That’s My Bread Plate: Primer on Dining

Let’s just get this out of the way first: I have no formal training in etiquette. So, take this advice for precisely what it is: a mixture of practical observations from a lot of corporate travelling and a fair bit of research on the “rules.”

Someone may be judging you on which fork you are using, but that is doubtful, especially in the Pacific Northwest.  People are watching whether you have good manners overall: how you carry yourself and how you engage with others, including the wait staff. The primary focus of etiquette is to set others at ease. If you can focus on that, the rest will flow naturally.

Without further ado, here are 6 tips to rock your next dinner party:

1. Following the Leader, the Leader, the Leader
The host of the table is the conductor of the symphony: follow their lead, and you’ll stay in the melody. When you arrive at the dinner, wait until they invite you to sit at the table. When you are at the table, wait for the host to eat, drink, or basically do anything. You are welcome to sip on water before the host, but that’s about it.

2. Just like a Book
Food moves around the table the same way you read words in a book: from the left to right. If you are eating family style, offer the dish to the person on your left, and then pass it to your right. At a restaurant, the wait staff will serve your food on your left, and take it away on your right.

3. BMW
Bread. Meal. Water. Your bread plate is on the left and your water (and all your beverage glasses) will be on your right. Your meal, of course, is in the middle.

4. Eat with Your Hands
A select number of foods can be eaten with your hands. I know it seems crazy, so I’m going to go ahead and quote the experts on this one. (

Here are some (but not all) of the foods you can eat with your fingers: Artichokes, sushi, corn on the cob (though at a formal dinner it should be cut off the cob and served in a bowl), and bread. For bread, put the butter on your plate. Then, tear off a bite-sized bit, place a bit of butter on it, and pop the whole piece in your mouth.

5. A Fork in the Road
I have rarely seen a table set with more than two forks and spoons, but some particularly thorough dinner parties may just get zealous with their flatware and then you are faced with a scene like what you see below. Aye! What to do. Option 1, just follow your host. They tend to know which fork to use. Or, Option 2, simply work from the outside in. The cutlery at the top of your plate will be for dessert, so save some room if you see that magical little fork and spoon waiting at the top of your plate.


5. Make Bridges, not Ramps
Once you have started eating, your flatware should not touch the table again. In between bites, put your fork and knife down on your plate with the edges extending off the edge, but not touching the table: make bridges, not ramps. When you are done eating, place the cutlery together inside the rim of your plate at the angle of 10 and 4. This will let the wait staff know you are done eating.

6. Inedible Morsels
For this sticky section, it is worth mentioning again that the purpose of etiquette is to set others at ease. Therefore, it is up to you to do whatever you can to make dinner a pleasant experience for your fellow diners. If you find a hair in your food, discreetly tell the wait staff in a way that does not create a ruckus or ruin the appetites of those around you.

If you end up with a bone or some other inedible morsel in your mouth, the rule is that it should exit your mouth the same way it went in. If the bite went in with a fork, the bone should come out with a fork, as discreetly as possible, and placed on the corner of your plate. Note, as much as you may be tempted, morsels of inedible food should NOT be spit into your napkin.

Because Grandma is Always Right

Before we end this primer on dining etiquette, here’s a quick review of some tidbits you may or may not remember learning in childhood.

1. Take small bites and wait to speak until you’ve finished chewing

2. Ask for food to be passed rather than reaching for something across the table

3. If someone asks for something, don’t use it first
This I learned from Kenny and Rudy etiquette training

4. Cut your food into bite size pieces using your knife in your right hand and fork in your left hand. When taking a bite, put the knife down and switch the fork to your right hand to take the bite, prongs up.
If you’re eating European style, the knife stays in your right hand and the fork in your left as you take a bite, with the fork prongs pointed down down

5. Put your napkin in your lap and use it frequently to keep your face clean
Note: napkins are not handkerchiefs, so excuse yourself if you need to blow your nose

6. Make sure your elbows are off the table
Some experts do say that elbows on the table are acceptable between courses

7. Spoon the soup away from you to avoid dripping and do not make any slurping noises
Exception to this rule is in certain cultures where slurping is a sign of appreciation

8. Eat at the same pace as the rest of the group

9. Keep the conversation flowing (more on this in a future post) 

10. Thank the host for the meal, whether purchased or prepared




An Intro to Practical Etiquette

Coming from the marvelously quirky Pacific Northwest, a blog about etiquette may seem somewhat misplaced. Proper manners are for the British aristocracy, cotillion balls, and southern belles. These are not things typically found on the left coast.


But it only takes one bad date, one awkward cocktail party, or one uncomfortable business interview to realize that expectations of etiquette are out there. Many of us can identify when etiquette is lacking (check out our Please Just Don’t social poll), but it can be difficult to know when we are the ones being inconsiderate.

So, this is an exploration of practical etiquette for the rest of us.

From rowdy football fans to high class tea parties, every situation warrants its own rules of decorum on how to act. And, we are constantly being confronted with new situations with unwritten rules: casual dress codes, online dating, texting through emoticons.

The answer to the stickiest of these situations is remarkably simple.

Set others at ease. That is Etiquette.

It’s almost too simple to be true.

Etiquette is not about nitpicking details. Rather, it aims to consider the complexities of any given situation to determine the best outcome for all involved. Sometimes, that may require a lot more courage and strength than simply knowing which utensils should be used for your next course. As the very wise and quotable Emily Post once said:

“Nothing is less important than which fork you use. Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.”

