For something that’s meant to be a buffer between your clothing and spilled food, there sure are a lot of etiquette rules when it comes to the humble napkin. Though it seems like it should be as easy as tossing the cloth into your lap and never thinking about it again, there are small nuances about when to place the napkin into your lap, how to act when you rise from the table, and even the manner in which you should wipe your mouth.
Though it all may seem like a bit much for something that will just be (gently) tossed to the side at the end of the meal, if you want to be the most polite guest possible, you should know how to function at a nice dinner party.
When to Place the Napkin on Your Lap
Most people already know that the polite thing to do while dining is to place the napkin on your lap, but there’s a little more to it than simply throwing a piece of cloth onto your thighs. Placing the napkin in your lap as soon as you sit down says that you’re anxious to start the meal, so hold off and wait until two or three members of your dining party are also sitting at the table. If you’re sitting at a formal table with a proper host, wait until your host sits down and places the napkin in his or her lap, then follow suit.
To Fold or Not to Fold…
Should you completely unfold the napkin or leave it halfway folded? The answer lies in the size of the cloth. Large napkins are unfolded halfway, while smaller napkins should be unfolded completely. Basically, ensure that the cloth covers your entire lap but doesn’t hang down to your knees. Most importantly, when placing the napkin in your lap, don’t snap it or make a big to-do about unfolding the napkin. Just unfold it with small, natural movements.
Blot, Don’t Wipe
A napkin sits on your lap to catch crumbs and small drops of liquid, of course, but it’s also there to ensure that your face is kept clean. When you do raise the napkin to your mouth, it’s important that you blot the area gently. You’re (likely) not eating messy barbecue ribs, so you don’t need to wipe your entire face.
What to Do When You Get Up
There’s a point of contention here: If you need to get up from the table to use the restroom or take a phone call, some etiquette experts advise that you hide the napkin and place it on the seat of your chair. Others think that it’s perfectly acceptable to loosely fold the napkin and set it to the left of your fork. Judge the fanciness of your dinner party for yourself. If it’s an incredibly formal affair, gently place the napkin on your chair. Otherwise, the table is more than fine. At the end of the meal, gently fold the napkin and place it on the table to the left of your plate.
Things You Should Never, Ever Do Under Any Circumstances Ever
We’ve been through what to do with your napkin, but you should know what not to do as well. It should go without saying, but your napkin is not a tissue and shouldn’t be used as such. Don’t blow your nose or spit into the cloth — all you’ll accomplish is grossing out your dining partners. And unless you’re at an all-you-can-eat lobster boil, for goodness’ sake, don’t tuck your napkin into your shirt collar. Bibs are suitable for babies, not for formal diners.