- Instagram/William Hanson
- William Hanson is a British etiquette and manners expert.
- Business Insider spoke to Hanson ahead of the festive season to find out the most common dining faux pas people make in formal company, and how to avoid them.
- He offers his top tips to both guests and hosts of dinner parties on how to emulate a truly royal affair.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to be invited to a high society dinner party, chances are you’ve wondered how to behave. And for good reason – as it turns out, there are plenty of unwritten rules you should be aware of.
With the approach of the festive season, we spoke to British etiquette coach William Hanson to identify the most common faux pas people make when dining in formal company.
Hanson has over 10 years of experience in the subjects of manners and etiquette. He also recently began offering etiquette programmes at The Ritz and has made countless national TV appearances. Needless to say, he knows a thing or too about good manners.
From beginning to end, here’s exactly what you should – and shouldn’t – do at a formal dinner party, according to Hanson.
1. Don’t arrive early – or too late
“I think many people today – especially millennials – have no idea about when to arrive and when to leave a dinner party,” Hanson told Business Insider. “If the invitation (or text message) says 7:30 p.m. then it does not mean you are eating at 7:30 p.m., so please, whatever you do, don’t arrive at 7 p.m. Your host will have kittens as they won’t be ready and probably (if male) aren’t dressed yet.
“Neither does it mean you ring the doorbell at 7:30 p.m.,” Hanson said. “In Britain and America it is polite to be 10 to 15 minutes late. Those who don’t get why this is important are invariably those who do not host their own dinners. Anything after 15-20 minutes late and you need to call your host so they don’t start panicking and can adjust their cooking timings.”
Here’s an example of one of Hanson’s own dinner tables ready for Easter lunch.
2. Break your bread
- Shutterstock/Tobin C
“So many people, in social or business settings, will make the mistake of using a knife to cut into their bread roll, and then slather each half with butter,” Hanson said. “You should never use a knife on bread (a custom that dates back to the Middle Ages).
“Instead you should break bread – one small mouthful at a time, then use your butter knife to apply a small portion of butter to that piece, and then eat. Avoid buttering in the air, too. That is what the bread plate is there for.”
3. Know how to use your napkin
Do not immediately unfold your napkin upon sitting down at the table, unless the staff are already bringing out the food, Hanson said. “Take your cue from the hostess, who should unfold her napkin first – unless there is a major guest of honour present, in which case they should lead.”
Larger napkins are folded in two, with the crease/fold facing you, he explained, while smaller napkins are left unfolded. “Never, under pain of death, tuck the napkin into your shirt collar,” he said.
Once the meal is finished Hanson advises guests to neatly place the napkin in a heap on the table, to the left hand side in the space where the bread plate was, to be exact.
4. Work from the outside in
Most people know that, if the table has been set correctly, all the cutlery -including soup spoons and fish cutlery – will follow the outside-in rule. However, Hanson pointed out that sometimes in American dining settings they do not follow this rule, so beware.
“Traditionally, in grand English private houses the pudding (never ‘dessert’) cutlery will not be placed above the table setting, like you see today in many restaurants. All cutlery – for sweet and savoury courses – are set to the left and right hand side of the plate.
“Buckingham Palace now takes exception to this rule and places all pudding cutlery above the plate (with the spoon pointing left, on top, and the fork pointing to the right, below),” he said. “They have chosen to do this as it is the more recognised ‘international’ table setting, and their guests are largely international.
“Very kindly they are making sure their guests are most at ease when dining in the company of royalty, which is excellent manners.”
5. If you’re left-handed, be subtle
The left-handed diners among us will be relieved to know that while years ago people were chastised for not eating the conventional way – fork in the left hand, knife in the right – today left-handed dining is not as taboo as it used to be, according to Hanson.
“But lefties should not arrive at the table setting and start switching the entire place setting around,” he warned. “Instead, as they pick up each set of cutlery to use it, they can subtly switch the fork from the left hand to the right, and the knife from the right to the left. The cutlery is still held in exactly the same way as it would be if you were eating conventionally, however.”
He added: “In formal British society (and informal, in most cases) people will still judge someone by a lack of a proper understanding as to how to hold their cutlery. If you hold the knife like a pen then brace yourself for social solitude.”
6. Use your glasses in order – and hold them correctly
The glasses should be placed in a helpful order to dining guests, Hanson said. “Namely, the glass closest to you when you take your seat is the one that is used first. The glass that is furthest away from you will be used last. The glasses will be taken away, one by one, after each course but your water glass will remain on the table throughout, which is why it is usually set a little detached from the others, to the left of the glasses on the right hand side.
“For formal dining you will probably have a wine per course, so pace yourself. You don’t have to finish every drop in every glass – you are asking for trouble that way. This is also why in more formal settings the glasses are smaller.
“All glasses at a table should be stemmed glasses – there won’t be any tumblers, even for water. Hold stemmed glasses from the top of the stem, rather than from the bowl. Not only does this stop your hot hands heating up the liquid inside (and thus changing the flavour) but also it stops you looking like you’re an alcoholic.”
7. Don’t ask to be topped up
“Good manners are always about other people, and so we offer the people seated either side of us more drink before we pour for ourselves,” Hanson said.
A general rule of thumb to go by is whether or not the wine decanter or bottle is left on the table. If it is then it’s a sign from the host that guests are free to help themselves.
“If it is on the side board then it means that the host is in charge of topping everyone up,” Hanson said. “In this case, do not ask directly for more wine. Hopefully they will twig as and when their guests need more.”
8. Use the bathroom before the meal, not during
“Remember that in formal dining – especially when a member of the royal family is present, but not limited to this – you do not leave the table during the meal,” Hanson said. “Bladders need to be emptied before the meal and not during so make sure you don’t overload with liquids of any variety during the meal.”
Hanson’s top tip for hosts is to serve water at room temperature so that it is absorbed better by the body, instead of iced water which he says flushes through the body.
9. Avoid taboo conversation topics – and ask open questions
If you don’t know your fellow guests well or have never met them before, Hanson advises you play it safe at first and avoid topics such as sex, money, heavy politics, religion, or anything medical.
“Ask open questions that will give more fruitful and lingering answers than just queries that lead to yes/no answers,” he said.
10. Pace yourself
This refers to both eating and drinking – wolfing down your food is impolite. “Everyone should start and finish at more or less the same time. Honourable hosts will have identified the slowest of eaters within their eye line and will be keeping time with them.”
11. If in doubt, copy what others are doing
It’s worth doing your own research into how to approach awkward foods if you expect to be dining in high circles this festive period, particularly if you have an idea of what’s on the menu in advance.
One such food is mussels. “After picking out one mussel with your fork, you then set the fork down on the edge of the plate and use the empty shell of mussel one to pick out all other mussels,” Hanson said. “A finger bowl should be set too, so you can dip your fingers in periodically to clean them.
Hanson added: “If you are ever served something that you have no idea how to tackle then just watch to see what your host or the most learned guest at the table is doing and how they are coping. Then copy.”