After spending months in our homes, shovelling food into our mouths from takeout boxes while we lounged around in our jammies, much of our social skills have gone out the window. Like cavepeople emerging from the darkness, we’ve fumbled into social settings and group gatherings, unsure of how to interact with other humans in real life. Awkward silences and missed social cues prevail as we try to reacclimatize. (Does anyone remember how to do that small talk thing?)
Here to help us brush up on our manners, etiquette expert Karen Cleveland takes us through the do’s and don’ts of dining, whether at one of the city's top restaurants or as a guest in someone’s home. A Toronto-based writer, Cleveland wrote an etiquette column that ran in She Does the City, The Huffington Post and The Toronto Star, and recently co-authored The New Wedding Book: A Guide to Ditching All the Rules. We chat to Cleveland about the basics of etiquette, so even if we’re going to be awkward as we readjust, we can at least be polite about it.
When should you put your napkin on your lap?
“The best rule is to always follow your host. If you’re in someone’s home, if your host is seated and they put their napkin on their lap, that’s a cue for you to do the same thing. If you’re having lunch with the queen, obviously, you’re following these rules. If you’re having lunch with your best friend, just relax. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or precious.
When it comes to formally sitting down for a seated meal, as soon as your butt is in that seat, napkin on your lap. Then when you leave the table, your napkin goes on your chair, because no one needs to see what you've wiped off your face during your meal. It's only when you’re finished your meal that you put your napkin at the table.”
How can you tell which fork is which?
“Again, the best cheat is to watch your host. Just pay attention to what other people at the table are doing. You can sip some water, you can make some chitchat, you can do lots of things to buy yourself a minute to see how other people are using their utensils if you’re super intimidated. Otherwise, the best advice is to work from the outside in, per course. When you’ve finished each course, you put your cutlery on the right side of your plate, if your plate is a clock, at three o’clock. And if anyone ever uses this advice to correct someone, they’re an asshole. This is not a way to one-up someone. I don't want anyone to ever read this and think ‘I now have a license to correct people when we’re having a meal.’ That makes you an asshole.”
How do you know which bread plate is yours?
“To your left.”
Is it ever okay to have your phone out at the table?
“No. Hard no. Never. Unless you’re a doctor on call or your partner's about to go into labour, there’s no reason to have your phone out at a table. I’m of a very unpopular opinion, too: I think it’s rude to photograph your food. I know, it’s very controversial, but I just think it’s rude and distracting to other people around you. I also respect that for restaurants right now, people taking pictures of their food is basically free promotion — they post it to Instagram and it helps bolster interest in a restaurant. I totally respect that. When I’m at a restaurant, I don't like people taking pictures of food around me, and I think it’s weird in people’s homes.”
Is there a correct way to get your server’s attention?
“There are definitely ways not to do it. I waited tables for years and I used to physically bristle when people would snap or clap their hands. I feel like Canadians just by nature have a mild mannered-ness to us. We kind of awkwardly lean over the side of our table and raise an arm a little bit and raise our finger a little bit like we’re the shy kid in class who thinks they might want to answer the question from the teacher. You just try and persist until you get your server’s attention. But I think that’s the Canadian way that we do it. And that changes around the world; in some places people do snap their fingers to get their server’s attention. I don’t think that plays well in Toronto in particular.”
Do you make eye contact when cheers-ing?
“Yeah, major eye contact, but you don’t want to stare anyone down. It’s not a glare, it’s polite, fast eye contact. And then you sip. With the exception, if someone is making a toast to you, you don’t drink to yourself. You might afterwards, raise your glass a little bit to the person who gave you a toast to do a little cheeky, ‘thanks for doing that,’ and then have a sip, but you don’t drink to yourself.
Now, of course, if it’s my birthday and people are like ‘Happy birthday, Karen,’ I’m going to drink every single time someone wishes me a happy birthday, because I think it’s really nice. But if I were in a setting where I was really self-aware, I would err on the side of caution and I wouldn’t drink to a toast being made to me.”
What's the etiquette on gifts?
“When you’re going to someone’s house for a meal, you should always offer to bring something and they might say, ‘sure, bring the wine or bring bread.’ Even if they say no, it’s a nice touch to always bring something. The caveat to that is don’t expect them to serve it that night. They don't owe you that. And if you’re going to bring flowers — which I think are super beautiful, I always love when people bring flowers — just try to take the legwork out of it for your host. Don't show up with an armload of uncut flowers, that need the stems trimmed and to be arranged in a vase, have it done for them in advance."
When should we arrive?
"If someone says, seven o’clock, don't show up at 6:59, show up at 7:05. Also, don’t show up at 7:30. I think it’s a nice touch to give your host five minutes grace. That’s the time when I wipe down my countertop, put on some lipstick and put some music on. Don’t show up early and don’t show up too late, but I think five minutes grace time is a nice touch.
Know when to leave. We're all so completely starved for social interaction, but you still have to be mindful that you don’t want to overstay your welcome. If you’re in someone else’s home, you’ve got to read the room on when it’s time to leave. And I would say if you’re not sure, err on the side of a couple hours after dinner. If your host stops offering you stuff, that might be them trying to politely tell you it’s time to go.”
What about etiquette in other cultures?
“Just be genuinely willing to learn how it’s done. Just roll with it. I think one of the major problems with etiquette is that there’s one version of what’s proper etiquette, and you can bet it’s a white Anglican Western version. That’s what we’ve deemed as 'proper etiquette.' And that’s not always the case, especially in a city like Toronto, which is so awesome. Ask questions. It’s best to learn from the people who can show you, whether that’s the people you’re dining with, or your servers at a restaurant. Ask them how it's done and be humble and eager to learn. Don’t judge.”