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The Saturday Evening Post Book Review: Etiquette for Dummies by Sue Fox

By Staff, The Saturday Evening Post – 09/01/2000 – 12:00am

Issue: Sept, 2000

You are enjoying a dinner party when, suddenly, you are called away from the table. What should you do with your napkin?

  1. Take it with you.
  2. Place it on your chair.
  3. Put it lightly folded to the left of your dinner plate.
  4. Ask your neighbor to hold it for you until you return.

If you already know the correct answer, consider yourself an etiquette pro. You may not even need to go out and buy a copy of Sue Fox’s book, Etiquette for Dummies. Then again, this author–who is founder and president of Etiquette Survival, Inc.–knows much about what is tasteful and what is not at the dinner table, right down to the daintiest details.

How, for instance, should one eat a large stuffed olive? In two bites, rather than one, Fox says. Or the salient point of etiquette when eating with chopsticks? “Never point, gesture, or talk” while using them, she cautions.Not only is it outre, it could be dangerous.

Polite dining at the table, Fox explains, is one of the behaviors that sets human beings apart from animals (as anyone who has ever slopped hogs will readily agree). No matter, the human animal is the one most often guilty of the ten most common dining sins, which Fox helpfully points out:

  1. Speaking too loudly
  2. Playing with your hair or earrings, or touching your face and head
  3. Pushing away the plate or bowl when finished
  4. Eating too fast or too slowly
  5. Using cell phones and pagers while dining
  6. Using poor posture
  7. Leaving your purse, keys, sunglasses, or eyeglasses on the table
  8. Leaning your elbows on the table
  9. Picking your teeth
  10. Talking with food in your mouth and chewing with your mouth open.

After you have eliminated these faux pas from your dining repertoire, it’s time to focus on technique, something that we all might work harder at after we have cast aside our baby spoons. In the United States and Canada, the accepted technique for cutting rood is the zigzag, Fox explains.

After cutting one or two pieces of steak or whatever (never the whole shebang), you lay the knife on the plate near the top with the cutting edge facing in, then switch the fork to your right hand. Most of us have that part down. But where do you place your knife and fork when they are not in use and you haven’t finished your meal? The answer is the “rest position,” with fork at a ten o’clock position through the center of the plate and the knife lying parallel to it but several inches to the northeast. Don’t put them too close together in the middle of the plate (the “all done” position), or else an overeager server may whisk them away prematurely.

Once you take up fork and knife, they should ideally never touch the table again during the meal. It’s bad form to leave your utensils with their handles on the table and their tips propped on the plate.

This advice applies as well to the European, or Continental, dining technique in which the left hand holds the fork and the right the knife. In this case, the rest position has the knife and fork crossed in the middle of the plate with the tines of the fork facing down. The “all done” position has the handles extending off the plate (but not on the table) and the fork, tines down, crossing over the tip of the knife at the eight-and-two and ten-and-four o’clock positions (see illustration).

Whether you’re eating American or European style, Fox cautions, “Remember not to wave your utensils around while you’re talking. You’re not conducting an orchestra!”

Should the breadbasket be sitting in front of you, it’s your responsibility to begin passing it to the person on your right. You are not to help yourself until the bread comes back to you (if there is any left by that time).

As for soup, spoon it away from you … then sip from the side–not the point–of the spoon. When finished, do not leave the spoon in the cup or bowl; place it on the saucer or plate beneath.

Gender Relations

We could go on about table manners, but they are only one area where we must watch our p’s and q’s. Gender relations, especially these days, are another etiquette minefield through which the author leads us safely. Believe it or not, “gentlemanly courtesy” is still in vogue, according to Ms. Fox. Yet it varies with the situation. When walking along city streets, for example, a man should walk on the street side to keep a woman from being splashed, unless the neighborhood is potentially unsafe; then he should walk on the building side to
keep her from being mugged. When entering an elevator, the man should go first to clear the way. A man should precede a woman when walking down stairs (presumably so that the man can catch her if she stumbles). But if you are sharing an umbrella, the taller of the two should hold the umbrella. And men, “when dealing with a woman who is unable to accept a man’s courtesies gracefully, consider her unpleasantness as a failing on her part, not on yours.” So there!

