How To Be The Best Dinner Guest | Must-Know Table Manners
When I think of my best dining experiences, they involved delicious food, but most importantly, they included friendly people and great conversations. Whether you are a natural entertainer or not doesn’t really matter. All you need is a positive attitude, openness to others and good table manners.
A friend told me she once went to a business dinner at a fancy hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. The meal started with champagne and oysters. When the first oyster laid on her tongue, she hesitated. It tasted funny. She looked at her potential business partners across the table and decided to swallow it. Unfortunately, she got food poisoning. It would have been ok, and far less risky, to let is slip back into its shell or in a napkin. She won’t make that mistake again.
Here are the must-know table manners inspired by Emily Post’s Etiquette and my own experience, to be the best dinner guest (and not get food poisoning)!
- In the past, dinners were the best occasion to court others. Some people would spend hours preparing. Even though it’s not exactly like that nowadays, looking nice and clean shows respect to the host and other guests.
- Caps or hats are big no-no’s at the table as they prevent eye contacts and make you seem rude.
- If sitting around a low table in Asia, you will probably need to take off your shoes. Avoid stepping on a tatami, a Japanese mat, with your shoes on.
Respect the seating arrangement
- The seating arrangement is an important part of dining etiquette. That’s no exception in Asia. No matter which country you are in, wait until the host invites you to take place or until everyone has gathered at the table before sitting down.
- In most situations, you should only sit once the guest of honor or the most senior person is seated.
- Sitting upright shows that you are ready to converse with others.
Know how to use napkins, utensils and chopsticks
- If provided, slowly unfold the napkin and place it in your lap. You should only tuck it into your collar for very messy meals.
- Use it to blot, not wipe your lips, especially before taking a drink, to avoid leaving smears on the glass. Ladies, be careful not to leave lipstick stains on cloth napkins.
- If you need to leave the table briefly, excuse yourself and place it on the left-side of your plate.
- In Asia, many restaurants will provide you with a wet towel. Don’t use it on your face or neck. Instead, use it to clean your hands, then fold it and put it aside.
- In North America, there are two different ways to use utensils, the American style and the Continental/European style (see image below). Both of them are equal. You may even switch during the meal if it feels more comfortable or fits best the type of food you are eating.
- Use utensils or your hand to remove bones or other inedible parts of the meal from your mouth, and discretely put them on a side plate or a paper napkin.
- When taking a break to drink or to speak, place your utensils on your plate, not on the placemat or nap.
- To show the course is finished, place utensils at the 4:20 clock position, the knife facing inward. This makes it easier for the person who will pick it up, as they can put their thumb on your utensils, preventing them from falling.
- In Asia, you should try to use chopsticks as much as possible but if you cannot, mention your inadequacy with chopsticks and ask for utensils.
- Never stick your chopsticks vertically in a dish, even if that dumpling is hard to pick up.
- Use the opposite end of your chopsticks or dedicated serving spoons for moving food.
- Don’t use chopsticks to point at a particular dish you are requesting or recommending. And as with utensils, don’t gesticulate with chopsticks while grunting with a mouthful of food.
- When taking a break, place your chopsticks on the chopsticks holder.
- To show the course is finished, place chopsticks sideways on top of your rice bowl, not pointing at the person seated across.
Image by Quan Trinh, graphic designer.
Serve others before yourself
- Food is supposed to be passed on the right, but no matter which side, hold the dish with both hands so that the person sitting next to you can serve themselves. If you’re starting a dish, you will normally be the last one served, once it has gone full circle.
- When a dish is not right in front of you, you can ask the person closest to it to pass it to you instead of reaching for it.
- At a buffet, everyone should serve themselves but at the second round, ask others if they need anything before getting up for more food.
- When drinking alcoholic beverages, serve others before pouring your own drink.
Start eating once everyone is served, except…
- A good cue to start is when the host or hostess lifts their fork. But they may inform you to begin earlier, especially if there’s a chance that food gets cold.
- At a self-serve buffet, you may start as soon as you’re seated, but you should try to wait for other guests as much as possible
- When you’re at a table with eight people or more at a restaurant or an event, you can start once at least three of you have been served. The only problem with this rule is that few people know it, so you may look rude if you apply it.
Try to eat a little bit of everything but avoid unnecessary risks
- If the host has gone out of their way to prepare dinner, try to take a little of every dish and to make positive comments about the meal.
- In most cultures, it is considered rude to turn down food, even if you are full. So the trick is to inform the host that you are full before they offer another dish. But don’t take unnecessary risks when in doubt. It’s better to discretely put away a piece of food in a paper napkin or just leave it on the plate, if it looks undercooked for example, than getting sick because of it.
- Hosts should be informed about your allergies or diet beforehand but if you decided it was better not to tell them and they serve that particular food, you can gently decline and let them know you are allergic but are enjoying everything else.
Pay attention to the host and other guests and be helpful
- When invited to someone’s house for a meal, it’s usually recommended not to come empty-handed. Westerners usually ask the host if there’s something they would like them to bring, such as wine, an appetizer or a dessert. In Asia, bringing a gift is a must, especially because the host may have one for their guests. An article about gifts will be posted soon.
- Come with stories to share, but don’t monopolize the conversation. Try to be inclusive by asking questions and find topics of interest for everyone.
- If food is stuck in your fellow diner’s teeth, face or clothes, you’re doing a favour by letting them know. In a group setting, try to silently signal it to them.
- If you have food caught in your teeth, try to discreetly rub it off with your tongue. If it doesn’t work, excuse yourself from the table and remove it in the restroom.
- The host may signal the end of the meal, perhaps by getting up or offering coffee in the living room. Rise and gently push back your chair under the table.
- Thank the cook/host for the delicious meal and offer to help clear the table if possible.
Keep in mind that everyone can participate in creating an enjoyable experience, not just the host or organizer. Feel free to share your thoughts and stories in the comment section below.
Oh, and if you ever pass by Ho Chi Minh City and want to indulge in an incredible brunch experience, I recommend the Sunday Champagne Brunch at Hotel des Arts, as shown in the photo at the top of this article and the photo gallery below. Thanks to Thuymi from www.adventurefaktory.com for the recommendation.
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