Etiquette Questions, A Proper Table, A Good Hostess vs A Bad Mother In Law

Dear Veronica,

I’m a newlywed and having real problems with my mother inlaw. My husband is a very sweet man who loves me and I love him and I know this really hurts him.

My MIL has pointed out in front of everyone that I have no class and need etiquette lessons. I come from a different world than my husband and his family. I grew up with a mother that worked and did what she could for us. My husband on the other hand grew up in a house with a maid. You get the idea. btw I am 24 and my husband is 26. From the first time I had dinner with them at the huge table with all the glasses and silverware I have felt out of place. If I use the wrong fork my mil will call me out on it infront of everyone. I’ve been so embarrassed that sometimes I just sit there and don’t eat. We had them over to our house for the first time and I tried really hard. But everything I did was wrong. My mil said the table was set wrong and didn’t like where I had everyone put their coats. She complained about the food served saying it was beneath them and it just went on and on. I excused myself from my own table locked myself in the bathroom and cried. My husband just launched his business and works very long hours. He felt terrible because he didn’t help me with the dinner. After I left crying he even apologized to everyone for not having the time to do more himself. My mil told him in front of everyone not to be sorry because it isn’t his place it’s mine to do these things. He told her I worked very hard on the meal and it was a fight, and then he just asked her to leave. I know it hurt him very much.

I don’t want him to have to stand up for me and throw his mother out of the house and I don’t want to be embarrassed and be crying like this. I know you usually give relationship advice but can you help me? I need a crash course in class and etiquette. I just want to be able to have my inlaws over without being embarrassed. I feel like if I can pull off a good dinnerparty my mil will backdown and see I can change. Everything at her dinner parties is so elegant and proper. She always knows the right thing to do and I’m like a bull in a china shop. I don’t know where to put the bread plate or the water glass, I don’t know what to say or what to wear. I want to show her I’m not the lowclass person she thinks I am. Plus with my husband’s business growing and the people he will be meeting I don’t want to keep being embarrassed because I don’t know what to do. He would never think this, it’s just something I want to do and change for his sake. Would you please give me a crash course in etiquette?

Darlene

Dear Darlene,

Yes. I can give you a crash course in etiquette because you’ve asked. And then I’m going to tell you exactly what I think of your Mother In-Law, and offer some personal advice.

Just as a typewriter has no place in a current business office, certain things that were once considered proper etiquette now have no place in our lives.

I could tell you some old-fashioned table setting rules. For example, the word “left” has four letters, and so does “fork” which goes on the let side. “Right” has five letters, and so do“spoon” and “knife.” Silverware at the place setting goes according to course, with the piece you’ll use first on the outside and the piece you’ll use last on the inside closest to the dish.

But instead of leaving you wondering if it’s a bread “plate” and wine “glass” with 5 letters, or, if it’s a bread “dish” and “wine” glass with four, I’ll tell you this:

Today’s true etiquette is political correctness. It’s welcoming diversity to your table. It’s an attitude, not a rule book. Invite cultures and varying traditions to break bread with you. Communion without judging is more sophisticated than correctly using the shrimp fork. In India, Brazil, Turkey, Hong Kong, and many other corners of our globe, that “soup spoon goes on the right on the outside” factoid you memorized is not going to mean anything.

Now that you’re looking at this from a different perspective, try avoiding the rules instead of obeying them. Put all the silverware in a bundle on the plate. Put it in a little stocking for Christmas or tied with raffia tucked into the cloth napkin. Stack the plates at a place setting instead of laying them out.

Instead of re-setting after the main course is cleared for dessert, bring in espresso spoons and cake forks in antique pressed glass spooners together on a tray with fresh napkin linens. Add the good china cake plates stacked in a Longaberger basket and inform guests that dessert will be served on the patio poolside, or by the fireplace in the parlor.

If you want to have a little fun, do a little research. Make and serve a meal from a different culture. Talking about the cuisine and traditions is also a nice ice-breaker, especially at a table of people that may not otherwise know what to talk about.

As for where to put the coats, they should be hung on hangers whenever possible. If you have no place to hang them, you may want to think about buying a coat wardrobe for your front doorway if you plan to entertain often. If you do have a coat closet, empty it out prior to a dinner party. Put your coats temporarily in a guest room or someplace out of sight.

You keep house your way to accommodate your daily life. A party isn’t your daily life. Make some sacrifices to ensure guests their comfort. Sometimes what rubs a guest wrong isn’t the idea that “coats on the bed” is bad form, it’s just the thought that you didn't bother to take a moment ahead of time to treat guests with more effort.