Throughout this series, we will explore what tools we need to face each new, unforeseen situation with ethics and honor, with confidence and poise, with an intentional focus on how to set others at ease.

Practical Etiquette: Best Worst Interviews

Over a lunch of Pad Thai and green curry, my colleagues and I were sharing stories of some of the best and worst interviews we had experienced. While each of us had a story or two to tell, Beth quickly had us laughing the hardest as she described some of the 20+ interviews she had conducted over the past two years without a single employable candidate.

Beth is a former competitive gymnast with a fun-loving personality who enjoys paddle boarding, cycling and whiskey. She is also a director and an experienced actuary at our firm. Her blend of professionalism and adventurous spirit makes her not only a fun colleague but an ideal, well-balanced manager. And yet, she has found it nearly impossible to find highly qualified candidates to join her team. These young actuary students have admirable academic accomplishments, yet they have consistently shown a lack in the social maturity.

Among Beth’s many stories, the following two are receiving my vote for the best interview faux pas:

Wake-Up Call

Beth called one candidate at the pre-appointed time (4 PM), and the young man drowsily answered the phone with a drawling “hello.” Clearly, he had just woken up. After introducing herself and reminding the young man that they had an interview scheduled for that time, he asked if they could reschedule for another time. Beth quickly responded that a reschedule would not be necessary.

Meet The Parents

Another recent college graduate had an in-person interview at our office, and he showed up to the interview with his parents. Beth took him into the conference room while his parents waited on the other side of the glass doors in the reception area, watching the entire interview. Beth kindly told him that this was not going to be a good job fit for him, and she recommended that he reconsider bringing his parents to the next interview.

If nothing else, these somewhat mistakes should encourage future interviewees that with a little bit of awareness and preparation, making a good first impression is fairly simple.

Without further ado, here are four easy steps to PREP for your transition from college into the business and professional world:

Phone Etiquette:

Take the time to practice effective communication on the phone and prepare with a friend to answer some of the more common interview questions. Texting has replaced a lot of our phone conversations, resulting in respondents sounded like unprepared teenagers rather than serious job applicants.


Moving from college into the working world means shifting from being at the top of the class to being the new kid on the block. The interviewers are observing attitudes to see if you will collaborate on a team, showing respect for the expertise and experience of others.


Employers want applicants to have job experience, not just education and passed exams. During the school year or in the summer, seek out opportunities for relevant internships.


Arrive to interviews well-groomed, on time, appropriately dressed, mentally prepared… and without your parents.

For more information on building your career through Best Etiquette , follow us on Twitter  @bestetiquette or send us your etiquette questions.

Practical Etiquette: Tipping Basics


Restaurants (pre-tax)* 15-20%
Coatroom attendants $1 per coat
Valet $3 – 5 (at pick-up)
Host no obligation; $10-20 for finding you a table on a busy night
Bartender $1-2 per drink, or 15-20% of tab
Home Delivery 10-15% of bill; $2-5 for pizza delivery
Take Out no obligation; 10% for curb delivery or complicated order
Barista or Tipping Jar no obligation; $1 if something extra provided or you’re a regular
Buffet $1 per diner

*Without being told what is recommended for restaurant tipping, here are the anonymous poll results from our readers on what they are tip for great service at a restaurant. What a generous crew! pie-chart-tipping


Housekeeping $2-$5 per day on bed, left daily with a note marked “Thank you”
Concierge arranged reservations or tickets $5-10, or $15 or 10-20% of the ticket price for hard-to-get tickets
Valet $3 – 5 (at pick-up)
Doormen A “thank you” and friendly smile when he opens the door $1-$4 beyond the call of duty (carrying luggage, hailing cab)
Bellhop $2 first bag, $1 per additional bag $2-3 for each additional service, such as room delivery
Taxi 15-20% is standard in most communities


Hairdresser (manicurist, facial, waxing, massage) 15-20% split between all who served you
Ski Instructors 15% for groups; 10% for individuals
Tour Guide $1-2 per person for group tour, more for private tour



How much would you tip for great service at a sit-down restaurant?

Office - Royalty Free - restaurant 2

The term for tipping comes from an acronym: “To Insure Proper Service,” or simply TIPS. Yet, tipping in the United States has become something much more than just an affirmation of good service. For many, the majority of their compensation comes from tips that they assume they will get, almost regardless of the quality of their service.

Depending on what part of the world you are in and what the customs might be, the variable in tipping amounts and customs vary greatly. During some of my travels abroad, overtipping is construed as rude or pretentious, or may even set us apart as those gullible tourists who will be easy to manipulate. In other places, undertipping is the ultimate insult and may have a profoundly adverse impact not only on the quality of service we receive but also as an embarrassment to those with us.

Last year, I ran a random, anonymous poll with friends and acquaintances from around the country in several different socioeconomic brackets.  I wanted to see how much people tipped at restaurants. The results kind of shocked me! I thought I had fairly generous tipping practices but it looks like I’m fairly average:

Tip at Restaurant

Based on several blogs and articles I have read on the subject, this poll is in fact showing some fairly generous tipping practices. According to the guidelines set out by Trip Advisor for tourists to the United States, “10% usually means you aren’t totally happy, 15% usually means all was acceptable, 20% for excellent, over 20% for outstanding.”  These guidelines may certainly vary based on geographical location and type of restaurant, but the general guideline around 20% seems to be a safe bet for great service.

For more guidelines on tipping a myriad of services from barbers to baristas, check our our Tipping Basics.