Dining Etiquette Series – Napkin Etiquette



“When the candidate sat down, he did not remove the table napkin throughout the entire lunch.”

A number of years ago, Seattle Times business reporter Stanley Holmes wrote an article on the importance of business etiquette, and he included this example: “A comptroller at a big company was instructed to take a job candidate to a lunch and offer him a $100,000 public relations job. The candidate had won the job but did not yet know it. When the candidate sat down, he did not remove the table napkin throughout the entire lunch. He was not offered the position. The comptroller reasoned that the man had no business serving as the company’s public relations manager if he did not have the basic elements of table etiquette down.”

Today, employers are sitting down with job candidates at meals much more frequently in order to assess their dining etiquette skills. So that you don’t miss an opportunity because of a mishandled napkin, this week’s post is devoted to this important etiquette topic.

The History of The Napkin

According to table setting expert Baroness Suzanne von Drachenfels, author of The Art of the Table, the original napkin was a lump of dough dating back to ancient Greece, with folks in the Middle Ages using their hands, clothing and even the table cloth to wipe their mouths and clean their fingers. The napkin we know and love today did not become an accepted component of the dining table until the Sixteenth Century.

Along the way, before the advent of washing machines and when cloth napkins were washed by hand, napkin rings in different colors and shapes were used to hold napkins that were reused several times before washing. In modern times, some people avoid using napkin rings because it reminds them of their history of holding used napkins; others collect and use various kinds of napkin rings, from the elegant to the whimsical, to decorate their tables. I’m in the latter camp. While napkin rings may be used in a formal dinner setting, they usually are not.

Respect the Napkin

The napkin is important not only because it protects your clothing from food spills, but because it is one of the most noticeable components of the table setting and the first item that you touch upon being seated.

The classic formal table cloth and napkins are made of white linen or cotton or a blend of these two natural fabrics, or of damask, which is made of natural or synthetic fabrics and contain pictures or patterns that are woven into the cloth. The cloth is usually luxurious, pristine and starched. Less formal table linens can be made of almost any natural or blended cloth and come in nearly any color that the hostess likes or that fits in with a theme.

Napkins can be folded in many configurations. For a formal table the napkin is folded in a rectangle and placed at the left of the forks or in the center of the place setting (the triangle fold is for breakfasts and luncheons or less formal dinners). If the napkin is in the popular Bishop’s Mitre fold, as illustrated in the graphic at the top of this page, it is almost always placed in the center position. Today, for both formal and informal table settings, an array of napkin folds may be used. For some very creative napkin folds, visit the Napkin Wizard website.

10 Guidelines for Proper Napkin Etiquette

  1. Upon being seated, gently remove your napkin from the table and place it in your lap. Do not shake it open or tuck it in your shirt color, between your shirt buttons or in your belt. If your napkin has been placed in a napkin ring, simply hold the napkin ring in one hand and with the other hand take hold of the fanned out, or thicker part, and pull it out of the ring, place the ring to the left of or above your plate and place the napkin in your lap.
  2. The exception to the rule of removing your napkin immediately upon being seated is if the dinner is very formal or you have a table host; in those cases you would wait until the host or hostess removes his or her napkin before removing yours.
  3. The small breakfast or luncheon napkin may be unfolded all the way and placed on your lap.
  4. The larger dinner napkin should be placed in your lap folded in half, with the fold toward your waist. However, it’s not so much the time of day as the size of the napkin that is important; therefore, let the size of the napkin be your guide whether to unfold it all the way or just partially unfold it.
  5. Use the napkin throughout the meal to blot your lips and wipe your fingers.  Do not use it to blow your nose or deposit unwanted food; you may use your napkin as a shield when removing unwanted or inedible items from your mouth, such as gristle or olive pits (I’ll elaborate on the latter process in a future post).
  6. To lift your napkin to your mouth, take a corner of the napkin that is near your knees (the open part of the napkin) and bring it to your mouth, using the inside of the bottom flap to blot your lips, and then replace the napkin in your lap. In this manner the soiled part of the napkin is covered by the top flap and will not touch your clothing or be exposed while the napkin rests on your lap. You may wipe your fingers on the inside of the bottom flap while it is in your lap.
  7. If your napkin slides off your lap, do not bend over to pick it up. Instead, request a fresh napkin from the waiter.
  8. If it becomes necessary for you to leave the table during the meal, excuse yourself politely and place your napkin loosely folded with the soiled side not showing to the left of your dinner plate and utensils. Note that in some upscale restaurants, black-tie dinners or weddings you might return to your table to find that the wait staff has replaced your used napkin with a fresh one.  Either way, upon your return, lift the napkin and replace it in your lap.
  9. An alternate method that some etiquette experts recommend is to leave your napkin on the seat of your chair, again loosely folded with the soiled side not showing.  I prefer the table method myself; however, if you’re dining at The White House, follow whichever method the other guests are using! Lesser used customs that I don’t care for involve placing the napkin on the back or arm of the chair.
  10. When the meal has concluded, lay your loosely folded napkin with the soiled side not showing to the left of your place setting, or if your plate has been removed you may leave it in the center of your place setting.

If you follow these guidelines, you will be off to a good start at your business or social sit-down dining event!

Until next time,





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