Napkin Etiquette

And this is what your napkin looks like after the meal, loosely gathered and placed to the left of your place setting.

And this is what your napkin looks like after the meal, loosely gathered and placed to the left of your place setting.

This is what your place setting looks like before you start. Napkin is under your fork. (Also, bless my mother for ensuring that I own a set of cloth napkins and placemats!)

This is what your place setting looks like before you start. Napkin is under your fork. (Also, bless my mother for ensuring that I own a set of cloth napkins and placemats!)








Yeah, I know you think you know how to use a napkin, but from my observations, there are some finer points to napkin etiquette that not everyone is aware of.

Different kinds of napkins:

  • Lunch napkins- lunch napkins are smaller than dinner napkins. You don’t fold it when putting it in your lap.
  • Dinner napkins- are the biggest napkin, and you fold it in half before putting it on your lap.
  • Cocktail napkins- are small and are mostly used to put around the bottom of your drink.

How to Use Your Napkin:

  • When eating meals, always put your napkin across your lap (I even do this when eating lunch at my desk at work…there is such a thing as taking etiquette too far!).
  • You never refold your napkin at the end of the meal, you gather it loosely and place it next to your place setting.
  • Napkin rings are used to hold a used napkin for the next meal (and they should be different…or if you are a WASP, monogrammed…so everyone knows which belongs to them), but this should only be done with immediate family. Nowadays, napkin rings are used more for additional decoration.
  • Napkins must never be tucked into the collar, except for very small children.
  • Generally at formal meals, the napkin matches the color of the tablecloth. At very fancy restaurants, the waiter will sometimes change out the white napkin for a black one if you are wearing dark clothing, to prevent lint spots (this happened to me at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans recently!)
  • If you need to leave the table during the meal, loosely gather the napkin and place it next to your plate (try to have the least dirty side facing up). It is generally recommended not to leave the napkin on your chair, as it will dirty the fabric of the chair cushion.

Symbols of Hospitality

Charleston has this amazing pineapple fountain to symbolize it's famous hospitality.

Charleston has this amazing pineapple fountain to symbolize it’s famous hospitality.

Just a few traditional symbols we associate with hospitality.


Since pineapple was tropical and difficult to import it was very rare. So a sailor would come home and impale one on the fence of his house to show that “the man of the house” was home and people could come visit.

Since it was expensive and hard to come by, colonial families would serve pineapple as a special dessert when guests came to visit and then the guest would sleep in the bed with pineapples carved on it.

It is also said that when a guest had overstayed his welcome, you would place a pineapple at the foot of his bed and he would know that it was time to leave.

From this history, pineapples became a very popular motif, especially in the South where you can find pineapple designs on everything.


Courting Candle:





A courting candle was used back in the day to mark the amount of time that a suitor was allowed to visit. Once the candle burned down to the top of the candle holder, he had to leave. The trick was that the candle could be adjusted so that it could be really tall, giving the suitor a lot of time, or really short so his stay would be brief.


Bread and Salt:

This is a real thing in Slavic countries, with special decorated ritual bread and salt dishes. The women of the family present the bread and salt to the guest and the guest dips the bread into the salt and eats it.

However, when I had it in my head as a traditional historical custom that meant that the guest could come to no harm in the host’s house, it turns out that I was thinking of the custom from Game of Thrones and not a real thing. Maybe we are due for a post on etiquette in fiction?


There is a good chance that all of these are folklore more than historical fact, but they are still pretty interesting, no?

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Distinguish Between Daytime and Evening Attire

The author dressed for Junior Prom- clearly evening wear.

The author dressed for Junior Prom- clearly evening wear.

I am putting this in “thank goodness we don’t have to do that anymore” because really these days, you can wear whatever you want. Wearing “evening” clothing pieces during daytime cycles through trendiness pretty regularly also. However, there are plenty of people who still see certain things as being for nighttime only. I was shopping with my mom a few years ago and she wouldn’t let me buy an otherwise office-appropriate cardigan because it had sparkly buttons.

