Ever sat down at a dining table and didn’t know what to do with your napkin? Well here are a few rules of etiquette to help you the next time you are faced with one. Let’s begin!
The minute you sit down at the dining table, the first thing you should do is: lay your napkin on your lap.
If it is a small napkin, often used for breakfast and lunch, you should unfold your napkin completely before placing it on your lap. If it is a large napkin, often used for dinners, you should not unfold your napkin completely. Instead, unfold it halfway.
If you were to unfold a large napkin completely, it would look like you were lifting the table cloth when lifting your napkin to dab your lips. Large napkins are quite long. Also by leaving your napkin halfway folded on your lap, you are less likely to lift the table cloth or your skirt with your napkin when picking your napkin up.
If it is a paper napkin, it too should be unfolded and place on your lap.
Never tuck your napkin into your shirt or dress. A napkin is not a bib. Do not wipe your mouth or face with your napkin. Instead, dab it gently. A napkin is not a tissue or towel.
A napkin is a cloth or paper to protect your clothing from falling food, to wipe your fingers clean, and to remove food and liquids from your lips.
WHAT TO DO WHEN LEAVING THE TABLE FOR A SHORT TIME
You should avoid leaving the dining table in the middle of a lunch or dinner. Leaving the table interrupts the flow of conversation. It also interrupts the flow of courses in a multiple course meal. This can create chaos in the kitchen for the chef and servers who are working on a set time-frame for serving dishes at their optimum temperature. It can also prevent you from eating your dish at its best.
With that said, there are times when you must excuse yourself from the table temporarily. And for those times, you should place your napkin on the seat of your chair. Doing this will signify two things…
1. This chair is taken.
2. You will be returning.
By placing the napkin on the chair, you prevent another person from sitting in your chair. Just imagine… a person approaching the table to start a conversation, who then pulls out an empty chair to sit on, but sees a napkin on its seat. It would be awkward for them pick up the napkin, that is not theirs, and place it on the table.
A lady can also place her napkin on the table, next to her plate. This is a newer addition to the rule to address ladies’ concern with hygiene. Chairs tend to be dirty. They are rarely cleaned yet many sit, stand, and put their feet on them. These same chairs are where diners place their napkins… the same napkins diners wipe their hands and dab their lips with throughout a meal.
For this reason, both rules are often acceptable. But consider this… When a meal is over, a lady is supposed to place her napkin on the table to signal she is finished. When a lady does the same to excuse herself for a few minutes, it eliminates or confuses the signal some servers use to manage a table.
When choosing which method to use, we recommend you consider your surroundings. Is the restaurant or dining event formal and traditional? Are your fellow diners traditional, who follow etiquette rules diligently? The more formal and the more traditional, the more you want to follow the old rules of etiquette.
WHAT TO DO AT THE END OF DINNER
At the end of your meal (and coffee, if served), loosely fold your napkin and lay it to the left of your plate. If there is no plate and your place setting is empty, lay your napkin in the middle of your place setting. Make sure to fold your napkin in a way that hides any soiled parts. And when you fold your napkin, do so loosely. Napkins should not be folded formally. They should look as if they were gently used. After all that was their purpose.
For more rules and tips, check out our section on dinner etiquette.