Opinion: The Dos and Don’ts of Dinner Etiquette in the 21st Century

Sponsored by the BOLD program, Albion College held an etiquette dinner in Baldwin Hall-Mary Sykes Room to prepare Albion College students attending dinner with employers. The Hall-Mary Sykes room eloquently plated the tables to provide students an area to practice their etiquette as they learned.(Photo by by Irene Corona-Avila).

On Thursday, Albion College held its annual etiquette dinner to teach students how to properly attend a formal dinner. The dinner was sponsored by the BOLD program, which is a recent Albion College campaign dedicated to help give students accessible opportunities to become the best and brightest students and adults after graduating from college.

Etiquette is a word I like to associate with wealth, but, as I learned from the Etiquette Dinner, it applies to everyone, regardless of social class. I did not know how important dinner etiquette can be when it comes to demonstrating professionalism.

In the modern day, it is common for an employer to interview an applicant at a restaurant, or if you already had an office interview, the employer can still take you out to a restaurant. During this time, you are still  under the interview process: so it is essential to know basic etiquette around your future employer. 

However, I do not believe etiquette needs to be as strict as the guide provided at the dinner. Is it necessary to know where to place your napkin? What if I accidentally place it on my seat after getting up to use the powder room?

I do not think that following such strict etiquette is the best representation of your qualities as an employee. You can still practice the strict etiquette guide and demonstrate poor working qualities. Good manners and politeness demonstrate your personality and how you interact with people, which I think is more important than knowing which knife to use. 

I attended the etiquette dinner partially because I was always curious to learn about dinner etiquette, but also just in case I plan on attending formal dinners later in life. 

After experiencing the etiquette dinner with many other students, I composed a United States’ guide (each country has different dinner etiquette, and at the Etiquette Dinner we learned about what is appropriate in the United States), based off what I learned in order to help students at job interviews and formal dinners.

A Guide to the United States’ Approach on Dinner Etiquette

Coffee “Date”

The coffee “date” is a new possible formal meeting with an employer. You want to arrive early to beat the person to the location, so make sure you know where you are going. Also, dress business casual. 

Once you arrive, purchase something small. The intention of a coffee “date” is to be short and sweet, so do not order too much. Once the other person arrives, offer to pick up his/her/their tab. Coffee “dates” do not include a full five course meal, so the tab should not be large.

Pay attention to social cues to end the conversation, especially when the other person becomes less engaged. Employers are busy and probably have somewhere else to be, so do not prolong the conversation. You probably want to tell him/her/them all of your strong qualities, but be sure to leave him/her/them with something to remember about you. 

Formal Dinner Etiquette

The first rule of etiquette is to RSVP for the dinner and hold yourself accountable to the RSVP. 

The most important  rule to dinner etiquette, however, is to always follow your host. As you arrive, search for your host, greet him/her/them and observe his/her/their movements. Do not sit down at the table or begin eating until your host does. It is also important to note that the host sets the standard for etiquette. 

The only exception to not eat before your host does is when you are served hot food. Hot food is meant to be consumed immediately, and it is rude to let your food get cold.

Other rules to abide by include: Never eat with your mouth full, and slow down while you’re eating. Never blow on your food. Taste your food before seasoning it, because this implies that you trust the chef’s decisions. Do not have your cell phone out, and if you use a toothpick, break it in half and dispose of it in a wastebasket.

Cocktail Hour

During a possible cocktail hour, appetizers are served along with alcoholic beverages. The purpose of the cocktail hour is to socialize with the attendees, so do not block the appetizer line. Instead, mingle with other attendees. 

Three different types of appetizers might be served: Canapés, hors d’œuvres and crudités. Canapés are finger foods. Hors d’œuvres are appetizers that require silverware and are usually consumed sitting down. Crudités are associated with a dip. After you dip your appetizer, wait three seconds before bringing it toward you to avoid a mess. 

Another tip during cocktail hour is to place your appetizers on a napkin if you choose two or less items or on a plate if you choose three or more items. If you have a plate, you can place your cup on top of your plate. As you mingle and eat, keep your food in your left hand to keep your right hand open for shaking hands. 


Plating at a formal dinner can be confusing and stressful, but hopefully these tips will ease your mind. 

Remember the “b” and “d” rules to decide which plates are yours: Make a “b” with your left hand and make a “d” with your right hand. The “b” stands for bread, so your bread plate will be on your left. The “d” stands for drinks, so your drinks will be on your right.

Provided cups are associated with specific beverages. A wine glass with a larger bowl is intended for red wine, while the wine glass with a smaller bowl is intended for white wine. Champagne is served in a tall, thin glass. An even smaller, thinner wine glass is for wine accompanying dessert. There might be a mug intended for coffee or tea on top of a small plate as well.

Usually, there are three plates in between the bread plate and the drinks. The biggest plate is just for decoration. The medium plate is a much finer plate for the main course. The smallest plate is meant to be used for appetizers.