Don’t Trip Over the Net

In another chapter, Fox addresses the polite navigation of cyberspace, otherwise known as the rules of “etiquette.” If you are a stickler for spelling and grammar, corresponding on the Internet can be an excruciating experience. But it’s bad manners to “gloat, taunt, or lord it over” others when pointing out someone’s spelling or grammar error.

“If someone writes `compleat’ instead of `complete,’ is it really necessary to say anything?” Fox asks.

“Probably not.” Correcting everyone else (even though you know you’re right) “can be downright annoying and rude in and of itself!” Besides, your correction might easily contain a grammar gremlin of its own, a frequent occurrence in Internet “flaming contests.”

Another net suggestion: DON’T WRITE IN ALL CAPS because, writes Fox, “IT LOOKS AS IF YOU ARE SHOUTING.”

It’s All in the Hands

Back in the bricks-and-mortar world, face-to-face contacts also have etiquette repercussions, especially in business, where fortunes may hang on a handshake. Ms. Fox describes blow by blow how to deliver that handshake just right: “You should grip the other person’s hand so that the webs of your thumbs meet. Shake firmly just a couple of times and end the handshake cleanly, before the introduction is over. You perform this motion from the elbow, not the shoulder. A good handshake is held for three or four seconds.” (You might want to practice this at home.)

Making introductions is another area of rampant etiquette shortcomings. Even though the practice is more casual these days than in the past, “a few rules do persist,” Fox says.

A. “Always introduce the lower-ranking person to the higher-ranking person…. Introducing your boss to a junior colleague is a breach of etiquette.”

B. “Always present a man to a woman. (In business, this rule applies only if she holds a more prestigious position than he does.)”

C. “In the case of two women or two men, who is introduced to whom doesn’t make a difference, unless one person is much older, such as an elderly grandmother. In that case, present the younger person to the older person.”

D. “Introduce the younger person to the older one out of respect.”

Be prepared to shake hands with anyone you meet, Fox says. But don’t make the common mistake of saying, “Pleased to meet you” when you first meet someone. “The only correct way to acknowledge an introduction is to say, `How do you do?’ Try not to say, `Pleased to meet you,’ `My pleasure,’ or `Pleased to make your acquaintance,’ because these statements may not be true after you get to know the person.”

We won’t repeat here in gritty detail Fox’s advice on sneezing, belching, indigestion, and barfing. It might not be polite. However, her counsel on spilling and tipping (as in tipping over the salt) is also instructive and includes this caution to men about the propriety of certain mopping-up operations:

“There are, in some circumstances, quick-thinking men who are willing to rush to the rescue of a woman dampened by a careless spill. Well-motivated though he may be, a gentleman should not mop off a lady’s dampened clothing with a handy napkin. In the excitement of the rescue, unwanted familiarities may ensue. In other words, hands off, guys.”

Which returns us to the subject of the dinner napkin and its proper use. It is unnecessary to fully open a large napkin, Fox notes; just fold it in half. You can, however, completely open a smaller luncheon napkin. But, “no matter what the occasion, you should not flap your napkin around like a flag before placing it in your lap, and men should not tuck their napkins into their shirts like a bib,” Fox writes. Also, NEVER use a napkin to wipe off lipstick or to blow your nose!

And when you do have to leave the table during a meal, the proper place to leave your napkin is (B), on your chair.

If you missed this one, Etiquette for Dummies is available in the dummies section at most bookstores. This book can give you added confidence in many social situations at home and at work. Not only is Etiquette for Dummies an entertaining and useful guide to improved manners, it may also make you laugh. Just don’t laugh with your mouth full!


The finish position in American-style dining.

When you are finished with a course, place your knife and fork on your plate at the angle shown. This position means you are finished.

On a clock, it would look like the 10:20 position. Tips of knife and fork at the ten, and ends of handles at the four.

The rest position in American-style dining.

Use it if you are talking, drinking, using your napkin.

The rest position in European-style dining.

The knife and fork are crossed on the plate, fork on top, tines pointed down.

On a clock, the tines of the fork face two, and the handle faces eight. The tip of the knife faces the ten, and the handle faces the four. This position means you are not finished yet!

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COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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