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How To Use A Napkin Properly and Politely

Updated on September 1, 2011
Silver plated diamond napkin holders show the reverence and care with which a napkin should be treated.
Silver plated diamond napkin holders show the reverence and care with which a napkin should be treated. | Source

A napkin (also known as a serviette in the United Kingdom and its erstwhile colonies) is a common enough item in every day dining, but it is often sorely misused by those who encounter it in semi-formal and formal occasions. These three simple rules of napkin etiquette will aid you in using your napkin in a manner that is not only polite, but likely to garner further dinner invitations in the future. Remember, good napkin etiquette not only ensures the protection of your clothing, but also your reputation.

The First Rule of Napkin Etiquette: Never shake a napkin. Ever.

A napkin is not a cape to be flashed around the dining room or restaurant as if a charging bull had also been invited along. It should be unfolded with care, flat if it is a small napkin, or in half across your lap if it is a larger napkin. One should never find oneself wearing a napkin like a skirt.

The Second Rule of Napkin Etiquette: Your napkin is a not a wet wipe.

Yes, it's a perfectly serviceable square of material distinct from the table cloth. In theory, one should be free to wipe one's face and fingers and cutlery until the proverbial cows come home. This is terrible etiquette however. Nothing should ever be wiped on a napkin. A napkin's sole purpose is to catch any stray slops or drops of food you might spill whilst listening to your host's recitation of the complete works of Leo Tolstoy.

The Third Rule of Napkin Etiquette: Do not crumple, crush, or otherwise mangle your napkin.

A napkin should always be loosely folded and placed to the left hand side of your plate when you are done with it. It should not be scrunched up and placed on the plate, unless one happens to be at one of the less refined express food diners that are so popular in this modern age and one's plate was a plastic tray in the first place.

It is also a no-no to try to fold the napkin back into something approximating its original state. You are not a ninja covering your traces. You do not need to pretend as if you had never touched the napkin, or indeed, been at the dinner at all. Unless, of course, you actually are a ninja on a deadly mission and any traces of your presence at dinner could have dire consequences.

It should go without saying that the napkin should not be left on the chair, where the server or perhaps the host themselves will be forced to later retrieve it like a sniffer dog hunting for treats beneath the table cloth.

The Fourth Rule of Napkin Etiquette: It's a napkin, not a bib.

Never tuck your napkin into your collar, unless you are actually home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play. Napkins should always be laid across the lap, never worn like a second tie. Of course, if you are consistently slopping food down the front of your body to the point that you feel the need to bib yourself, napkin etiquette may very well be the least of your worries.


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