By Jay Remer, the Etiquette Guy
A reader stopped me in a local coffee shop and asked me to consider writing a sort of ’back to basics’ column on simple table settings. I began thinking about this request and thought this could be a real challenge. I decided to go to the origins and the reasons why it is so important to set a table one way instead of another. Essentially, when we look at a beautiful table and think how lovely it is, we smile. At such a moment, our eyes are generally not drawn to a particular element unless - of course - it is a beautiful centrepiece.
Deciding that forks are almost always placed to the left, the spoons and knives to the right, has been a western custom for almost 500 years. Most people are right-handed and table settings are designed accordingly. At a very early age many left-handed people learn to eat using right-handed techniques and simply adapt to the place setting. Just as we as a society agree to drive on the right hand side of the road, we agree also to abide by a series of road signs, unwritten rules of how to treat one another, and written rules on how to play certain sports and card games. These rules maybe at first glance seem obviously more important than setting a dinner table. It is arguably agreed that safety rules certainly trump the ordinary act of table setting as a matter of importance.
However, I maintain that self-esteem is every bit as important to our day-to-day lives. And most of the simple routine things we do help us build our self-esteem, how we value ourselves as individuals. Becoming proficient at these skills is an important key to success in the business world and at home. We do eat three times a day, or strive to. Setting a table should be a quick and natural task, which looks familiar not only to your family but also to anyone else who might be a guest for a meal.
Forks are set on the left side of the setting. This is because we use our left hand to eat with a fork. Voila! There it is just waiting to be picked up. Knives and spoons are placed on the right hand side of the setting for exactly the same reason. As a rule, in a formal setting set a knife for each fork. This is because when correctly eating, you need a knife as a helper for your fork. Hence, a salad fork needs a corresponding knife, as does a luncheon fork, dinner fork or fish fork. Remember that the blade of the knife always points to the left.
Dessert utensils present us with a slight variation. The dessert fork is accompanied by a dessert spoon. Dessert is properly eaten from the spoon, using the fork as a pusher of sorts. These can be placed with the rest of the cutlery or arranged at the top of the setting, where many people find it more decorative. Space plays a part here as well. One rule to remember is that additional flatware placed on the table solely as decoration is incorrect. Think of this is simply being practical. If you don’t need a spoon for soup, don’t set one.
At some public eating places, there is an informal flatware/napkin service known as the ‘roll-up’. This is efficient, hygienic and in style all over the world. This also serves to successfully confuse people who see no reason not to duplicate this setting at home, placing the fork, knife and spoon all on the left on the napkin. My feeling is that if we want to eat informally at home, that is exactly what we should do. But please keep in mind that it is important to know the difference between formal, informal and roll up settings.
Sitting at the dinner table - even if only occasionally - provides an important venue for families to have pleasant social interaction. This is important for many reasons, not the least of which is to familiarise our children with solid skills. Remember that the dinner table is not the arena for unpleasant confrontations. A meal together is a time to learn about what each family member is doing, if there are any problems that might be resolved and what plans and projects each person has. It is a time to share something pleasant to eat in a relaxed atmosphere. Negative interactions while eating are simply bad for one’s digestion.
Whether a fancy holiday meal, a simple meal with friends or a regular family supper, someone has to set the table. Often this task is assigned to a child. This is a wonderful opportunity for our children to learn these simple skills correctly and help build their self-esteem as well. Setting a table correctly and consistently is an important life skill. Teach it correctly and your kids will thank you one day.
Jay Remer is the Etiquette Guy, and is certified by the Protocol School of Washington as a consultant for corporate etiquette and international protocol.