Charm school rules apply to everyone, hostess and guest alike. Table manners play an important role in showing appreciation and respect to the hostess and good table manners make a favorable impression to friends, family and colleagues alike. Often times the ill informed - and most often: not ill mannered - will unknowingly break bread to the right, throwing off other guests and the time honored rules that dictate that water and wine be served on the right and bread on the left. So, if you are a hostess, a parent, a manager or team leader it certainly is your place to sound a simple, well toned reminder to your constituents that “solids are to the left, liquids to the right”. This may be especially appreciated by younger guests that are well intentioned but often uninformed to the proper rules of dining. Also, when in doubt as to which utensil to rely upon for a particular course in the meal - start from the outside of the place setting and work toward the main meal plate: soup spoon first, then fish knife and fork, then service knife and fork. Often times the main plate in a place setting is known as a "service plate," and is never actually eaten from. It will either be removed when the first course is brought, or the dish will be set on top of it. Remember, for a formal place setting, you will receive exactly as much silverware as you will need, arranged in precisely the right order. A formal hostess will see to it that each utensil will go seamlessly with each course.
When to Begin Eating
When to begin eating often times seems lost in these hurried times; however, a core tenant in proper etiquette is understanding that respect for your friends and family are always more important than the actual act of eating. With this understanding governing every action, there are two common approaches to determining when to begin. At smaller events, it is common to wait until everyone at the table has received a serving and the hostess has begun eating. Sometimes a hostess may urge her guests to eat immediately upon receiving the food. This is particularly the case at larger events, where waiting for everyone would make warm entrees go cold. In this case, wait until one or two of the other guests seated near you are ready to begin as well, so that you are not the only person at the table who is eating.
The meal begins when the hostess unfolds his or her napkin, and this should be your signal to do the same. Place your napkin on your lap, completely unfolded if it is a small luncheon napkin or in half, lengthwise, if it is a large dinner napkin. Typically, you want to put your napkin on your lap soon after sitting down at the table, but it shows appreciation to follow your hostess's lead. The napkin should remain on your lap throughout the entire meal. It is meant only to be dabbed at the lips and should not get dirty in the process. It may seem that the napkin is suited to clean up messes that might occur during the course of the meal, and that may have in fact been its original use – that is soon after the tablecloth itself ceased to be used as a napkin. However, the more formal the event, the more important the presence of the napkin; this is because at the heart of table manners is the intent to preserve cleanliness, proper appearance and to show your hostess respect. If all other elements of the meal are going well, there will be no danger of smudging the linen.
At formal events, servers may place napkins on the laps of guests, but it is not inappropriate to place your own napkin in your own lap. If your napkin falls on the floor during a very formal event, do not retrieve it. You should be able to signal a member of the serving staff for a fresh one. Also, if you need to leave the table during the meal, place your napkin loosely to the left of your plate. It should not be crumpled or twisted, which would indicate untidiness or even unease; nor should it be folded. You should never place your napkin on your chair since in many European countries it is sign of disrespect to the hostess. Also, never place the napkin over your plate or utensils, which signal to servers that you are finished or you are leaving the table and may also be a sign of disrespect to the hostess. The hostess will signal the end of the meal by placing his or her napkin on the table. Once the meal is over, you too should place your napkin neatly on the table to the left of your dinner plate.
General Utensil Placement
The positioning of knife and fork indicates to the degree to which the diner intends to pause in eating. Flatware should always be placed on the plate during pauses between bites. If this is to be a very short interval, there is no set pattern. For longer waits, often due to table conversation, the diner places the fork on the left and knife on the right, so that they cross over the center of the plate. The diner preparing to pass his plate for a second helping places the fork and knife parallel to each other at the right side of the plate, so that there is room for the food. When the diner has finished, he signals this by setting the fork and knife parallel to each other, so they lie either horizontally across the center of the plate or are on the diagonal, with the handles pointing to the right. The cutting edge of the knife blade should face toward the diner, and the fork may be placed with the tines either up or down.
Remember proper table manners forbid placing a used eating utensil back on the table. Essentially, used flatware must never be allowed to touch the surface of the table linens, where it might dirty the cloth. At the end of a course, a utensil must not be left in any dish that is not flat. The soup bowl, a shrimp cocktail dish, a teacup or a parfait glass; all these items are usually presented with a plate underneath the bowl or cup, on which the utensil must be placed after use.
Utensils - European or Continental Style
Silverware should be held delicately and carefully balanced on the fingers and guided gently. To hold any utensil in your fist or to manipulate it in such a way that is pointed at anyone would hint at potential danger and disrespect, as would even setting it down in an inappropriate way. With that said, there are two ways to use a knife and fork to cut and eat your meal. There is the American style and the European or Continental style; either is appropriate, and tends to be a product of upbringing rather than of taste or elegance. In the American style, which was brought about partly by the late introduction of the fork into the culture, all three utensils are intended for use primarily with the right hand, which is the more capable hand for most people. One cuts food by holding the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left hand; with the fork tines piercing meats to secure it against the plate. Cut a few bite-size pieces of food, then lay your knife across the top edge of your plate with the sharp edge of the blade facing in. Your service knife (or meat knife) should be set at 10PM against the top right of your plate as you move thru the main course. Change your fork from your left to your right hand to eat, fork tines facing up. If you are left-handed, keep your fork in your left hand, tines facing up.
The European or Continental style is the same as the American style in that you cut your meat by holding the knife in your right hand while securing your food with the fork in your left hand. According to this method, the fork is held continuously in the left hand and used for eating. The difference is your fork remains in your left hand, tines facing down, and the knife in your right hand. Simply eat the cut pieces of food by picking them up with your fork still in your left hand.
A significant difference between the American and the European styles of using knife and fork is with the American practice- that even the most awkward foods (peas being the traditional example) must be captured by the unaided fork. In Europe it is permitted to use the knife or a small bit of bread to ease a stubborn item onto the fork. That can be the secret that saves you from using your finger as a backstop! Now that is an absolute NO-NO, here or in Europe.
When You Have Finished
Some common foibles when dining is that the ill-informed may push their plate away when they have finished eating. Leave your plate where it is in the place setting. In fact, attempt to keep the same place setting throughout the dinner, i.e., when retrieving water, wine, etc. return each item to the place where the hostess intended. The common way to show that you have finished your meal is to lay your fork and knife diagonally across your plate. Place your knife and fork 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 at 10:20 PM on a clock face. Make sure they are placed in such a way that they do not slide off the plate as it is being removed. Once you have used a piece of silverware, never place it back on the table or leave a used spoon in a cup; place it on the saucer. You can leave a soupspoon in a soup plate and any unused silverware is simply left on the table.