If you’re here then you have heard of napkin etiquette and you are potentially about to meet the in-laws or attend a gala dinner! We will walk you through the do’s and don’ts as simply as possible.
Cloth napkins come in several sizes, each size tailored to a specific use:
A beverage napkin, used when serving drinks and hors d’oeuvres, like most cloth napkins, is square, about five inches to each side. A luncheon napkin is a couple of inches larger, and a dinner napkin larger still. The theory, evidently, is that the more food and drink that is served, the more potential there is for spillage, so the bigger the napkin must be to catch it!
Cloth napkins may be purchased in a rainbow of colours and a variety of fabrics, imprinted with custom designs and monograms, and can even come with matching tablecloths. However, a high-thread-count, white, linen or linen-cotton mix damask napkin is still considered the zenith of elegance.
Whether the napkin is cloth or paper, when in company, a napkin is to be used with a measure of etiquette, so as not to offend other diners.
Rule 1: When you’re given a napkin, use it. Don’t let it sit beside your plate. It was given to you for wiping your face when you need to and to protect your lap from spills.
Rule 2: Wait for the host to pick up and unfold his napkin before you do the same with yours.
Rule 3: If the napkin is larger than your lap, fold it such that it just covers your lap.
Rule 4: Where occasions require such etiquette, movements at the dinner table tend to be small, so don’t make any ostentatious displays like wildly shaking the napkin to open it. Just unfold it. And when you wipe your mouth, don’t use the napkin as you would a wash cloth during your morning shower; gently dab at your mouth!
Rule 5: Don’t wait for the food to be served before you open your napkin. Should your napkin still be sitting on the table when the food arrives, the server may have to create space to set your plate.
Rule 6: Should you have to leave the table during the meal, leave the napkin, loosely folded, on your seat or on the table to the left of your plate. Also put the loosely folded napkin to the left of your plate when you’re done eating, never on the plate.
Rule 7: The place for a napkin? On your lap. It is not tucked into your pants, nor does it belong tucked into your shirt collar. However, if you are in a milieu where that kind of behaviour is acceptable, don’t be afraid to go along. For example, diners from Southern Italy (or southern New Jersey) have long known that a bowl of spaghetti topped with marinara sauce can be better enjoyed when you don’t have to worry about the red stuff splattering on your shirt. Many Italian and Italian-American diners therefore tuck the napkin into their collars as a matter of course. Feel free to do the same.
When and if in doubt, observe but don’t fret, society today rarely calls for such demands!