Dining etiquette: impress at formal gatherings

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Dining etiquette may seem irrelevant in the student world of pizza dinners in front of the TV, but not knowing the rules of proper etiquette could cost you your next job.

As part of Alumni Week in February, UVic held a dining etiquette course. Alumni and current UVic students were taught the dos and don’ts of how to behave at a business dinner — or at least dinner with your future in-laws.

Terry Cockerline, director of alumni relations at UVic, hosted the event. Cockerline was introduced to dining etiquette when he worked in the Ontario wine industry as a senior sales representative. Cockerline began giving dining etiquette presentations at universities in Southern Ontario. “I’m just a messenger,” he says. “I don’t make this stuff up.”

Knowing how to behave in dinner situations can be crucial for your image and your future. “Dining etiquette is a visual sign of our professional manners,” says Cockerline. “What you do at the table is a representation of who you are going to be as an employee.”

Here is a brief summary of what Cockerline covered in his presentation:

The Napkin

Once all guests are seated at the table, take your napkin, fold its top third down and drape it across your lap, with the fold facing down, close to your waist. To wipe your mouth with the napkin, pick it up, flip the folded part away from you, wipe your mouth, flip it back and place it back on your lap. The most important thing to remember about the napkin is to never put it back on the table. If you have to leave the table, place the napkin on the seat of your chair. However, leaving the table during dinner should be avoided at all costs, says Cockerline, and is considered a serious offence.

The Utensils

“Keep the utensils in the same order they appear on the table,” Cockerline says. The salad fork is on the far left, then the dinner fork. The soup spoon is on the far right, followed by the dinner spoon and the dinner knife. When there are multiple utensils, work from the outside in.

To hold your cutlery properly, keep your palms flat and put the utensils diagonally across your palms so they’re resting on your index fingers, then flip your hands over. This ensures that the fork tines are pointing down; to do otherwise, Cockerline says, is a sign of hostility — an impression you do not want to give off when applying for a new job.

There are two styles of eating: American and Continental. While both are acceptable, you must not switch between styles during the meal.

American-style: Hold the fork in your left hand, tines pointing down, and the knife in your right hand. Cut one bite then rest the knife diagonally on the top right of your plate. Switch the fork to your right hand and eat. This style requires switching hands many times, as Cockerline says it is not proper to cut more than one bite at a time. In American-style resting position, place the fork and knife on either side of the plate, fork tines down.

Continental-style: Holding the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right, cut one bite of food and eat with the fork tines pointing down the entire time. This style requires no switching of hands; both utensils remain in your hands. In resting position, place the fork on an angle in the top left-hand corner, tines down and the knife on an angle in the top right-hand corner.

For both styles, to indicate you are finished eating, lay the fork and knife diagonally on the right-hand side of the plate, fork tines down, pointing toward the centre of the plate.

The Bread

In order to save you from the embarrassment of taking your boss’s bread plate instead of your own, Cockerline demonstrated a useful trick. Hold your hands in front of you under the table and make okay signs with your thumbs and index fingers touching. Your left hand will form the letter b and your right hand the letter d indicating that your bread plate is on the left, and your drink is on the right.

No matter how much you want the bread, resist the temptation to be the first to reach for it. If you do pick up the bread basket first, you must pass it around to your left without taking one for yourself first. “The trick is to outwait the person on your right,” says Cockerline.

The Soup

“Soup is a one-handed journey,” says Cockerline. “At no time should you touch your bowl.” Scoop only the cooler top layer of soup (no blowing allowed) away from you, and bring the soup to your mouth using your right hand. “The trick is to not fill your spoon,” Cockerline says. The last thing you want to do is to spill hot soup all over yourself.

The Salad

Salads are meant to be eaten entirely with a fork. However, if your host uses their knife with the salad, then you may as well.

The Entrée 

When the entrée is served, you are allowed to touch the plate once, says Cockerline. “You can turn it or adjust it, but you have one shot to get it right.”

The Dessert

For the dessert, Cockerline gives three options of eating: with the dessert spoon, the dessert fork or both. When using both, the fork stays in your left hand, and the spoon acts as a knife, in your right hand. Cut the dessert with the spoon and pick it up with the fork.

Cockerline says that the most important principle of etiquette is to be conscious and alert of what you’re doing. So the next time you go out with your friends, practise a few of these tips; they just might come in handy when trying to land your dream job one day.


Top five dining mistakes

  1. Talking with food in your mouth
  2. Not giving your dining guests your full attention
  3. Consuming too much alcohol
  4. Discussing inappropriate topics (politics, religion and controversial issues)
  5. Eating from the wrong plate

Basic table manners: ordering

  1. When in doubt, follow the host
  2. Don’t order the most expensive item on the menu
  3. Avoid finger foods or foods that are difficult to eat
  4. In general, don’t order alcohol at a business meal
  5. Declare food allergies to the server as early as possible
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