Ace elevated business dinners, family celebrations, and birthday cocktails with these tips, courtesy of etiquette experts.
place settings at restaurant
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The idea of dining etiquette may sound like a stuffy relic from the early days of the last century, but good manners have their place even at the most modern table. "When we have knowledge of etiquette—which could basically be summarized as the dos and don'ts of behavior—it takes the pressure off," says etiquette coach Maggie Oldham. "We don't have to wonder how to behave appropriately, and it allows us to focus on the more important parts of the dining experience: enjoying a nice meal with friends, family, or business colleagues and clients."

Whether you're the host or a guest at a friend's birthday dinner, a celebratory family brunch, or a key business dinner, the below tips will help you feel comfortable and confident every time you sit down at the table.

Where to Sit

In most situations, you'll know where to sit: "Where the host asks you to!" says Oldham. "And if you're the host, be prepared to provide guidance to your guests."

Should you find yourself awkwardly standing around a place card-free table with the rest of your party, ask the host for help or choose any seat—except one. "Typically, if you are not the host or guest of honor—for example, the birthday girl—do not sit at the head of the table," says Oldham.

When to Order a Cocktail

Whether it's appropriate to order a cocktail varies by situation—you should probably skip tequila shots at a bridal luncheon, for example—so follow the lead of your host. "If they order a glass of wine and offer one to you, then it's okay to also order a glass of wine," says etiquette expert Myka Meier, whose East Coast manners speaking tour begins in October.

"Remember, if they are hosting you and therefore paying, you never want to be seen as taking advantage of this situation," she says. While you don't need to order the exact cabernet your host chose if you prefer a pinot grigio, you should opt for something in a similar price range. "If the host orders a glass of wine, you order a glass of wine or a cocktail," says Oldham, "but do not order a $95 split of Veuve Clicquot!"

What to Eat

If you're not sure whether you should be considering the surf-and-turf entrée or the burger with fries, let the person who's paying order first. "You can do this by stalling—try, 'Hmm, I'm still deciding,'" says Oldham. "Listen to what the host orders, and order something in a similar price range. If the host orders a $30 pasta dish, do not order the $75 filet."

This technique also works for brunch with your in-laws or a business dinner, says Meier. "You would not want to order a three-course meal if they are only ordering one course each," she says. "And you do not ever want to order the most expensive thing on the menu when someone else is likely treating you."

Where to Put Your Phone

Traditional etiquette, says Meier, is that "nothing goes on the top of the table unless it's a part of the meal—meaning no phones, wallets, handbags or sunglasses." Put it in your pocket or otherwise out of sight, silence it, and if you do receive an urgent call, excuse yourself from the table before answering.

If you have reason to expect a call, says Oldham—for example, if your tween is home alone for the first time; you hired a new babysitter; or you have a relative in the hospital—let the rest of your dining partners know in advance. And don't bring out tissues, lip gloss, or a mirror from your handbag during the meal, either: "No personal grooming at the table," says Oldham. "Applying hand sanitizer or lipstick, blowing your nose, or pulling your hair back should be done in the restroom."

Understanding Place Settings and Cutlery

Short answer: Yes. "The placement of glassware and cutlery hasn't changed for 100-plus years," says Oldham. "Forks on the left, knives and spoon on the right; glasses to the upper right of the main plate, bread plate to the left of the main plate. This is important because you don't want to grab someone else's!"

When we all know which water glass and bread plate is ours, she says, we avoid the awkward situation of drinking from someone else's glass—and having to request a new one. And if you're faced with multiple forks and knives? Simply work your way in, using the outermost utensil for the first course, and so on.

Pass to the Right or Left

One rule has relaxed slightly, though, she says: "It used to be that the appropriate etiquette was to always pass to the right," says Oldham of shared appetizers, family-style platters, and bread baskets. "Now, we etiquette experts tell our clients that it doesn't really matter, as long as the dish is passed in a circle and everyone receives it." If you start the passing, go to the right; if someone else starts the circle going left, you don't need to interrupt the flow and make everyone switch directions.

Paying vs. Splitting the Tab

"Whoever invites and hosts is typically the one who pays, meaning if someone chose the restaurant and invited you, they chose something within their budget," says Meier. This is true for dates, business dinners—where the salesperson is most often the person who suggested the meal—and for birthday dinners where the host is treating.

How to Share the Bill

Of course, splitting the tab is an option, too—and offering to share the cost of meal is the right thing to do. "In some instances, the group may chip in to pay to take out and treat the birthday VIP," says Meier. "Unless the person expressly says they are treating you, I think it's a nice gesture to offer to pay when the bill comes in many instances, so it's not seen as expectant."

When you planned to host but your guest would like to contribute, says Oldham, you can accept. "If your dinner guest offers to pay, you can politely decline their offer once," she says, "but if they insist, then offer to split the tab."


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