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FAQs & Tips About Dining Etiquette

Dining etiquette can be critical to career and job search success. Employers want to observe your conduct during meals and social situations, particularly for jobs requiring a certain demeanor with clients and superiors. Your table manners and behavior are an opportunity to make a good impression.

Everyone's experiences with table manners vary, so we have more for you below about details of dining, answers to questions you might have, and what to do if something goes not quite as planned.

Employers may want to see you in a more social situation to see how you conduct yourself, particularly if the job for which you are interviewing requires a certain standard of conduct with clients and superiors. You could be critically scrutinized on your table manners and conduct. On a practical level, interviews that last for several hours may extend through mealtimes, and the employer is acting as a gracious host to provide you with meals. The meal is a time to visit and interact, and this is always more important than the function of eating.

You should wait for your interviewer/host to ask you to sit down before taking your seat. If he/she doesn't ask you to sit, wait for him/her to be seated, then sit.

During the meal, sit up straight and keep your feet flat on the floor or cross your legs at your ankles to maintain good posture. You don't have to sit forward on the edge of your chair; just don't slump back in the chair.

Your salad plate and bread and butter plate are on your left, above your fork. Your beverages are on the right above your spoon. Remember: Solids on the left, liquids on the right.

Always use your flatware from the outside in. So if you have two forks, the outside fork is for salad and the fork closest to the plate is for your main course. The flatware will be removed as you finish each course. There may be a third fork outside the salad fork for appetizers. Usually no more than three utensils are placed on each side of the place setting. If a fourth utensil is needed, it is placed above the plate and is usually for dessert and/or for coffee to be served with dessert. 

When you are seated, don't play with your utensils or make them a topic of conversation.

As soon as everyone is seated, unfold your napkin and place it across your lap, folded, with the fold toward yourself. Do this discreetly without flourish. If you need to leave the table, place your napkin on your chair, folded loosely (never wadded). Only after the meal is over should you place your napkin on the table to the left side of your plate (never on your plate!).

It is considered poor etiquette not to use your napkin. The purpose of the napkin is to keep food off your face. Use it frequently to discreetly dab or wipe (no ear to ear swiping, please) your mouth. Replace the napkin on your lap loosely folded, not wadded and not stuffed between your legs.

If your napkin falls on the floor and it is within easy reach, retrieve it. If you are unable to retrieve the napkin without drawing attention to yourself, ask the server for another one.

If water is on the table as you are seated, it is appropriate to sip your water after you have placed your napkin in your lap. For other beverages and foods, wait until everyone is seated and has been served. 

Do not eat until your host/hostess has begun; when your host picks up his/her fork, this is an indicator that you may do so. Or your host/hostess may ask you to go ahead and start eating and you should comply with the request.

Do not help yourself to the bread basket and other communal foods until your host has indicated you may do so. If you pick up the bread basket, hold the basket and offer to the person to your left, then serve yourself, and then pass the basket to the person on your right. The same applies to butter, salad dressings, and other condiments that are passed. (That does not apply to salt and pepper, which are only passed, always together, when one or both are requested.)

You should eat correctly, but never point out errors of others. If you don't know how to eat a certain food, follow the lead of your host.

Water, juice, or iced tea are safe choices. Avoid soft drinks, because of negative effects on the mind and body that won't enhance your interview. Avoid alcohol, even if the interviewer drinks alcohol. Professional standards for employers recruiting college students state that employers should not serve alchohol as part of the recruiting process. In other professional situations, one glass of wine, sipped slowly, may be acceptable. Know your own limits. You want to remain sharp and responsive. Do not consume alcoholic beverages if you are under the legal age. Coffee or hot tea after the meal is perfectly acceptable if this is offered and if time allows.

Limit yourself to one or two packets of sugar or sweetener. Tear one or both at the same time 3/4 of the way at the top of the packet, and leave the paper waste at the side of the plate. Using more than two packets of sugar or artificial sweetener may be seen as excessive.

