Manner Monday®: Napkin Etiquette

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Q:  “I was always taught to put my napkin neatly on the table when I excuse myself, either to go to the restroom, or when I was finished eating but still chatting at the table.  Recently a friend mentioned that putting your napkin on the table is actually rude?  I do know that in better restaurants the waiter will pick it up and drape it over the chair until the diner returns.  So just what is the correct napkin etiquette?   Thank you!” – Kathleen

A:  First off, many people may not know the intricacies of Silverware Sign Language TM.  Not to mention that different Etiquette Experts have different opinions on the topic (Emily Post and Letitia Baldridge, are two of the most famous who don’t agree), so I wouldn’t say placing your napkin on the table is rude.  And unless it was a REALLY good friend who pointed this out – they’d actually be the one to fall under the ‘rude’ category for bringing it up and making you feel uncomfortable.  Manners and Etiquette is more about making people feel at ease than focusing on the rules.

So now to answer your question, here’s my take on the topic:  When leaving the table during the meal, place your napkin on your chair (on the seat, over the arm, or over the back), this signals ‘I’ll be back’.  My theory is that your neighbors don’t want to look at a dirty napkin while they’re still enjoying their meal.   And yes, in finer restaurants, many waiters will pick up the napkin (no matter where you’ve left it), gently fold it and reposition it to their preferential waiting place.  Once you are completely finished with your meal, placing your napkin on the table signals, ‘I’m finished’.  A general rule is to gently fold your napkin keeping the soiled spots out of sight, instead of just wading it up into and tossing it in a jumbled pile. If your plate has been removed, you can place the napkin in the center where the plate was.  If your plate is still in position, gently place your napkin to the ‘left’ of your plate.  An easy way to remember going to the left, if you have a coffee cup it would be on the right – so there would be ‘no room in the inn’ for your napkin.

A few other napkin tips:

  • Place your napkin in your lap as soon as you are seated.  The custom of waiting for the hostess is reserved for formal affairs.
  • If you’re wearing dark colored pants or skirt, it is perfectly acceptable to ask if the restaurant has a dark napkin. Often a white napkin will leave lint marks on your clothing.  Some of the finer restaurants will be proactive in making this happen before you have a chance to ask.
  • Your napkin should be placed on your lap, not tucked into your shirt collar or tied around your neck (unless you’re a toddler and mom forgot the bib).
  • If you have a large dinner sized napkin, leave it folded in half, with the fold at your waist.  Much less material to deal with and it makes it so much easier to manage.
  • Ladies with lipstick, be consistent when picking up your napkin and dab with the same spot, this helps to keep lipstick stains corralled in the same area and keeps your napkin from looking like something found at the scene of a crime.
  • If your napkin falls on the floor, leave it.  Not only is the floor extremely filthy, but if you bend down to retrieve it, your head gets precariously near your neighbors lap – and all I’m going to say is ‘awkward’.  The waiter will happily bring you a new napkin.
  • If you accidentally make a big spill on the table – hopefully the waiter is near by to help save the day.  But if not, you can easily put a ‘bandaid’ on the spill by moving your plate, glassware, etc., and then placing your napkin over the mess.  Reset your place setting, apologize, and then move on.  Don’t keep bringing up the accident.  Trust me – it happens to everyone at some point and time… move on and try to forget about it.

In the grand scheme of things… just make sure to use a napkin!  And along those lines, Emily Post said it best, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.

Do you have a ‘manner’ or question you would like to see covered next week in Manner Monday?  Feel free to send me your thoughts, I would love to hear from you.

My goal is to help my students (both youth and adults) to feel more comfortable and confident in the social and professional skills; do you know someone who would enjoy this post?  If so, please share it and encourage them to sign up to receive Manner Monday?  I would appreciate it!  And if you’re new to Manner Monday, I’d love for you to take a minute to learn more about why I started it. You can click here to read my very first post that tells all about it.

Thanks for reading!
Carey Sue

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