Thursday, September 9, 2010

Reader Question: Teaching Etiquette Early

Reader recently wrote me this note which I felt was very thought provoking as the holiday time of year is fast approaching.

Dear Jay,

I get very annoyed if my dinner guests (who are often in-laws) do not use their napkins. Is this just a lack of good manners on their part and poor upbringing? I have another question brought on by a situation where a waitress picked up my napkin and placed it on my lap before taking my order. Was this the "proper" thing for her to do? Actually, it was a rather high class eating place and I assumed this must be done at such a place, as I could not imagine it happening at our local Pizza Hut. Perhaps you can set me right as to the do's and don’ts of napkin etiquette. I hope you don’t find my questions too trivial.

With thanks,


Dear Elizabeth,

Thanks for asking these good questions. There are no trivial questions when it comes to proper etiquette. Your in-laws are exhibiting poor manners most likely as a result of an upbringing where manners were not important enough to be instilled in them at an early age. As you noticed by your frustration, not teaching children how to behave properly early on does them a huge disservice as they reach adulthood.

As far as the placing of the napkin on your lap by the waitress goes, in some high end restaurants this is the custom. My advice to you is of course always to follow the lead of your host or hostess. What should happen as soon as everyone is seated is that the hos or hostess should unfold and place their napkin on their lap. The guests should in turn follow. If there is no host to follow, once everyone (even if it's only two) is seated, the napkin should be unfolded and put on your lap. If this is not done, an attentive waiter will likely do it for you. This is not to be construed as being rude or condescending, but rather as a silent service gesture to indicate that the rituals of the meal are underway. It is a way of communicating to the guest that the staff is now ready to serve you. I hope this answers your question.



I really liked answering these questions because they point to the importance of teaching proper etiquette and good social manners at an early age. There is nothing complicated or sophisticated about napkin etiquette. Nor are any of the myriad of other topics which revolve around good manners terribly complex or tricky. However, they must be learned behaviors. No one is born with good manners or bad manners. What we are born with is the ability to adjust to our social environment by following the lead of our parents, and in many cases our school teachers, especially in the case of boarding schools.

But what if our parents don’t know? Sadly, often times we are left to learn through the school of hard knocks. Why didn’t we get the job; why didn’t we get the promotion we were so expecting? Important interviews are often conducted during a luncheon or dinner. This is not because the interviewer is worried that you may be hungry. As stated in a previous column, it is because they are checking you out. If you don’t know such a simple skill as eating a meal properly, they are wondering what other simple skills you are lacking. Poor manners are what are known as ‘the silent killer’. No one will actually tell you why you didn’t get the job or the promotion. This happens all the time. What’s even more evident is the fact that you feel very uncomfortable in situations involving meals, corporate social gatherings to meet clients, mingle and discuss business. A person without the confidence of good etiquette will inevitably be at a disadvantage. Take the time in your life to learn good manners and realize what a difference this makes in all social gatherings.

It is never too late to learn all the basic social graces and corporate etiquette you need to know in order to feel comfortable and confident in any situation. There are consultants, such as myself, who teach short seminars. There are many books in the library which deal with this subject. We have, today, as a society hit the bottom as far as good manners go, either in social or business circles. If we hope to succeed in the global society, we must make a concerted effort to improve on these skills. And it is at home that this must begin.

Take the time to have family meals where the table is properly set. Learn to have civil discussions around the dinner table. As was pointed out recently during the debates, it is okay to disagree, but is not okay to be disagreeable. Make good manners a priority at home. The schools around here are doing brilliantly at teaching many important core values. Parents must lead the charge in teaching and instilling the soft skills which will make the youth of today the leaders of tomorrow.

So during this upcoming holiday season, take the time to make sure that these family get-togethers are not only joyous, but that they are imbued with civility. You will find that the joy becomes even greater.