Refrain from talking about health during meals and in business situations. If you know the menu in advance, you can let your host know ahead of time that you cannot eat a certain food. Be pleasant and discreet about your request, and apologize for any inconvenience. This allows your host to make arrangements for you. If food you cannot eat is served to you at a meal, simply leave it. Be discreet and pleasant if you are asked why you are not eating. In a restaurant where you are ordering from the menu, you can explain any allergies discreetly to your server. Again, be pleasant and don't call attention to yourself or make this a topic of conversation.

Be polite and appreciative. Never criticize or state a dislike for a food that is served to you (something we all should have learned by age 5). This is insulting to your host. Simply eat foods you do like, and make an attempt to taste unfamiliar foods or at least make it appear as though you tried the food. If you are asked point blank if you like something, and it would be an obvious untruth to say you do, say something gracious like, "It's different," or "I'm not accustomed to this flavor, but I'm glad for the opportunity to try this." The job for which you are interviewing may involve business travel and dining in other other cultures than your own. You could be evaluated for your grace in such situations.

If it's a major mistake, you can discreetly mention this to the server immediately so that it can be corrected. If the error is small — you didn't want tomatoes, but they are served to you, or you received the wrong side dish — ignore it. Fussing over food can make you look childish, finicky and concerned with the wrong things (not assets in a job candidate). Your goal is to appear gracious.

Simple foods that are easily eaten with a fork and knife or spoon (meats, simple salads and soups). Avoid spaghetti or other foods with red sauce, huge deli sandwiches, greasy hand-held items like pizza, and gassy foods like beans, broccoli, or cauliflower. Sometimes you may not have a choice. Follow your host's lead.

No. If you'd like it, you can ask the server to describe the dish, and you can point to it on the menu. It's also fine to ask the pronunciation.

When your host indicates (by saying "please help yourself to bread," or something similar), if you are the person closest, take the service plate/basket, offer it to the person to your left, serve yourself, and pass and release to the person on your right. Always include the service plate in passing; don't, for example, lift the salad dressing bowl off the service plate and pass the bowl by itself. Foods should go from the service plate to your plate, never to your mouth. Butter should be placed on your bread and butter plate, not directly on your bread. Don't touch other people's food, and never use your used utensils to obtain food from a service plate.

Do not spread your butter on your entire roll at one time. Do break off a bite-sized piece of your roll, butter it, and eat it, one bite at a time. If the piece you break off is slightly too big to make one bite, it's fine to eat it in two bites, and much better than stuffing a too-large bite into your mouth.

Cut a few bites at a time; don't slice and dice the entire salad at once. It is preferable to cut large salad pieces than to attempt to stuff large bites of food in your mouth.

Take very small bites, so you can quickly finish and swallow the bite before speaking. Never speak with food in your mouth; keep your mouth closed and wait until you've swallowed your food. You may not have much time to eat if you are being asked a lot of questions; remember that the main point of the meal is to have conversation, and eating is secondary. 

You can initiate asking your host questions so that the conversation is more balanced and you have more time to eat. Don't eat too quickly, and don't attempt to hurriedly scarf down all your food. A large, hurriedly-eaten meal can make you drowsy and uncomfortable; a disadvantage if your interview continues after the meal.

Dip the side of your spoon away from yourself into the soup bowl to fill your spoon. Then place the other side edge of the spoon on your lower lip to carefully transfer the soup from spoon to mouth. Don't place the entire spoon bowl inside your mouth. Don't clack your teeth on the spoon. Take a pause and rest your spoon periodically; it goes behind the soup bowl, on the service plate under the soup bowl, not in the bowl. If no service plate is provided, then you should rest your spoon in the soup bowl. Used utensils are never placed on the table. Sip quietly. To finish the last bit of soup, you may slightly tip your bowl away from yourself to fill your spoon.

Some foods, like french fries, are commonly consumed with the fingers. However, in a professional situation, use your fork (and knife to cut, if necessary) rather than your fingers. If something is served on a plate, you should use utensils! This applies to all foods, including chicken, or any other meat with a bone, that you might eat with your fingers in a casual situation.

