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Dining Etiquette 101 (or “Why So Many Commenters Got It Wrong”)

Yesterday’s post generated a considerable number of comments all absolving “O” of any etiquette faux pas while a guest in the house of the OP.   A whole lot of you are therefore woefully wrong in your understanding of good table manners for guests.

Let us first establish that sitting down to eat a dinner meal is more than just satisfying the biological need to refuel the body but is also a social interaction involving conversations and connections.   Judith Martin sums it perfectly, “The dinner table is the center for the teaching and practicing not just of table manners but of conversation, consideration, tolerance, family feeling, and just about all the other accomplishments of polite society except the minuet.”   A considerable number of commenters believe that once O had satisfied his need for food that he was free of any obligation to socialize with his hosts as long as he excuses himself.

The host sets the tone and direction of the meal, being the conversational gatekeeper if necessary.  A savvy guest knows to follow the leads the host gives during the meal, i.e. as to when to begin eating, when to start eating the next course, when the meal has ended, and the host invites guests to retire to more comfortable surroundings.     I’ll break down the scenario to demonstrate how O usurped the host’s position.

O ate very little. He took a couple pieces of meat and a biscuit, but no salad. Because he took so little food, he was finished eating well ahead of the rest of us.

Unless O has a food allergy, he, as a guest, does have a reciprocal obligation to at least taste each of the dishes prepared by the host.   This is basic “Dining Etiquette 101” to avoid offending the host who has labored to feed you.   One taste of the dishes and still leaving food on the plate is enough to assuage any potential offense a host might have.   On the flip side of this coin, the good host does not take notice of what his guests have failed to eat, does not comment on the leftovers nor urges guests to consume more.

When he was finished eating, he stood up, thanked me very much for having fed him,

This is called “eating and running”.   In other circumstances, many of you would be crying foul if some guest wolfed down the meal you spent time preparing and left.  While it is nice that O thanks his hosts, he has taken the initiative to determine when the communal meal has come to an end.   A guest signals to the host that he is finished with his meal by putting the dining utensils on the plate at the 4:20 clock position and a good host will take notice of that and offer to release the guest as appropriate.

OP, what you could have asked O, “Oh, do you need to leave so soon?”, thus implying that the only reason a guest would leave the table that abruptly would be a need to get home asap.   Had O replied in the negative, you could then say, “Then please stay and talk with us.”   You lost control as the hostess of your dinner at the hands of an 19-year-old and you can take it back which then requires you to ask him interesting questions that engage him in the conversation.

told my son to stay and finish his meal,

If I had been the OP, I would have been flabbergasted that a guest in my house would have the audacity to tell one of my children how to behave at the dinner table.   What most of you missed is that by merely saying this, O knew what he had done was a faux pas and he is directing his young host to continue finishing his meal despite the awkwardness that O just created.  O was educated enough to know his leaving the table prematurely put a social obligation on the OP’s son to attend to his guest.

cleared his plate to the counter,  then went to stand about 10 feet away from the table texting on his cell phone.

Turn the cell phone off and enjoy people and the moment.   What O conveyed to his hosts is that any conversations with them are infinitely less important than keeping in touch with presumable more interesting people he’s texting.   If O cannot live without his cell phone for 45 minutes, he has a serious technology dependency that is stunting his development.

The rest of us exchanged a confused look, but continued with our meal, although I did silently rush my son to finish so that he could go join his friend.

O placed his friend in an incredibly awkward position of feeling an obligation to rush his eating to join him and any hope of pleasant table talk just got squashed by O taking the lead to determine when the meal had ended.  First rule of being a guest is that you don’t unnecessarily put your kind hosts in confusing or awkward situations and O did just that.

Those EHellions who gave O an pass to get out Etiquette Hell are mislead in their understanding of what is polite behavior for dinner guests, especially one that is an adult at age 19.

{ 108 comments… add one }
  • Nathan July 15, 2013, 12:26 pm

    Admin is very correct in every aspect. However, I wanted to give my input on the part of what he ate as being a bit of a picky eater myself. Whenever a friend would invite me for dinner I would ask what they are having because I don’t want to say yes, then offend them with not eating certain things. If they mention salad is part of the meal I let them know I don’t care for it and asked would it bother them if I didn’t eat it. I make an effort to try new things, but some things such as salad dressing and mustard cause me to have a gag reflex. As I am older now most of my friends know me well enough to know I am mostly a meat and potatoes person and try to accomodate, but I always let them know I do not expect them to go out of my way. Lastly I would like to applaud the Op on still having sit-down family meals. All through elementary school and high school I only had two friends who also had sit-down meals with their families.

  • Ashley July 15, 2013, 3:47 pm

    ““I’m sick of people’s minor allergies trumping etiquette. If it’s someone you care about then you can put up with a little gas.”

    The fact that you even said this disgusts me. Ever had to deal with your brother getting rushed to the hospital because a host assured you “Oh there’s no ______ in this?” and then he ate it and SURPRISE! There was! “Well I didn’t know the reaction would be that bad!” Well why do you think we asked you if ______ was in it?? I left a blank because I don’t remember exactly what product it was but I do vividly remember my mother asking (she always asked) and I vividly remember the host saying that no there wasn’t any of that particular ingredient in there.

    To the OP, you didn’t include the fact that you had asked him what he ate in your original story so are you really very surprised that we’re guessing you didn’t? Perhaps he said “everything” because he didn’t want to make you feel like you had to go out of your way to avoid a particular food group or something.

    And in any event, you had leftovers for someone to take to work or whatever because he didn’t eat them.

    Yes I agree that he shouldn’t have gone away from the table just to fiddle with his cell phone but way too much is being made out of the fact that he didn’t try everything in front of him.

  • Vicki July 19, 2013, 8:24 pm

    Aside from the seriousness of allergies, most of us were taught to try not to pass gas around other people. So eating something that is going to give a person serious gas isn’t polite: it means the eater is going to have to either leave hurriedly, or risk being rude and making the other people there uncomfortable. And that’s a “minor” allergy, especially if you are prepared to disregard the physical comfort of the person with the allergy. Having to rush to the emergency room because of allergy symptoms is not only unpleasant, and potentially dangerous and expensive, it’s almost guaranteed to disrupt a dinner party.

  • Marie June 29, 2014, 12:06 am

    There are many foods my kids and I can not and choose not to eat for various reasons – reasons that are not anyone’s business. We do not want anyone to go to extra trouble for us, so, we do not make special requests. We eat what we can and pass on what we can’t.

    No one is obligated to eat everything that is set in front of them. No one is obligated to explain why they are not eating certain foods. If you are that easily offended as a hostess, then, don’t host.

    As for “O” telling the OP’s son to stay and finish his meal… he’s trying to be polite – sheesh! He is not telling him “how to behave” – he simply did not want his friend to rush through dinner on account of his having finished the meal.

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