoid leaving marks on the glasses or napkin.
Electronic devices and accessories
It is best to not bring any accessories to the dining table. Leave your purse in another room, or put it under the table or under your seat. It is not good manners to keep a hat on at the table.
Before sitting at the table, turn off or silence all electronic devices. This includes your smartphone or any device your children have. If you forget your phone on and it rings, you should immediately turn it off without answering the call.
Seating and starting
Be on time. Do not be late to the table or make people wait. Identify your assigned seat. Wait until the hosts sit before you do.
After taking your seat, the first thing to do is to place your napkin on your lap. Unfold it on your lap. It is polite to wait for the hosts to take their napkins before you take yours.
Wait until all the guests have been served their food. Only then, you can pick up your utensils. At a dinner party, start eating when the hosts pick up their utensils.
2) Good table manners during the meal
Eat to the left, drink to the right. Any plate to the left of your main plate belongs to your setting. The same rule applies to any glass to the right of your main plate.
An easy way to remember this rule is BMW, which stands for Bread Meal Water. Bread plate on the left. Meal plate at the center. Water glass on the right.
Keep your napkin on your lap until the end of the meal. If you need to temporarily leave the table during the meal, fold the napkin and place it on either side of your plate or on your chair.
Hold stemmed glasses by the stem. Red wine glasses may be the exception.
If more than one wine is served, use a different wine glass with each type of wine. You can leave one glass unfinished as you drink the other.
If you do not drink alcohol, politely refuse it if someone offers to serve you. A simple “no, thank you” is enough. No explanation is required.
Do not get drunk. If you are getting tipsy, it is time to switch to water.
Once you pick up your utensils, they should not touch the table again. If you need to rest your utensils, place them on your plate.
On formal occasions, you should use a pair of utensils with each new course. Follow the “outside-in” rule to tell which knife, fork, or spoon to use with each course. Use utensils on the outside first. Then, work your way toward the center of your place setting.
Eat with utensils unless you are eating finger food or food that is supposed to be eaten with your fingers.
Use serving utensils to serve yourself. Do not use your personal cutlery for serving.
Use cutlery only to bring food to your mouth. Do not gesticulate with a knife or fork in your hands. Use the knife to push food against the fork. Never bring the knife to your mouth.
Cut your food as you eat. Cut one bite-sized piece at a time. Do not cut all your food at once before eating it. Only meals for children can be sliced or minced at once. Similarly, break your bread into one bite-sized piece at a time.
Taste your food before adding salt, pepper, oil, or other seasonings. Doing otherwise may be insulting to the hosts.
Do not blow on food to cool it. If the food is too hot for your mouth, be patient and wait some time. With hot beverages, such as coffee or tea, test the temperature by taking a small sip from your teaspoon.
In general, avoid tasting another guest’s food. On informal occasions, you may hand your fork to the guest, who can spear a bite-sized piece and hand the fork back to you.
If you are unfamiliar with some food, wait until someone else starts to eat it. Then, follow their lead. On a formal occasion, such as a business meal, it is wise to avoid unfamiliar food. Check our guides to know the etiquette rules specific to a food or beverage.
Eating quietly and politely
Eat as quietly as possible. Avoid making noises such as scraping a plate, chewing loudly, drumming your fingers on the table, or slurping food.
Chew with the mouth closed. Eat small bites, one morsel at a time. Do not bring food to your mouth until it is empty.
Mopping up your plate with bread is allowed only on informal occasions. If you do it, spear a piece of bread with your fork.
Do not fidget with food.
Keeping the pace
Take a small pause between bites, or between eating and drinking. Do not bring food or beverages to your mouth continuously, and do not drink with your mouth full.
Pace yourself to finish each course at the same time as the hosts and the other guests.
Removing food from your mouth
Remove unwanted food from your mouth in the same way you put it into the mouth. If you used a fork or a spoon to put food into your mouth, you should use a fork or a spoon to remove it. If it is not possible, discreetly remove it with your fingers, while using your other hand to screen your mouth.
Complimenting the hosts
Compliment the hosts if you like the food. However, if you do not like the food, you should never say so. If the hosts ask if you enjoyed the food, say that you did.
In any case, do not state your personal food tastes or a special diet you are following. Do not ask your hosts to prepare you a special dish.
Eat at least a small quantity of every food on your plate. Even if you do not like it. The exception is if you are allergic to it.
On informal occasions, you can ask for a second serving. On formal occasions, it may be unpolite.
Reach only to get items that are in front of you, and at your arm’s length. Do not stretch across the table. Do not cross the guests sitting next to you.
If an item is far, ask another guest to pass it rather than reaching across people. Always say “please” and “thank you.”
Pass salt and pepper together. Pass food around the table following one direction, usually to your right.
When a serving platter is presented to you, take only one moderate serving. Make sure to leave enough food on the platter to allow one serving for every other guest.