If the name tag is not sticky and keeps falling off on the table or on the floor, remove it. If the name tag is in your way, move it.

Scooping or spearing depends on the type of the food. Do not jab at your food; try to scoop and spear in the same action.

When a service plate is used under the food vessel, always rest your utensil on the service plate behind the food vessel. Obviously if there is no service plate, rest your utensil in the food vessel. Your utensil always rests with the handle to your right. Never place any part of a used utensil on the table; so that means don't lean the handle on the table. 

If plates are being cleared and you are not finished, simply lift your utensil as though you are in the process of eating. However, don't lag behind the rest of the diners; if everyone else is finished, and you're not, simply leave the remaining food.

Yes, always pass the salt and the pepper together. Place both on the table, and not directly into another person's hand. Even if you also want to use the salt or pepper, don't use it first if you were asked to pass it. Simply wait for it to be passed around, or ask that it be passed back around to you. Of course that's not efficient, but the point of etiquette is to consider and attend to the needs of others in a gracious manner, and not necessarily to be focused on efficiency or speed.

This is considered an insult to the chef. You should not salt and pepper your food before tasting it. Try a bite first, then season if necessary. Don't over season; this can appear childish.

You have a few choices if you find hair in the food. If you are comfortable doing so, you can discreetly remove it, or eat around it. You can always politely ask the server to bring you another plate. In any case, do not cause a scene and do not spoil the appetites of others at the table.

You can excuse yourself from the table by saying, "excuse me"; you do not need to offer an explanation, and you should not state that you are going to the rest room or attending to personal matters (that is an inappropriate topic of conversation during a meal.) 

However, you should offer an explanation if you were excusing yourself to check on a matter related to or on behalf of the group; for example to check on the whereabouts of a member of your party who might be lost or otherwise need assistance (although if you were an interviewee you would not generally have this responsibility). 

If you must leave during the meal, you indicate whether you are finished eating through proper placement of your utensils and napkin. Ten and four o'clock (handles at four, knife blade toward you) indicates you are finished. Three o'clock to center (handles at three) indicated you are not finished. Do not rest utensils or utensil handles on the table. Napkin on your seat indicates you will return. Napkin placed on the table to left of your plate (NEVER on), indicates you are finished.

Traditional etiquette calls for gentlemen to rise when a woman leaves the table. It is not necessary to completely stand for a temporary departure. Simply rise off the seat to acknowledge her leaving.

Absolutely not. No grooming of any kind should be done at the table. You should excuse yourself for this purpose.

Try to stay with the pace of the meal so that you don't hold up the remaining courses. If you are lagging behind, when the others are done eating, don't make them wait on you too long. Don't try to speed up to finish your food. It's not necessary for you to finish all the food on your plate.

As a general rule, follow the lead of the host before removing your jacket. If the host keeps on his/her jacket, keep yours on. If it is extremely hot, it is appropriate to ask the host's/hostess' permission. This applies to both men and women. Keep in mind that some restaurants/clubs may require men to keep their jackets on during meals.

Respond by saying "Bless you," and continue with your meal. If the person sneezed on your meal, certainly  you would not eat it, but don't make an announcement about it. (And make a mental note not  to sit near that person in the future if you can avoid it.)

Put the knife across the top of your plate when you are eating, blade facing toward you. Picture a clock face; the knife should be approximately at the 2:00 (handle end) to 11:00 (blade end) position.

When you are resting, place the soup spoon on the service plate, or leave it in the bowl if there is not a service plate. When you are finished, place the spoon on the service plate.

Absolutely not. Remove all food from your utensil when you remove the utensil from your mouth. Do not take partial bites off a utensil; so do not put more food on your utensil than you can place in your mouth with one bite.

Do not reach to the floor to pick up dropped utensils. Wait until you get the server's attention and discreetly ask for a new utensil.

