Table Manners: The Napkin

I’ve been teaching dinner and business etiquette for nearly two decades to high school and college students, and one of the things that surprises them them most is what you do and don’t do with your dinner napkin. In many ways, our napkin is a way for us to send signals to our servers … provided they’ve been trained to read those signals. While I generally discuss etiquette from a public event perspective – think conference luncheon or awards banquet – I also try to point out where things might be different if you’re in someone’s home. 

Place Settings with tent napkin

Basic Rules of Napkin Use

When you first enter a banquet or even a restaurant and sit down at your table, it is important to remove your napkin from the table and go ahead and place it in your lap. Ultimately, this is a signal to your server that you are ready to be served your first course. If, however, you are attending a privately hosted event like a dinner party, it is polite to follow your host. Your host will likely lead you to the dining table. Upon being seated, wait for you host to remove his/her napkin, then follow suit. 

When you place a napkin in your lap, it should be unfolded to about half its size either diagonally or in a rectangle and simply laid across your lap to protect your clothing.  

Ladies, if you are attending a formal banquet and have on attire that is made of satin, silk or equally slippery fabric, you may choose to tuck the napkin into your waistband or tuck a corner underneath your leg to prevent it from sliding to the floor. 

What do I do with my napkin during the meal?

Your napkin should remain in your lap if not being used.

When using the napkin to wipe your face during the meal, trying to resist the urge to wipe the napkin completely across your mouth. Simply use the corner of the napkin to elegantly dab food away or off your mouth.

If you need to excuse yourself from the table for any reason, your napkin should be laid in the seat of your chair, again as a signal to your server that you will be returning to your place. Once you do return, your napkin should be replaced across your lap to protect your clothing.

I’m done eating, now what?

When you are finished with your meal, your napkin should be folded slightly and laid to the left of your place setting. This is a signal to your server that you’re finished with your meal and all of the remaining tableware can be removed. There is some dispute on this … older etiquette books suggest the napkin should be place on the right, while modern versions state left. Ultimately, if the napkin is on the table, it is a signal that you will be leaving soon. 

If you are being hosted at a private event like a dinner party, it is customary to wait at least 30 minutes after the end of the meal before leaving the event. Leaving any sooner is, at best, rude. 

What do I do if I drop my napkin?

If you should drop your napkin on the floor during the meal, try not to bend over and pick it up immediately. If your server saw this happen, s/he will fetch you a fresh napkin. If your server does not see this happen, you can simply hail him and ask for fresh napkin. It is much more sanitary to get rid of the dirty napkin, and take a new one.

Place setting with candle napkin

These are just a few basics involving the use of your napkin, but the basic rules apply no matter where you’re at. 


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