Delicious food is only one feature of a truly enjoyable meal. For dining with others to be a pleasure, the behaviours of the host, the guest and the wait staff must all proceed in an anticipated fashion. In fact, an enjoyable meal has many similarities to a highly choreographed dance. The most important facet is known as the symmetry of dining. The symmetry of dining allows the host to guide the guests through the meal with a minimum of issues and faux pas.
Symmetry of Dining I — Upon arriving at the table, the host should indicate where the guests should sit. For a formal meal, there may be name cards or an official seating chart. For less formal meals, the host may direct guests or allow them to seat themselves. Until all guests have arrived, the napkins remain on the table. As humans, our eyes are more attracted to symmetrical visuals. When one guest removes a napkin, the guests to follow will not have the same visceral, and more pleasing, view of the table-scape. It’s better that as the host, you wait for all of the guests to arrive before touching the napkin.
Symmetry of Dining II — When ordering from a menu, hosts provide clues and cues for the guests to follow the symmetry. Prior to the wait staff arriving to take orders, the host will indicate how many courses to order. Guests follow the host’s lead. When food or a plate is brought to one person, every person should also receive a plate. Diners do not want to be in a situation where they are eating and others are watching, or visa versa. Should a host fail to provide a clue as to the number of courses, guests may ask “what are you planning to order?” or “what do you recommend?” If the host is vague, order just your entrée and wait to see if the host orders any appetisers. Then, you can also order an appetiser as needed.
Symmetry of Dining III — This same symmetry applies to ordering of drinks. If the host has a glass of wine, so should the guests. If the guest does not drink alcohol, the guest may opt for a soft drink instead. When the wait staff brings the additional glasses, the number of glasses at each setting should remain equal.
Symmetry of Dining IV — In formal situations, even the table conversation has a symmetry. During the first course, the host speaks with the guest to his/her right. The next two people speak and so on around the table. Then, for the second course, the host will turn his/her attention to the guest to his/her left. The next two people speak and so on around the table. The attentions turn with the changing of the courses. In less formal situations, the conversation is allowed to flow. Do keep in mind, anyone in-between the two speakers is automatically included in the conversation.
Symmetry of Dining V — The topics of table conversation follow a symmetry as well. The host sets the tone for the guests to follow. If the host is keeping the conversation light, such as hobbies and vacations, the guests should keep their topics light. If the host has opted to speak of weighty matters, guests may delve into more complicated topics. However, any conversation held during a meal should veer clear of any topics which could potentially upset or anger any of those gathered. Should the talk upset someone at the table, the topic should swiftly be changed.
Symmetry of Dining VI — As the meal progresses, the host and guests should maintain a similar rate of consumption. This does not mean forkfuls need to be matched bite for bite. Rather, diners should be cognisant of others. In formal situations, when the host places his/her utensils in the finished position, guests should as well. Gracious hosts are aware of when guests are slowing and will wait as needed. Guests who eat quickly, should take care not to finish well before the rest of the table.
These symmetries of dining direct appropriate behaviour when eating with others. An understanding of these unstated guidelines allows everyone involved in the meal to enjoy the interaction. Remember, manners do matter.
For more tips buy Jodi's book The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners.
This was first published in the April 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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