I spent the first half of my life thinking that etiquette was a stuffy, pretentious set of rules invented to help make a certain class of people seem more refined—and another class of people more coarse by comparison.
Anyone else have that impression?
Then, through a series of fairly random opportunities, I not only had the chance to learn some etiquette, but to help a local instructor teach children the basics. What I learned through that process—and what I’ll share with you now—is that etiquette is actually meant to elevate your gatherings (and your holiday table) by making sure everyone is comfortable. Rather than a secret set of rules, good etiquette can be a guide for being thoughtful about a social event so you and your guests, family, and friends can focus on enjoying good food and great conversation.
With that in mind, here are a dozen etiquette tips for the holiday season:
- A trick for easily recalling which sides of the plate the utensils go on: the L-E-F-T (four letters) side is where the F-O-R-K (four letters) goes, and R-I-G-H-T (which has five letters) has the S-P-O-O-N (five letters) and K-N-I-F-E (five letters). The serrated edge of the knife should face in toward the plate; the spoon should be to the right of the knife.
- Always remember BMW – bread, meal, water. The bread plate (if you set one) should be on the top left of the place setting; the main meal plate should be center, and the water glass should be left of the meal plate. If you set out wine glasses, those should be next to the water glasses.
- When the butter gets passed to you, take what you’ll need with your knife and put a little spread on your bread plate. Throughout the meal, return to your own little “stash” of butter, rather than continuing to ask for the butter to be passed. If there are rolls or bread served, butter each bite individually rather than spreading butter all over the top or middle right away.
- Dessert utensils always go above the meal plate, sort of like benchwarmers until they’re called to the court in the fourth quarter. The handle of the spoon should be pointing right and the handle of the fork should point left; this way, when someone reaches up to grab them, they can sliiiiide down into place where a fork and spoon would normally be set.
- If you’re setting a fancy table or you’re attending a dinner with more than just three utensils, they are always set in the order they are to be used, working from the outside in. If you’re a guest and you aren’t sure which utensil to use, just follow the lead of your host!
- Follow the Leader is a good rule in general: if you are ever unsure if something would be rude, if you aren’t sure whether a fork or spoon is preferable for the Jell-O salad, or if you are tempted to put your elbows on the table but wouldn’t want to offend Great-Great-Grandmother’s sense of propriety, just glance at your host and do whatever they’re doing. She’s got her elbows on the table and is sipping Jell-O through a straw? Etiquette says: go for it.
- Even if only one is requested, always pass the salt and pepper together. Think of them as inseparable newlyweds (in a black tux and white gown, if you will) who cannot bear to leave each other’s sides.
- Okay—this is a tough one. OLIVE-SIZED BITES. That’s right. I’m thinking of one particular member of my family who manages to store a plate’s worth of food in his cheeks before he swallows, and unless you can pass the squirrel test (which is a test I made up where I personally vouch for your ability or inability to successfully hide food in your mouth), you really should stick to the olive-sized bites rule. The point of any good meal is both the food and the friends gathered; and an over-stuffed mouth tends to prevent participation in conversation. If you are eating moderately sized bites, you can avoid the excruciating event of being asked a question juuust as you put a bite in your mouth, chew intensely for two or three minutes with one hand over your lips, nodding, while the other hand trying to gesture that “it’ll just be one minute”—that’s not a good look for you. Or me. Not a good look for anyone. Olive-sized bites, my friend.
- If you spill: just own up to it! Don’t try to fuss and shift your plate or tableware to cover it up. That’s more awkward. If you’re at someone’s house (including your own) check if there’s something you can do to treat the spill if there’s a chance it will leave a stain.
- Don’t like what’s being served? Since the twofold point of every meal is the people and the food, emphasize the former if the latter doesn’t interest you much by asking good questions and engaging the folks around you. (The reverse, unfortunately, doesn’t apply. You can’t stare at your food if the company doesn’t interest you…)
- If you are at a holiday gathering—say, a work party or family reunion—and nametags are being used, always wear your nametag on the RIGHT HAND SIDE, on the chest below the collar bone. This makes it easy to glance up the arm and at the nametag as inconspicuously as possible when shaking hands.
- Finally, the most fun piece of etiquette advice I can offer: unless it’s served in a sauce or unless your host demonstrates something different, you are always welcome to eat asparagus with your fingers.
Hopefully some of these tips can boost your confidence in the social season to come, so you can focus on what matters: the friends, family, and food these festivities always promise.
Do you have any favorite etiquette tips or tricks?
Ellen Koneck likes reading and writing and thinks homebodiness is a virtue. She has her MA in religion from Yale and works in academic publishing. She has one plant, one tattoo, one baby, and an identical twin. Contrary to all conventional wisdom, she regularly brings up both religion and politics at the dinner table.