Five faux pas at the dining table
Written by Jo BryantThe English Manner, The UK’s Leading Etiquette and Protocol Training Institute 310 310
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Described by The Telegraph as ‘the empress of etiquette’, Jo joined The English Manner in 2019 from Debrett’s, where she spent over a decade as a tutor and the editor of more than fifteen acclaimed books on etiquette and modern manners.Connect with Jo Bryant on LinkedIn Follow Jo Bryant on Instagram
4 September 2023
In over a decade of teaching dining etiquette courses, I have seen some classic table faux pas repeatedly, both as an etiquette coach and socially.
How many of these are you or your friends guilty of committing?
It may be a delicious meal, or you may be short of time, but it’s bad manners to race ahead of your dining companions and be the first one with an empty plate.
Pace yourself with the rest of the guests at the table. This may mean speeding up or slowing down and taking a break. Don’t be the first or the last person to finish – that is the host’s prerogative (see below).
Guests shouldn’t be the first to start. An unspoken rule is that everyone watches each other, picks up their cutlery and tucks in at roughly the same time, taking their cues from their host.
The host’s role is important: they set the pace and should be the first to pick up their cutlery and signal to guests to start. Similarly, the host should finish last so that no guest feels they have eaten too slowly.
Attend to both of your neighbours. This may be pouring water or offering sauces, gravy and the like (before you serve yourself, naturally).
Converse with both sides during the meal and check that everyone has someone to talk to – if one side has been left stranded by you and their other neighbour, get them to join in your conversation.
In days gone by, the host spoke first to the person sitting to their right (the principal guest), and the rest of the table followed suit. Later in the meal, the host switched sides to talk to the person on their left and, again, everyone copied. This protocol is no longer imposed (outside of palace walls), but it can be loosely applied.
It’s a key technique we try as hard as possible to teach during our dining etiquette courses and one that students can easily learn with practice.
When it comes to drinks, the rule is simple. You can help yourself to water but never pour yourself (or anyone else) wine unless you are the host.
This is most relevant in a private house when, even if there are bottles or decanters of wine on the table or your glass has been empty for a while, you don’t pour any. Guests should wait for their host to refill their glasses; alternatively, the host may tell them to help themselves.
A note to hosts: be sure to keep guests well topped-up.
Once everyone is seated at the table, they should stay there for as long as possible. It is bad manners to leave the table unless absolutely necessary. If you do need to get down, do so quietly and discreetly. Wait until the course it is cleared; never get down mid-dish.
Of course, nature may call, but try to wait for as long as possible – preferably until after the main course so you do not break the table’s natural rhythm and the kitchen’s flow.
Other reasons may be to check your telephone but, again, wait as long as possible and never check it at the table. If you need to smoke or vape, then the advice is clear: prioritise the meal and your host’s generosity, and wait until after the meal is over to spark up.
Join Jo Bryant and William Hanson for our next Dining Masterclass in central London.