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The 10 DOs and DON'Ts of American Table Manners

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

In America, when you’re having a meal with family (especially extended family), you should observe a few table manners that will help you avoid causing a major scene.

In all seriousness, observing manners at the table can make make your dinner companions feel respected, included, and welcomed. It makes the meal more fulfilling and enjoyable for everyone.

Below, I’ll list some essential do’s and don’ts of American dining etiquette. Read until the end or watch me explain it all in this video!

The Do’s

Before we get to the details, let me make it clear that we are not talking about formal dinner etiquette here. We’re only focusing on how to be polite at casual dinners (which is far more common).

For context, in my 33 years of being alive as an American, I've only been to two formal dinners, and I had no idea which fork to use or where to put my glass. These casual etiquette rules are far more useful because you will need them far more often.

Ok, let's get to our list of DOs:

1. Always say Please and Thank you

In America, even the best friends will say please and thank you to one another when necessary. So at a dinner table, ensure you say please when asking for something. And say thank you when someone has done something for you or given you something (like passed the salt).

2. Focus on Asking Questions

It’s quite rude to keep talking about yourself. So, it’s best to begin conversations with questions. Ask someone about their day or how they feel.

If you’re meeting someone for the first time, you can ask “What do you do?” It’s a good icebreaker.

3. Pay Attention to the Volume

Do not shout or talk over others at the dinner table. Make sure you are audible to everyone but do not make them uncomfortable. If you're at a big party with a bunch of people also speaking loudly, of course, it's ok to fit in. A good rule of thumb is to watch what others are doing, get a sense for the overall volume of the conversations, and adjust accordingly.

4. Ask for the Things You Need

If you want someone to pass something to you, always ask for it. Do. Not. Reach. It’s rude. Also, don't demand it like you're royalty.

For example, if you want someone to pass the salad, you can say “Can you please pass the salad?” instead of “Pass the salad."

5. Compliment the Cook

At dinners like Thanksgiving, everyone brings a dish they're particularly good at making. They’re looking forward to positive feedback. So, it’s a good idea to praise the cook. Who doesn't like a little praise? (Ahem, people with low self-esteem...CATHY!)

Even at everyday dinners, it’s polite to try the dish and compliment the cook. Stay quiet if you do not have something nice to say about the dish. "It was too dry" is a comment best kept to yourself.

The Don’ts

Enough with the Dos. Let's get into the DON'Ts!

1. Never Reach for Something

It’s highly problematic to reach over a serving dish or someone’s plate to get something. What if a hair strand from your sleeve falls off in the dish? Or dandruff? Or lint? Or some other awful thing? That’s gross.

Always ask someone to pass the dish or beverage when it is out of reach.

2. Don’t Burp

Loud burps are unacceptable at the American dinner table. If you feel the need to burp, politely excuse yourself and go to the bathroom to burp. Or, master the art of letting it out through your nose ever so slowly.

If you’ve accidentally had a small burp, say excuse me. And then sit in the shame of what you've done for the rest of the meal.

3. Don’t Put Your Elbows on the Table

It’s impolite to have both your elbows on the dinner table. It’s disrespectful. Always have your elbows half down the table with your arms resting at the edge of the table. The exception to this is when you see everyone else doing it.

Some people really don't follow this etiquette rule. If you're with people like that, go for it.

4. Don't Slouch

Slouching evokes general disinterestedness, and perhaps a lack of confidence. It is also disrespectful at the dinner table.

When sitting with people at a dinner table, sit with a straight back. Ensure that you’re upright and approachable to all.

5. Don't Eat Big Chunks of Food

In American culture, you should always break your food into smaller bite-sized pieces before you bring it to your mouth.

If it’s a piece of steak, use a fork to hold it in place, then cut a bite-sized piece with your knife. Stab the piece of steak with a fork and bring it to your mouth. Do not growl like a hungry wolf when doing this (which is what I do when I eat steak at home by myself).

Also, chew with your mouth closed. Make sure you don’t make any annoying sounds.

Bonus Tip: Pass VS Passing

Pass and passing are often confused at the table. Watch the end of my video about American table manners to understand the difference. I’ve shared a useful trick!

Which of these is most surprising for you? Which is most different from your culture. I love learning about cultural differences, so feel free to share something!

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