American formal dinner etiquette can get a little ridiculous at times. Sometimes it gets bad enough to make you wonder...

Why the hell are there so many friggin' rules?

Why? So no one gets offended, of course! Formal dinners can involve some pretty important people, and sometimes they're people you really don't want to piss off. If you're having a few heads of state or Alan Greenspan over for dinner, you should have the body of this writeup tatooed on the inside of your forearm so you will forever know how to properly eat peas.

However, another reason is to impress people, which is probably why most people are reading this. In that case, don't sweat it too much. The people you're with probably don't know what they're doing either.

For these reasons, I have categorized the following rules of etiquette into three sections: Normal, Proper, and Anal. You can choose your own comfort level depending on the place and the company.


  • No matter what, assume that your host or server is right. Assume they've set the forks out in the right order and that they know what they're doing. Along these lines, you should tell them beforehand if you have food allergies or you're a vegetarian or you're a diabetic or lactose intolerant or whatever. While they should ask, you really can't fault them too much if you didn't tell them about your special allergy to lettuce or something, and you end up looking bad for not eating it if they put it in front of you. If you're eating out, ask the server about your meal before you order. Make sure it doesn't have anything in it that you're allergic to or can't eat. This way, you'll avoid the situation where the vegetarian has a steak on his plate. And don't worry about asking. Just be polite, and remember, it's their job.
  • Don't put your elbows on the table when you are eating. If it's between courses or after the meal's end, it's OK, but for some reason people don't want elbows near food. If your arms can't bear the strain, rest your wrists against the table's edge or leave your hands in your lap.
  • Put your napkin in your lap, dammit. It gets in the way of the appetizer plate when it's brought to you. Use it only to dab at your mouth if necessary, and when the meal is done, place it on the right side of your dinner plate.
  • And the plate you start with? Won't actually ever touch food. Put bread on your bread plate. Eat salad from your salad plate (which you will put on top of the "starter plate"). They'll bring you another plate with the actual main course on it, and the server will either take the starter plate or put the second dish on it. You're not supposed to get this plate messy.
  • When it comes to silverware, start with the utensil farthest from your plate. Sometimes the new dish will actually have its own cutlery with it, which means you don't have to worry about it. The only exception to this is the oyster fork, which is teeny and it points at the soup spoon. Your dessert silverware will be above your plate.
  • Don't put used silverware anywhere else but on the edge of the plate you were using it for. Salad forks go at the edge of the salad plate, bread knives go at the edge of the bread plate, soup spoons go on the edge of the little dish under the bowl of soup. And never put it on the tablecloth because it could leave a stain, and I think you're trying to be polite here.
  • Don't season your food before you've tasted it. It can be considered rude.
  • When eating soup, don't put the whole spoon in your mouth. You'd look funny. Sip the soup from the edge of the spoon, don't slurp it, and for god's sake, don't spill any.
  • Don't just shove a giant piece of bread or roll into your mouth. Rip off a bite-sized piece with your fingers and butter it seperately, then put it in your mouth. Always tear rolls in half, because it's easier to butter that way and looks better.
  • If you spill solid food off your plate, pick it up with a piece of silverware and put it on the edge of your plate. If you spill liquid food, you're fucked. Try to crawl out of the bathroom window and escape or something.
  • If there's something stuck in your teeth and you can't dislodge it with your tongue, go to the bathroom and get it out.
  • If you drop a piece of silverware and you can reach it, pick it up and put it in the right place, and tell the server you need another one (if he hasn't noticed already). If you can't reach it, skip the picking up part and go straight to the informing part.
  • Don't be obnoxious. Turn the cell phone off, don't talk too loudly, don't bring up anything controversial, don't brag, don't drink too much, don't smoke if others are not. Use common sense.


