Monthly Archives: May 2014

Formal dining: using your napkin

I recently wrote a short piece on Restaurant Etiquette for the website Stilettos on the Glass Ceiling. Even as I was writing it, I knew I could not possibly cover every aspect of  restaurant dining in one article. There are a myriad of things to consider; most of them, thankfully, have been ingrained into our psyche. Some aspects however, require a little more consideration. I’m rather proud that I am able to fill an entire blog post solely with “napkin etiquette”.

Photo credit

Photo credit

The title of this post is not “Napkin etiquette”. Could there be such as thing? The napkin is always inoffensively hidden in plain sight, on one’s lap. So here is my post on napkin etiquette, more appropriately entitled: The Etiquette Butterfly’s Practical Guide to Using Your Dinner Napkin.

1. The napkin for your use is the one to your left, or directly in front of you or tucked in your wine glass. Place it on your lap as soon as you are seated. Do so without show or flourish.

Refrain from using the napkin as a bib. The exception is that if lobster is to be served, a suitable bib may be provided or everyone may tuck their napkin into their collar. If you regularly stain your shirts, it might be because you are leaning in too close to the table when you take a bite or eating your soup incorrectly. Do read more on my previous posts on eating messy food and soup etiquette.

Fold the napkin with the edges facing away from you

Fold the napkin with the edges facing away from you. Photo credit: Jay and Bee

2. Place the napkin on your lap folded in half with the edges away from your body (see photo above). There is a practical reason for this. We all know napkins are there to prevent staining one’s clothes and for dabbing excess food from around one’s mouth (I say dab; madam shouldn’t have to ruin her lipstick now, should she?). Dab with top layer of the napkin only.

If the edges were facing you or the napkin is laid unfolded, the natural tendency would be to use the side of the napkin which is in contact with your clothes. This would defeat the purpose of having a napkin. (See evidence below).

Food stains (beautifully represented by my red lipstick) kept from clothes by two layers of cloth.

3. If you have to temporarily leave the table for whatever reason, place the napkin on your chair. Just place it again on your lap when you return.

4. When you have  finished your meal, place the napkin directly in front of you on the table, or to your left if your plate is yet to be cleared. This is one way of showing the waiter you have finished. There is no need to fold it neatly, just lay it crumpled as it falls.

Photo credit

Photo credit

Napkins or serviettes?
Traditionally, a person belonging to the upper-class would probably say ‘napkin’ and the middle-classes would call it a ‘serviette’. None of that matters today, of course. Now, it is customary to call the cloth ones ‘napkins’ and those folded paper ones used at McDonald’s ‘serviettes’.




Query: holding cutlery incorrectly

Dear EtiKate,
I naturally eat with my fork in my right hand. But I was told that if I was to dine at a formal event I would have to eat my cutlery the ‘right way round’. Should I be forced to eat in an unnatural way in polite company?
Many thanks,
Confused Guest

Dear Confused Guest and Readers

The dinner table is set with the fork to the left of the plate and the knife and spoon to the right. The fork, used mainly to hold down or to eat (safely speared) food is secondary to slicing food or spooning scalding soup. As most of us are right handed, this placement makes sense with the dominant hand performing the more complicated tasks.

Formal events have an aura of glamour that make them inherently more special than other gatherings. This distinction we give them makes the whole experience more stressful. However, always be reminded that good manners is simply making sure everyone around you is as comfortable as possible.

This means that other guests should not make you feel uncomfortable. If you are holding your cutlery in a way you are not used to, you might be so nervous about possibly dropping food that you will be hardly able to dazzle the other guests with your clever conversation.

Left handed individuals are not forced to hold their cutlery “properly”. From experience, new acquaintances are unlikely to make such as fuss. I suggest simply picking up the cutlery and switching them around, the way you are accustomed, without drawing attention to yourself.

Children should be taught from a young age how to use their cutlery correctly. I appreciate it can be difficult to change one’s ways later in life. If you still feel inclined, start by practicing “the proper hold” in your every day life, and not just sporadically when formal occasions call.


We will be delighted to answer all your etiquette-related questions. Send your queries, worries and dilemmas on our Dear EtiKate section. Alternatively, you can get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.

Her Ladyship’s Guide to Modern Manners

Greys Court

Greys Court

Not long ago, my friend Ella took me to visit Greys Court. It is a splendid Tudor country house, now in the care of the National Trust. At the time, we did not realise that the house appeared in the TV show Downton Abbey as Downton Place, the secondary property of the Crawley Family. The place was not advertised thus. In my opinion, the beauty of the the house and the surrounding Chiltern Hills are enough to draw visitors, us being a case in point.

After afternoon tea, we wandered into the gift shop. They had a book called Her Ladyship’s Guide to Modern Manners. I already had a copy of course, purchased many years ago. Seeing the book in the shop made me realise I have not written a book review in some months. So this lengthy preface was to explain the inspiration for today’s post. Now on to the book review!

Her Ladyship's Guide to Modern Manners by Lucy Gray

Her Ladyship’s Guide to Modern Manners by Lucy Gray

This is one of the more formal books on etiquette and manners I have in my library. There are no illustrations or photos in the book. Her Ladyship’s writing is unembellished and with just a touch of humour. The rules of etiquette are serious matters after all.

The first part of the book posts and answers questions such as ‘who decides what good manners are?’ (short answer: we as a society all do). The book distinguishes rules of etiquette from good manners.
Her Ladyship explains that rules of etiquette, the formal practices that are expected in more ceremonial occasions such as weddings were put in place to help bind a certain social group together- in this case, the aristocratic class. In these days of modernity, some of the rules of etiquette from the outdated aristocratic system has carried over into good manners, what some would call ‘natural politeness’.


In Her Ladyship we trust.

My favourite part of the book is the chapter of Rites of passage. It cover births, weddings and funerals (also known as hatches, matches and dispatches). These are the events that mark our progress through life and are always formal in some sense as it helps to make these occasions special. Her Ladyship offers her advice both for the celebrants and guests. She writes, ‘If you’re the one getting married, do makes sure your answers can be heard. It’s not a private moment as much as a public declaration.’ Altogether, this is an excellent book on manners and decorum. It is written with authority and invokes trust from its readers.