Black Women's Improvement Project (BWIP)

Etiquette 101: Know your place (setting)

A colleague of mine attended a wedding with her husband a few years ago. At the reception when she and her husband sat down at their assigned table, she reached for her roll and the wedding guest to her left gave her an annoyed look. The dialogue went something like this:

My Friend: Oh, I’m sorry did you think this was your roll?
The Guest: Well it is isn’t it?
My Friend: Actually it is not, but you can have it if you like.

(At this time the left side of the table all agreed vocally that it was his roll)

The Guest: And what makes you so sure this is your roll anyway?

My Friend (In a continued polite soft spoken tone): Well, I am an etiquette instructor and I do this for a living.

The silence was deafening; the man, his wife (who took his roll in error), and the other almighty defenders of this mans carb portion were embarrassed into silence. It was not my friend’s intention to embarrass the gentleman, she just politely explained the reason she reached for the roll on her left because at a formal place setting she understood the set up having taught people the correct way to dine for over 20 years. This week I share with you the elements of a proper place setting and some tricks to remember in case you are ever faced with a mutiny over a roll at a formal dinner or wedding reception. Below is a diagram of formal American/European dinner setting

Most of the places we dine have a more casual atmosphere where the knife, steak knife, and fork are wrapped in a napkin so if you are not familiar with it, allow me to explain (Hint: DREAM BIG you might dine with the Queen of England one day and you will need to know this). If you saw the movie “Titanic” and recall the dinner scene in first class and Jack is overwhelmed with all the flatware in front of him and Molly whispers “start from the outside and work your way in”. When you are dining formally, your flatware is organized according to how the courses will be served. According to the above diagram, this is the order of in which the courses will be served and the number of the flatware used I listed next to the course:


Place setting

Appetizer (1)
Soup (2)
Fish (3,4)
Entrée/Main Course (5,6)
Salad (7,8)
Desert (10,11)

The roll is usually eaten throughout the meal so it is not listed and depending on how elaborate the meal is there might be even more flatware for more courses. This setting is on the medium light side. In formal Victorian dinners, each guest has had to use as many as 31 pieces of flatware! The above diagram is set up European style, if it were American, you may not have a fish course and the salad would be more and likely served after the soup instead of after the main course/entrée’.

If you sit down to a formal dinner and have a case of amnesia, here are some things to use as reminders:

If you make an “ok” sign with both your left and right hands (using the index finger and thumb, Your left had will form a small case “b” and your right hand a small case “d” that is a reminder that the bread /roll to the left and the water/wine glasses to the right are yours.

Most of the items that are spelled with four letters will be to your left (l-e-f-t)

Most of the items to your right (r-i-g-h-t) will be spelled with five letters:


If you feel like Jack just remember, that you start on the outside and work your way in, the furthest utensil on your right (cocktail appetizer fork/soup spoon) is the first utensil you pick up unless there is an accompanying utensil on the left (if salad is served first, then you have a salad fork on the left and a salad knife on the right). Above all else, enjoy your meal and if there is a mutiny over a roll, let them have it and politely ask the server for another.

Bon Appetit!

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