  • When you put your napkin on your lap, only unfold it all the way if it's too small to go across your lap. Otherwise, it's more proper to keep it folded in half lengthwise.
  • Hold your utensils as if you know what to do with them, even if you don't. Don't point that knife or fork at anyone, it could be seen as a threatening gesture. (Because butter knives sure are threatening.)
  • Spoon soup away from you. What I mean is, when you dip the spoon into the bowl to get some soup, you move the spoon away from your body when you scoop it. Keep it only 3/4 filled, though. Don't want to spill.
  • If you're passing something along, don't stop to use it yourself. Remember, this is not about efficiency, it's about etiquette.
  • If you get something in your mouth that you can't eat, remove it the same way it came into your mouth. For example, remove a small chicken bone with your fork. If it's something *really* gross, you should probably try to remove it with the utensil, but if you think someone would notice the half-chewed fatty hunk of meat on your fork, discreetly spit it out into your napkin.
  • Don't cut more than one or two bites at a time from your chunk of meat. Cut off a small piece and either put it in your mouth with the fork in your left hand or transfer the fork to your right hand and put it in your mouth.
  • If you absolutely have to, use a knife or a small piece of bread to push difficult foods onto your fork, like peas or corn.
  • Don't leave any utensil in a cup or bowl. All utensils must be placed on plates, because the plates are friends with the silverware and like hanging out after dinner.
  • Don't crumple or fold your napkin next to your plate when you're done with it. If you crumple it, it looks messy. If you fold it, you may be implying that they'll reuse it, unwashed.


  • Your napkin is there as a fashion accessory, not as a napkin. If you get it dirty, you're doing something wrong. Only use it to dab daintily at your mouth when excess moisture accumulates there, not actually to wipe your hands or mouth.
  • And if you drop your napkin or silverware, don't pick it up. Subtly gesture at the server to indicate that your item has fallen and they should get you a new one.
  • Leave one hand in your lap while you are eating, unless you are cutting something. (Personal note: WTF?)
  • Sometimes when you are served grapes, there will be a small scissors there so you can trim a small section from the bunch. Otherwise, tear off a section so there's not a patch of ugly bare stem endings.
  • To eat artichoke, rip off one leaf at a time, dip it in the appropriate sauce, scrape off the nummy good stuff at the base of the leaf with your top teeth, and discard the leaf. There is often a plate for this, with a place for the artichoke, a place for the sauce, and a place to put the leaves. When there are no more leaves, use your knife and fork to remove the spiky-looking part and to eat the heart and stem. Your guess is as good as mine as to which knife and fork to use.
  • If there is a pause in your eating and you are planning on finishing what's on your plate, place your fork on the left and knife on the right so that they cross over the center of the plate. If you are preparing to pass your plate for a second helping, place the fork and knife parallel to each other at the right side of the plate. If you're done, place the fork and knife parallel to each other so they're either horizontal across the center of the plate or are diagonal with the handles pointing to the right, the knife blade pointed towards you and the fork pointing down. This is like formal-dinner sign language, and without it, no one would know anything at all. They'd be lost in a sea of confusion.
  • A finger bowl is a little bowl of water, sometimes with a slice of lemon in it, that is used to ceremonially cleanse your fingers after the meal. It's offered either before or after dessert. You should dip your fingertips in it without scrubbing, dry your fingers on your perfectly clean napkin, and set the bowl next to your plate.
  • According to one of my sources, there is a "European superstition" that anyone who leaves a napkin on his chair will never eat at that table again. It also implies that you actually got your napkin dirty, which would be horiffic. So don't leave it on your chair.

Who came up with these rules, anyway?

Maybe some of these people (my lovely sources)...

Mundane enough for ya?

Et"i*quette` (?), n. [F. prop., a little piece of paper, or a mark or title, affixed to a bag or bundle, expressing its contents, a label, ticket, OF.estiquete, of German origin; cf. LG. stikke peg, pin, tack, stikken to stick, G. stecken. See Stick, and cf. Ticket.]

The forms required by good breeding, or prescribed by authority, to be observed in social or official life; observance of the proprieties of rank and occasion; conventional decorum; ceremonial code of polite society.

The pompous etiquette to the court of Louis the Fourteenth. Prescott.


© Webster 1913.

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