While we don’t have to follow Emily Post’s rules about what is appropriate to wear in the morning, the afternoon, evening, dinner at home, dinner out, and in the ballroom (and believe me, there are many, many rules), there are some basics that you can remember.

Things that are for evening only:

  • Shiny fabrics: these are your satins, sequins, some silks (more matte silks are fine for day), velvet, lamé, etc.
  • Sparkles: beading, rhinestones, sequins
  • Evening shoes: very high heels, very strappy/sexy, lots of jewels, metallics (though there are many nice daytime appropriate metallics)
  • Major cleavage is generally considered to be mostly for evening
  • And for the guys: tuxedos. Never wear a tuxedo before 6pm (and yes this includes for weddings. A wedding starting at 5 or so is fine, but not 11am, 2pm, etc.)

Even though we don’t REALLY have to follow these rules, I still find myself packing my fancy rhinestone earrings in my bag and swapping my work earrings if I am going to something fancy after work. What is everyone else’s opinion- are day and evening clothes still a distinction we should make or does anything go? Mariah Carey definitely does not care a bit about what is appropriate (but honestly, Mariah Carey is an exception to everything.)

How To Borrow From A Friend

The important thing to remember about borrowing things from friends is that you have to give whatever you took back. Do whatever it takes to remember this. Don’t put, say a book, with your own books. Keep it separate. Even set a reminder on your calendar to return it by a certain date.

When you are asking to borrow something, pay attention to your friends tone of voice. If they seem reluctant to let you borrow it, let it go. Don’t ask to borrow things that are very valuable or sentimental.

Treat anything you borrow with the absolute best care and return it in absolutely the condition you found it in. If you damage it in any way, offer to repair or replace it.

Say thank you when you return it. And if your friend asks for it back, return it ASAP.

If your friend has borrowed something:

Try to put your name on it, especially for a book or a DVD or something. People are much more likely to remember to return it.

If you need it back, just ask nicely. If they keep flaking, you might need to go to their house to get it yourself.

Don’t lend out anything that you would seriously miss if it was never returned.




(PS. Jaya, I will return your book ASAP, I promise, XOXOXO)

Dorothy Parker Reviews Emily Post

If you’ve been reading Uncommon Courtesy for a while, you’ll notice we talk about Emily Post a lot. Obviously a lot of that is because Emily Post is pretty much the first name in etiquette (apologies to Miss Manners). Part of that is because of her ubiquitousness, but also because her original Etiquette holds up so well as an entertaining read.

Dorothy Parker, as a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1927, thought so too and wrote a really wonderful review of that year’s edition of the book. She saw it as a story (Emily Post was originally a novelist!) as much as a series of instructions, noting that the addition of a repeating set of characters “gives the work all the force and the application of a morality play.” Legend has it that the Mrs. Worldlys and Mr. Gildings of the book were based on the real people of upper New York society that Emily Post knew.

While she loves the “sprightliness of Mrs. Post’s style,” Parker finds fault with the person who perfectly follows every rule of the lengthy tome.

Those who have mastered etiquette, who are entirely, impeccably right, would seem to arrive at a point of exquisite dullness. The letters and the conversations of the correct, as quoted by Mrs. Post, seem scarcely worth the striving for. The rules for the finding of topics of conversation fall damply on the spirit. “You talk of something you have been doing or thinking about–planting a garden, planning a journey, contemplating a journey, or similar safe topics. Not at all a bad plan is to ask advice: “‘We want to motor through the South. Do you know about the roads?’ Or, ‘I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?’”

I may not dispute Mrs. Post. If she says that is the way you should talk, then, indubitably, that is the way you should talk. But though it be at the cost of that future social success I am counting on, there is no force great enough ever to make me say, “I’m thinking of buying a radio.”

Of course, this is part of what we are trying to accomplish in our discussions on etiquette here on Uncommon Courtesy, exactly how to find the balance between the perfectly polite while still retaining your personality and meshing all the different ideas that people have about etiquette with what is generally considered to be correct. Anyway, go read the whole essay, it’s fantastic.