Take the portion of food nearest to you. Do not spend a long time picking your portion.
If an item, such as the bread basket or a beverage, passes in front of you on its way to another guest, do not partake. Wait until the initial guest receives the item. Then, request the item to be passed back to you.
3) Posture rules at the dining table
During the meal, remain seated until everyone is finished.
Sit with your back straight. Try not to lean forward. Do not slouch on your chair. Keep your feet on the floor.
Elbows and hands
Keep your elbows off of the table. It is acceptable to rest your elbows on the table when food is not on the table. However, it is preferable to avoid it.
You can rest your hands and your forearms on the table. While you eat, you can rest your passive hand on the table or your lap. In any case, keep your hands away from your face and your hair.
4) Good table manners for conversation
Eating during conversation
You can eat during a conversation. Show that you are paying attention to the speaker by nodding. However, it is best to avoid eating during a speech or a performance, as you are expected to pay attention.
Talking at the table
Do not talk if your mouth is full of food or a beverage. If another guest addresses you while you are chewing, do not respond. Make a gentle gesture or expression to signal that you will speak once you have finished the food in your mouth.
Keep the volume of your voice under control. Do not raise your voice and avoid loud exclamations as they might annoy the other guests.
Follow the standard rules for social conversation. Avoid controversial topics. Do not interrupt others while they are speaking. If other guests venture into an unpleasant topic, simply try to change the subject.
Singing is disruptive and should be avoided.
Do not stare at the other guests while they eat.
5) Social dining disruptions to deal with
Wait no longer than 30 minutes for late guests. It is preferable to avoid delaying dinner for everyone, rather than accommodating the arrival of a late guest.
At a private dinner party, if some of your cutlery, plates, napkins, or glasses are dirty, do not point it out and embarrass your hosts. Do not try to wipe it clean on your own. Be patient and take the pain. In a restaurant, you can ask the waiter for a clean one.
Never place your phone on the table. If you are waiting for a call that you need to take, turn your phone on silent. Then, excuse yourself when you leave the table to take the call in another room.
Smoking and vaping
Never smoke at the dining table. Avoid cigarettes, e-cigarettes, or vapers as they dull the senses and might annoy the other guests.
Burp, yawn, cough, sneeze
Avoid burping, snorting, or making other sounds at the table. If a burp is coming and you cannot hold it, cover your mouth with a napkin, burp as quietly as possible, and apologize.
If you cannot suppress a sneeze or a cough, cover your mouth with your napkin, and sneeze or cough as quietly as possible. Another option is to leave the table.
If you cannot suppress a yawn, cover your mouth with your hand, and yawn as quietly as possible.
Do not blow your nose at the table. Excuse yourself and leave the table instead. Never use your napkin to wipe your nose.
Food between teeth
When food is caught between your teeth, wait and remove it after the meal. If you cannot resist, excuse yourself and leave the table. Do not use a toothpick at the table.
If another guest has food on the face or between the teeth, you can gently and discreetly signal it.
Restroom and leaving the table
If you need to leave the table, for example, to visit the restroom, excuse yourself with a few words. “Excuse me, please” works fine. Do not leave without saying a word.
Always push your chair back in when you leave the table. If a woman excuses herself, stay seated. However, it is still gentlemanly to stand when a woman comes back.
If you drop a utensil, ask the host or the waiter for a new one. Pick the utensil up if you can. If you cannot reach it, inform the hosts or the waiter.
If you drop your napkin, pick it up if you can. If you cannot reach it, inform the hosts or the waiter.
When another guest near you drops a utensil or a napkin, offer your help to pick it up.
If you drop food on the tablecloth or the floor, discreetly use your napkin to pick it up. You can then ask the hosts or the waiter for a new napkin. If you spill a beverage, use your napkin to blot the spill and clean up. Offer to have the tablecloth or floor professionally cleaned if necessary.
If you spill food or beverage on another guest, apologize but do not touch the guest. Even if you are trying to help. Offer to pay for professional cleaning if necessary.
6) Good table manners after the meal
Resting the napkin and utensils
After you finish eating, place your cutlery on your plate in a 4 or 5 o’clock position.
Fold the napkin and place it on the table, usually on the left side of your plate. Do not place it on top of your plate.
Leaving the table
Stand up and leave the table only after the hosts signal that the meal is over. On an informal occasion, you may offer to help clean up.
Always push your chair back in when you leave the table.
Do not apply lipstick or make-up at the dining table. Visit the restroom instead.
In some countries, such as the United States, it is acceptable to take leftover food home from a restaurant in a doggy bag. In other countries, such as in Europe, it is bad manners.
Never ask for a doggy bag after a private dinner, a date, a business meal, or a buffet.
Thank you note
Always send the hosts a thank you note. Do not wait more than 24 hours after the event.
- The Origin of Table Manners: uchicago.edu