Catch your server's eye. If that's not successful, you may ask another server who is nearby. If the matter is not urgent, wait until the server checks at the table to see if anyone has needs; be discreetly on the lookout for your server to do so, so you won't be caught with your mouth full. Don't wave to a server unless there is an emergency. Avoid getting up from the table to hunt someone down (unless there is an emergency). Remember the main purpose is conversation with others, so enjoy that while you wait  for a fresh fork.

If the food falls on the floor, leave it and don't step on it. If the food falls on the table and it is a big piece, if you can do so discreetly, use your fork and move it to a corner of your plate. Otherwise, let it be.

Be subtle and quiet. Do not bring it to the attention of everyone at the table and do not embarrass the person. If it is someone signifantly senior to you, you may not want to cause him or her any embarrassment; so let it go!

Try to remove the lodged item with your tongue. Sip water. If this does not work, excuse yourself from the table and go to the restroom, but do not announce why you are leaving. Just excuse yourself. It's a good idea to go to the restroom after the meal to check your teeth and freshen up. Toothpicks should be used discreetly and in private; never at the table.

If it went in with your fork, it should come out with your fork, as unobtrusively as possible. From your fork, place it on the rim of your plate. No one should notice you doing this, because the fork-to-mouth motion is a common one made by anyone who is eating. Any time something needs to be removed from your mouth, remove it by the same means (fork, spoon, fingers, etc.) that it went in.

Discreetly eat around the food and/or move it carefully to the side of the plate or bowl. Don't make a fuss, and don't remove it from the plate.

If your food needs to be warmer but is acceptable to eat, do eat it as is, rather than asking a server to take it away. However, if the food is not edible, politely and quietly ask the server to make a correction.

Be polite and say, "Fine, thank you," and smile when you say it.

It is permissible to rest your wrists on the edge of the table or place your hands in your lap, but no elbows on the table!

If you are allowed to choose your seat, choose a seat where you do not hit any other person's elbows.

You do not have to consume all the food on your plate. It is perfectly appropriate to leave some food unfinished on your plate, and you should not force yourself to overeat. However, if you have ordered your own choice of meal, and you leave a significant amount of food, you may appear wasteful or as though you made a poor judgment in ordering. Food waste is a significant problem in the U.S., so be mindful to avoid contributing to that problem. Particularly if you have asked for extra items or substitutions (which, if you are a guest, you should not generally do without good reason, such as food allergies), and if you then don't consume those items, you may appear picky and childish. Under no circumstances should you push the remaining food around on the plate.

Your fork and knife should be placed parallel to each other in the ten and four o'clock position (as on the face of a clock), with handles at 4:00 and tops of the utensils at 10:00. The fork is placed nearest to you, with the knife placed just behind it. The knife blade points toward you. Never place or rest any portion of the used utensils on the table. At no time, finished or otherwise, does a utensil lean on the plate or touch the table.

Typically in an interview situation, you are the guest and therefore the meal is paid for by the employer (whether the organization is a business, non-profit, educational institution, etc.). Your host will most likely pick up the check so you won't have to deal with it. Remember to thank your host for the meal at its conclusion.

If you really cannot make it through the meal, just excuse yourself and go to the rest room. Return when you are feeling better or have the server explain that you are not feeling well. Obviously this would be an awkward situation. You can rectify or smooth over this situation by writing a note of apology as soon as you are able afterward. Express regret that you had to depart during such a nice meal, and express regret that your illness may have disturbed the pleasant gathering.

  1. Remember the purpose of the meal.
  2. Follow the lead of your host or hostess.
  3. Be discreet.

Career and Professional Development does not own or maintain the websites linked below and we have no control over their content. We provide links as a service to students.

Etiquette includes the following and much more:

  • table manners 101
  • table setting
  • restaurant etiquette
  • business dining etiquette
  • international dining etiquette
  • toasts and toasting
  • eating everything from artichokes to watermelon
  • challenging dining situations
  • behavior to avoid at the table

Top ten table manners. [Emily]

Top ten etiquette tips for the business dinner or interview [Own the]