“People do ask if traditional dining etiquette has fallen out of favour,” admits Kristine Stewart, the polished and amiable director of the Hong Kong Institute of Etiquette. “In fact, table manners will never fall out of favour. But it is important to look at the situation and how you would apply different techniques.” Stewart rightfully points out that the etiquette one applies during a nine-course meal in a fine dining restaurant would look “a bit ridiculous in a casual setting, like a dai pai dong.” In our video above, Stewart talks through the key elements of proper English dining etiquette, highlighting the basic manoeuvres for handling cutlery, napkin placement, and other necessities for a graceful and elegant meal.
Etiquette, Stewart stresses, is not just about knowing how to hold a fork and knife – during her courses, students learn how to be a good host or guest, conversational skills, mobile phone etiquette and simply how to make a good impression. “Etiquette should reflect society,” says Stewart. “And society is always changing so the etiquette has to keep current – otherwise, that’s when it will fall out of favour.”
In addition to the invaluable tips provided in our video, we also asked Stewart to give us a run-down of the essential etiquette protocols for the dinner party season. Here are her rules:
Stop the bad habits
“There are three bad habits I regularly witness,” says Stewart. “The first is the use of mobile phones [at the table]. If someone has made the time to have a meal with you, the least you can do is give them your full attention.” The second faux pas is a lack of punctuality. “How can you make a good impression on someone, especially a first impression, if you’re late?” she asks. “You might have the most impeccable dining etiquette, but if you’re keeping someone waiting, you have already tarnished that impression.”
A third bad habit that is particularly rife in Hong Kong is food wastage, says Stewart. “People over-order, or pile too much on their plates at buffets. As a host, you should be attentive enough to have a little bit of extra food, but there’s no need to show off with your ordering.” Of course, Stewart admits that in certain cultural situations this particular bugbear is less black and white. “In English dining etiquette you should finish everything on your plate – if you do not, it shows you didn’t really like the food,” she explains. “In Hong Kong, we usually do the opposite by leaving a little bit of food on our plate. This indicates that our host has been generous in providing more than enough food.”
Bringing gifts to a dinner party
Stewart suggests bringing wine or chocolate as a gift rather than flowers. “Bringing flowers pulls the host away from their duties because they need to go prepare them in a vase. If you want to give flowers, send them before or after the dinner party.”
The two forbidden table items
There are two things you should never use at the table, says Stewart, and these are toothpicks and lipstick. “They should only be used and applied in the washroom. If you happen to have something stuck in your teeth during a meal, then you subtly try to get it out with water. Otherwise, you just use a toothpick in the washroom. Same thing with lipstick.” For ladies who can’t bear to go bare-lipped, Stewart recommends using lip tint for longer lasting wear.
Top three everyday dining rules
1. Sitting up straight and having proper posture – even if you’re sat on a plastic stool in the middle of the street.
2. Chew with your mouth closed and do not speak until you have swallowed.
3. Offer food and drink to others before helping yourself.
Mingling and conversation
“There’s a few topics during a meal that you should not approach, especially if you don’t know someone very well,” recommends Stewart. And these are: religion, politics, and money. She also suggests reading the newspaper prior to pick up on current topics to get the conversation going. Hosts should try to find common interests or talking points among their guests and make the effort to introduce those who have not been acquainted using these shared interests. Think of the scene in Bridget Jones's Diary where Mark Darcy introduces our heroine with the memorable line, “Bridget is in advertising and used to play naked in my paddling pool”.
Know your duties
“If you are a host, it is your responsibility to make sure that drinks are filled, conversation is lively, and everything is running smoothly. As a guest, you need to be considerate and make things easy for your host – this means notifying them of any dietary restrictions and so on.”