When it comes to choosing silverware, use the outside-in rule: Begin with the outermost silverware and work your way in. The outermost fork is the smallest fork and is used for salads, which is usually the first meal of the five course meal. Then, as you proceed with your meals, you will use the next innermost fork. The utensil above the plate is meant to be used for your desert.

Dinner Etiquette

Placing the napkin on your lap (without tucking it into your shirt) signifies the beginning of the meal. The napkin should stay folded and placed on your right thigh. When cleaning up messes, you do not want to smear the mess with your napkin, but rather dab it with the napkin. If you are leaving and plan to come back, place your napkin on your chair. Placing the napkin to the right of your plate or on top of the plate signifies the waiter that you finished your meal. It would be tragic to come back from the bathroom with all of your plates gone.

When you are ordering, be smart about it. Out of etiquette and courtesy, do not order the most expensive item on the menu. Try to order what the restaurant primarily offers, such as fish at a seafood restaurant or steak at a steakhouse. If you are unsure on what to order, ask the waiter politely.

Ordering moves in a counterclockwise fashion. Knowing this, figure out when your turn will be and know what you want to order by that time. Do not be the person to ask the waiter to come back. 

You are playing a passing game, do not reach for items, rather ask for them to be passed. Passing anything around the table should also be counterclockwise. When you are passing salt or pepper, regardless if someone just wants salt, pass both counterclockwise.

Drinking beverages also requires a particular etiquette. Avoid chewing ice and  drinking beverages all the way down. These two actions imply that the waiters, by allowing you to sit with an empty glass, are not doing a good job. If you are served iced tea with lemon, squeeze the lemon appropriately towards your beverage to avoid squirting anyone. How embarrassing would it be if you accidentally squirt the employer in his/her/their eye? Then, place your lemon on the rim of your glassware for iced tea or  water or inside your water glass. 

If the beverage is served warm, hold the glassware by placing your hands on the bowl of the cup. If the beverage is served cold, hold the glassware by placing your hands on the stem. If you want coffee, place the cup up on your plate, and if you do not want coffee, place the cup upside down on the plate.

The bread provided is not an appetizer and should be consumed with the meal. This is especially important to frequent Olive Garden customers. Break a piece of bread and a piece of butter, and butter the piece of bread to properly eat bread. If the butter is wrapped, take the butter out of its wrapper and place the wrapper under the bread plate. Avoid taking the last roll of bread, no matter how tempted you might feel.

When eating soup, do not want to blow on it. If the soup is hot, wait a few minutes to let it cool down. When you begin eating, do not slurp it, but rather sip it. You are allowed to adjust the bowl in any way needed to get the last of the soup in the bowl. Hold your spoon with your index and your thumb, and hold it horizontally. 

As you are using your cutlery cut with your right hand and eat with your left hand with your fork facing down. If you are just eating with your spoon or fork, you place it on your right hand.

If your meal includes noodles, use a spoon to eat thick noodles and cut thin noodles with the knife provided. This is not Lady and the Tramp: We have hands not paws.

As the waiters are bringing your drinks and food, make sure to expect them to bring your drinks to your right and your food to your left. It may sound weird, but do not say “please” or “thank you” to your waiters. Their job is to make it appear as if they are not there to avoid interrupting your conversation with others. It is insulting to acknowledge your waiter by saying “please” and “thank you” because it means they are not doing their job. Just imagine you are at Hogwarts and they are wearing an invisibility cloak, and you just have floating food and drinks coming toward you.

The End 

As the primary rule says, follow your host. The dinner ends when the host is finished. When you are finished, leave your items where they are  and do not stack your plates. The waiters are not your grandma, they will not judge if you do not clean up your mess. Stacking plates makes the waiters’ jobs more complicated. The waiters have a set system to clean up the table as quickly and efficient as possible, so helping out by stacking your plates actually does not help. 

When it comes to tipping, keep in mind that waiters have a lower minimum wage than other jobs and rely on their tips, so be courteous when you are tipping, regardless if your host is paying. Tip waiters 15 to 20%, wine servers 15%, bartenders 10 to 15%, coat checkers one dollar per coat, car attendants two to five dollars each time. If you are at a coffee shop, tips in the tip jar are appropriate.

After dinner, send a thank you letter, preferably handwritten, to your host.

About Irene Corona-Avila 48 Articles
Irene is a fourth-year student and a prideful Georgia Peach from Atlanta. She is a biochemistry major with a minor in . Aside from running and writing, you can find Irene dancing freely or talking up a pun. She's currently reading a book on gravity, but she can't seem to put it down.

1 Comment

  1. Great article. I have personally seen the impact (positive, negative and worse) at dinner meetings. Understanding the culture of a dinner is as important as understanding any other culture and for good or bad, it impacts careers.

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