Napkin Etiquette

"The main point that should be made about table linens is that there should be some, and paper doesn't count" (Martin).

Napkin basics

  In a formal setting, your napkin will be located on your plate or to the left of your plate.  Informal table settings may be more whimsical and you may find your napkin in either of those two positions, but also may appear above your plate, in your water goblet or wine glass, or in some other decorative container. Regardless, your napkin should be located within the confines of your place setting.
  Typically, place your napkin in your lap as soon you sit down.  At a very formal dinner, you place your napkin in your lap when the hostess does.
  The napkin remains in your lap during the entire meal.
  Napkin rings are not used for formal dining.  The original purpose of the napkin ring (to reunite a user with a previously used and yet unlaundered napkin) has been replaced.  Napkin rings are now most often encountered in casual dining, where the napkin ring is a decorative accessory used to add fun and/or theme to the table.  When a napkin ring is set at the table, the point of the napkin is toward the diner.  The napkin is removed from the top.  The napkin ring is placed in the top left area of the setting.  You do not need to return your napkin to the ring, but you may wish to follow the lead of the host(ess).
  Do not vigorously pop or shake out your napkin. 
  If the napkin is a breakfast or luncheon sized napkin unfold it completely.  If the napkin is a dinner napkin, it should remain folded in half lengthwise.
  Most napkins are square, but some are rectangular.  A 10 to 12 inch napkin is used for breakfast or tea.  A napkin 14 to 16 inches is used for a luncheon.  Napkins in the range of 18 to 20 inches are used for simple or casual dinners.  Large napkins, 22 to 26 inches, are used for formal multi course meals.
  In formal dining, the fabric of the napkins should be compatible with the fine, smooth texture of the formal table cloth.  Napkins with interesting textures or elaborate decorations are more suited for informal dining.
  In formal dining, napkins should match the color of the table cloth (typically white, off-whites or shades of ivory or ecru).  Contrasting and patterned napkins are used for informal dining.
  Do not be surprised if your light colored place napkin is whisked about by the host(ess). During fine dining, you may be supplied with an dark napkin if you are wearing dark clothing.

Leaving the Table during the Meal

  Do not leave the table during the meal unless necessary.
  If you must leave, you will find yourself facing an etiquette controversy.  The underlying principle, is that guests should not be subjected to your soiled linens.  The least controversial approach appears to be to leave your napkin, soiled side down to the left of your dinner plate. Some recommend placing your napkin on your chair, but others find this gravely offensive, as you might soil the host(ess) dining chair. 
  In very fine restaurants, your napkin will be replaced if you must leave the table.

Leaving the Table at the End of  Meal

  Your host or hostess will signal the end of the meal by placing his or her napkin on the table to the left of his/her dinner plate.
  You should place your napkin neatly next to your plate or if the plates have already been removes, you may place in in the center of the setting.  Never put your napkin on your dinner plate. You should neither refold nor wad up the napkin.

Napkin Errors

  Never tuck a napkin to your shirt, belt, waistband or between buttons.
  Never wipe your mouth with your napkin.  You may gently blot your mouth with your napkin.
  Never dip your napkin or fingers in your water glass. 
  Never spit anything into your napkin.  Never dispose of "unpleasantries" in a cloth napkin.  If you do not like the taste of something you have just put in your mouth, be adult and eat it anyway. Typically, if you discover something inedible in your mouth (e.g. a fish bone, a fruit pit, a piece of gristle) you should remove  it (as "dry" as possible) with the same utensil that delivered it (which may be your hand).  Place it on the edge of your dinner plate (not your bread plate).  See various food rules for more details.

Finger Bowls and Hot Towels

  Never dip your napkin into a finger bowl.  Finger bowls are most commonly provided following a hands-on meal or between courses.  If they are provided, dip your fingers into the bowl, one hand at a time, and dry your fingers on your napkin. 
  Hot towels may be brought to the table.  Hot towels are most commonly provided following a hands-on meal (such as lobster or crab). These are held in tongs and given to the diners.  The towel is used to wipe your hands.  It is allowable to blot areas around your mouth with the towel.  The table is not a sauna - do not wipe your entire face and do not put the towel around your neck or behind your ears.  Typically, the towels are promptly collected by the staff, so as to avoid the placement of the towel onto the table.  The server may wait for you to finish.  However, if the towels are not immediately collected, you may place the towel onto of your napkin to the left of your plate.  It should be placed such that the table cloth remains dry.

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Copyright Dr. Nancy D. Albers-Miller, All Rights Reserved