The etiquette talk was an important part of the evenings and we started with a bit of definition.
Simply put, etiquette is the code of rules which a society holds to establish expected behavior. My talk is exclusively about etiquette at dinner and in western Europe and the United States which, for the most part, agree on what those rules should be. There are, of course, many geographic and ethnic traditions which differ in some ways from the rules I am describing and it is certainly correct to follow them when the circumstances call for it.
To start with, I’m the first to agree that the list of rules on table etiquette is a long list. The question might be, are they all necessary? The answer is that for each rule there is a reason. It might be safety or cleanliness, simple expedience or perhaps just to make dining a more attractive and pleasant experience. And I always say that one additional rule should be included. That is that anything you do that breaks a rule to make a guest more comfortable and the general atmosphere more congenial, isn’t breaking a rule at all, but doing exactly as you should. When I said this the other night, one of my guests said that she read somewhere that while Queen Elizabeth was entertaining a foreign guest at dinner, he did something out-of-the-ordinary so she immediately followed his lead to be sure he did not feel he had done something “improper”. A perfect example, just what I meant. In any case, it is certainly true that knowing the rules makes you feel more confident and at ease in any company and you may then choose which rules you wish to follow and which you wish to ignore.
Perhaps the best advice for anyone unsure of the rules is to be guided by your hostess. There is always a hostess at lunch or dinner or tea unless it is an all-male gathering. A single man giving a dinner party should ask someone to take that role, the job of seeing that everything happens as it should and making everyone feel comfortable. Simply put, nobody should do anything before the hostess does, so all you have to do is to watch her and follow her lead.
Before we moved to the dining room, I talked about seating arrangements. Long ago when noblemen and their families and their servants and quite possibly a large group of knights and squires and other assorted people occupied a castle or great house, they would all eat in the large hall and everyone knew his place, be it at the center of the high table or below the salt at the other end. In the very early 1800’s when the servants ate separately and the new smaller dining rooms held a group of more equally ranked society, guests chose their seats as they arrived into the room, although they did arrive in a strict order of precedence. Nowadays, I find that guests are usually more comfortable when given some direction as to the seating. One way to do this is to simply say, “Mr. So-and-So, won’t you sit here to my right and, Mrs. So-and-So, just across the way, etc.” Tradition dictates that the guest of honor is immediately to the right of the hostess if she is at the foot of the table with second honors going to the place immediately to the right of the host at the head of the table. If the host and hostess are seated together in the center of the table, then their guests flank them on either side. Another nice way to indicate places is using place cards with the guests’ names, leaving them to find their own places. With place cards, the guests should believe that the hostess has given care to the seating arrangement and the place cards should never be rearranged no matter how much you prefer not to sit across from your ex-mother-in law.
Once we go into the dining room, it is not considered polite to leave until the meal is finished, absolutely not until after the main course, and much better not until after the dessert unless it is an emergency. A visit to the ladies room is not considered an emergency so best to plan ahead. If it is truly an emergency, no explanation should be given. Simply say, ”Please excuse me.”, place your napkin on your chair, rise, and push the chair under the table.
To be continued….