Here in London, many students as well as tourists would like to experience a traditional/formal English meal. However, the difference between Chinese table etiquette and English table etiquette is so vast that it can sometimes confuse people. How do we eat with grace and elegance, so that we can be considered a polite Londoner? You need to be aware of so many details.
Formal Table Setting Guidelines
For a formal meal, each place setting will include several knives, forks and glasses. These are used for very different purposes as described in the brief guidelines below.
Small plate at the top left corner: for bread.
We are expected to break the bread with our hands (often, this plate is placed to the left of the dinner plate).
The small knife on this plate is for spreading butter. It is polite to cut some butter and put this on your own plate before buttering your bread (don’t worry if you cut off too much, any extra butter can be left on your plate).
Round spoon at the far right: for a soup starter
Soup may be served before your main course. When eating soup, you should start spooning from the inside of your bowl, away from you, towards the top outside of the bowl. You should eat from the side of the spoon, not from the front of the spoon (don’t put the entire spoon into your mouth as that isn’t very elegant).
Knife and fork at the far left and right: for other starters
If a starter like salad or calamari are served, you can eat it using this knife and fork. If there aren’t any other starters, this cutlery will be taken away.
The knife and fork next to the dinner plate: for the main course
Don’t cut your meat into pieces and then switch the fork to your right hand. When you are eating your main course, you must always use the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right hand. Also, you must finish one piece before you cut the next piece.
When cutting your meat, you must make sure that the knife blade is always facing downwards. Don’t put food into your mouth with the knife.
Food will need to be pushed onto the back of the fork, regardless of whether it’s meat or a vegetable (even peas). The back of the fork should always be used facing upwards, unless you are eating spaghetti.
The fork and spoon above your dinner plate: for dessert
After starters and main course there’s normally dessert. The English often use the word “pudding” instead of dessert.
If ice cream were served for pudding, then you would only eat this with a spoon.
Different glasses will be allocated to various beverages. The larger wine glass is used for red wine and the smaller wine glass for white wine. The largest glass (a tumbler or goblet) is used for water. If champagne is served at a special occasion, this will be poured into a slender champagne flute glass or coupe (champagne saucer glass).
White wine and champagne are served chilled, so you should not hold the glass with your entire palm when drinking white wine or champagne because that would warm your drink. It is usually best to hold the stem of the glass. Drinking red wine is more casual, there’s no strict requirement on how to hold it.
We heard a relevant (and hilarious) story about a foreign visitor to England. During dinner, he ordered a bottle of red wine. The waiter brought him the cork from the bottle and as he did not understand what the waiter meant by this, he stuffed the cork into his mouth.
This could be a very awkward moment. Generally, the waiter brings the cork to allow the customer to smell the cork. Before pouring all the guests a glass of wine, the waiter will first pour the customer who ordered the wine a small amount to taste first. The right procedure is to swirl the glass to let the wine fully breathe, smell the wine and then take a sip to taste it. The waiter will only pour wine for all the guests if the taste was satisfying for the one who ordered it.
- Follow directions: if you are invited by a host to his or her home, it is better to wait for your host to invite you to sit down/eat before you start sitting or eating.
- Napkin: The first thing to do when you are seated is to put your napkin on your lap. If you are to leave the table during the meal, remember to leave your napkin on your seat instead of on the table.
- Keep your poise: when we Chinese see something delicious, we tend to get so focussed on the food that we bury our head to our bowl. However, in British culture, you need to keep elegant all through the meal by using your cutlery to pass food into your mouth instead of burying your head in your bowl to reach the food.
- Silent Chewing: close your mouth when you are chewing food. It is very impolite to make a sound with your mouth while eating. You must always be considerate of others’ feelings.
- When the food you want is too far away, don’t be shy to ask for help! It is very normal to say “can you please pass me the…” to ask others for help in passing food you want. Don’t try to reach for the food far across the table, it will be seen as more awkward than asking for it directly.
- Serving staff: the attitude that you use to treat the serving staff will show your class and manner. When you speak to the staff, make sure you look them in the eyes and use polite language such as please or thank you. Being rude to the waiter or the waitress is not going to show how powerful you are, it is only going to highlight your rudeness to others.
- Phones and handbags: off the table! You should never play with your phone during a formal meal. In fact, you shouldn’t even put your elbows onto the table (even when eating).
Tips for girls:
Some girls like to remove their lipstick before dinner. However, British people don’t do that. It is a little weird to use the napkin to remove your lipstick before dinner in front of everyone. If you can’t deal with the idea of eating your makeup, then it’s better to remove it in the Ladies before eating.
However, if you are wearing lipstick, and during the meal you want to use the napkin to dab your mouth, it is absolutely fine. You don’t need to worry about leaving some lipstick on the napkin.
Tips for boys:
Before the meal starts, gentlemen would help the ladies to their seats: pull out the chair for them and push the chair in as they sit down.
If a lady wants to visit the Ladies during the meal, British gentlemen would also stand up with her and then sit down again after she has left.
How to chat politely with others?
There’s an interesting story about English table etiquette: Lewis Hamilton, a famous F1 racer, had the honour to dine with The Queen. When he tried to converse with her, she refused to speak to him. The Queen kindly told him that he should talk to the person on his left first and then talk to the person on the right.
Although this rule is not strictly kept, the fact that you should talk to both sides instead of talking to just one person is still very important in English table etiquette. If your friend is sitting very far away from you, it’s better not to talk across the table because shouting at a dining table is also considered rude.