And as for your Mother In Law

Now for part 2.

Etiquette: Noun. The customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.

Someone who truly has class would not use the word to describe herself. That’s up there with Dana on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills responding to a compliment on her sunglasses with their cost. “Thank you,” would have been so much more appropriate than, “Oh, did you know? $25,000.00.”

Having class is supposed to suggest excellence. The formal definition comes from the societal order. From there comes the adjective which is informal. It means stylish in behavior or appearance, unequaled, or impressive.

Now, you tell me, what was impressive, stylish, or excellent about this person embarrassing you, hurting your feelings, and making you cry.

The best hostess is one who makes guests feel welcomed. She’s someone that puts time and thought into her guests comfort. Embarrassing them is the opposite. There is nothing in the definition of etiquette that entitles its bearer to judging or bullying.

Learning the ins and outs of formal dining should be fun. It should be an exciting time for you, exploring new things like entertaining in your home. Having your in-laws over for dinner should be something you look forward to. These could have been bonding experiences for you and your mother-in-law. She could have shared recipes, stories, traditions and taken you under her wing. In turn, you would have continued her legacy passing these things on to your children.

Shame on her for ruining that. Shame on her for taking that away from you, and your husband, and the whole family. Hers could have been exemplary dinner parties. Shame on her for choosing instead to make them nightmares.

Hopefully your desire to adapt some dining etiquette is more than just response to your MIL's cruelness. Hopefully it is about growing up, and enjoying the kind of soiree that comes with it. This has nothing to do with anyone being better than anyone else - please don't ever think that. It’s just timing.

When I was 19 if I invited people to my home for dinner, it meant wine and pizzas, and everyone sitting on the floor in my apartment. I’d most likely be barefoot, wearing Levi’s and a T-shirt. If I didn’t have napkins I’d offer around paper towels.

Today, if I invite people to my home for dinner it probably means a nicely set dining room table with good china and stemware, hors d’vours, cocktails, cloth napkins, several prepared courses, and I will most likely be wearing high heels. My husband and I have our hosting patterns down pretty comfortably. For example he hangs coats, I get drinks.

This doesn’t mean my husband and I don’t enjoy pizza once in a while. Or that I don’t still run around barefoot sometimes.

I didn’t change, I just matured. I grew up and began to appreciate different things.

Wanting to develop yourself as a hostess is normal, and should be fun. Your consideration of your husband's business associates is wise, especially in regards to entertaining and enjoying yourself. But please don’t think for a moment that all of this means you need to change. It would be another shame if that were to happen.

You should always be yourself, even while growing and exploring new things. Being a gracious guest and a kind, welcoming hostess is far superior to any fork or coat rule. You’ve already demonstrated that you have more class than your mother-in-law has.

RHOBH Sunglasses

With Whom Would You Rather Dine?

Which would you prefer:

  • A hostess who sets a perfect table and prioritizes old-fashioned etiquette rules
  • A hostess who sets a less-than-perfect table and prioritizes her guests feeling welcomed
See results without voting

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6 comments

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 4 years ago from Upstate New York

Excellent advice! Truly, the main purpose of entertaining guests is to make them feel welcome and at home. The mother-in-law failed miserably at this first and most important function of entertaining her daughter-in-law in the MIL's home. The MIL is the one who really needs the etiquette lessons.


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

Well-written and outstanding. You said it all! This should be used as a guide for all new wives or women who are starting their first solo nest. Voted up and useful.


mackyi profile image

mackyi 4 years ago from Philadelphia

A well laid out hub. Thanks for the advices. I honor this advice in particular "Always be yourself", this is something I think everyone should practice, because we are all unique in our own way, so there is no reason to feign.


Maddie Ruud profile image

Maddie Ruud 4 years ago from Oakland, CA

My mother was a tyrant when it came to table manners. Whew! Darlene's story brings back traumatic memories... ;) ... but you give her great advice!


missolive profile image

missolive 4 years ago from Texas

A wonderful and informative hub. Your advice is exceptional. Having guests feel welcome is very important. By the way, I always need to keep an eye on my MiL, I just never know what she might say. :)


mpoche4 profile image

mpoche4 4 years ago from Baton Rouge, LA

My heart goes out to this woman. I cannot imagine having to deal with a MIL who was so awful to me (esp. publicly...). You really gave her great advice on how to improve her own hostess etiquette and I hope things will improve for her. Class is a matter of opinion, and the MIL seems to be lacking A LOT. This woman seems to have such a kind heart and I am sure an evening with her would be much more enjoyable than one with the MIL from hell.

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