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How to Behave at a Formal Dinner

Updated on August 19, 2016
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Introduction

The art of etiquette seems to be disappearing. While we Instagram our dinners and text during conversations, it's understandable that you might fear the regiment and particularity of a formal dinner setting. Here there are rules, expectations, and norms that if broken can reflect very poorly on your character and experience. Follow these simple tips to ensure you're never the odd one out at a formal dinner, whether it be business, pleasure, or anywhere in between.

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1. Dress the part

A formal dinner is any dinner with a dress code such as business-casual, business, black-tie, or if you run in truly affluent circles, white-tie. Knowing these dress codes and what they mean is imperative. While we won't dissect each type of dress individually, you should be wearing at the very least: a button down shirt (male), slacks, and round-toe leather shoes (oxfords, loafers, derbies). Women should be wearing nice slacks and conservative shirt, a conservative dress or skirt. (Note: any dinner where the majority of the attendees are colleagues or superiors at work could be considered a formal dinner and worthy of the proper decorum.)

Note: Men should keep their jackets on while seated, never drape your dinner jacket over the back of your chair.

2. Do not sit until the host takes their seat

This can be tricky. If you are at a dinner party of a couple, who is the host? Sometimes it is simple as the individual who invited you. If you are at the home of a married couple it is usually (but not always) the wife. If you are at a work function, it is the most senior ranking member. If you are at a charity event, it is the specified host (who is usually the highest ranking member present of the charity). Use these cues to clue you into who is the host of your evening and avoid taking your seat until they sit.

3. Keep your napkin on your lap

This is simple. When you are seated, take your napkin and open it over your lap. Unless you are eating ribs or steamed lobster it should never be used as a bib.

4. Use the right utensils

Some formal dinners will present you with a lot of utensils. When in doubt, start from the outside and move in. The small forks are for salad, the large spoons are soup. Apply a little logic as to what foods are presented and the tools available and it will make sense. Always hold your fork with the prongs arched downwards. Always hold your fork and knife in both hands at the same time. Americans do not typically do this so it may feel unnatural. Practice at home if you are unsure.

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5. Know how to make a good toast

Before the meal it may come to you to make a toast. If this happens you should keep the toast short, meaningful, and respectful. "As they have given me the fortune of their friendship throughout the past five years, I want to wish the Bride and Groom a lifetime of happiness." is far better than an embarrassing personal story about the time you drank too much with the groom.

6. Do not touch your fork until the host begins eating

Wait until the host raises his or her fork before you begin eating. This is a courtesy we pay to the host of the meal. Again, this may be the highest ranking employee, a coworker, a friend's wife, or someone leading an organization that has invited you to the meal.

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7. Excuse yourself if you must leave the table

If you have to leave the table to use the restroom, quietly inform your neighbor or one of the house staff. "Please excuse me I'm running to the restroom" is as detailed as you should get. If you must leave the meal before everyone else for the night, you should ask one of the waitstaff to inform the host and offer your regrets. If the host is not busy, talking, or sitting at a host table you can offer your regrets personally.

8. Do not approach the host table without being invited

If there is a formal host table, you should never approach to interrupt without first being invited. If you need to speak with someone sitting at the table, ask a member of the staff to request their attention.

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Summary

If you can remember any bit of advice for formal dinner etiquette it is this: be respectful. Watch your language, show respect to your hosts, and act with dignity and you will get through the evening without a problem. If you have a question, it is never impolite to quietly ask your neighbor if you are making a faux pas.

In the comments below, share your most memorable experience from a formal dinner setting!

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