At one point in our lives, we have witnessed or experienced some embarrassing moments when it comes to table manners. It is annoying. Cringing. And can leave one humiliated.
And this probably explains why President William Ruto termed the table manners of some Kenya Kwanza leaders during meetings as ‘embarrassing’.
This prompted him to demand all leaders undergo etiquette sessions to impact them with the right skills.
The President said this when he opened the Kenya Kwanza Parliamentary Group retreat on September 16.
Dining etiquette is a must for professionals since we attend many occasions either as hosts or guests. Such good mannerisms enhance personal effectiveness in social settings.
Different countries, and regions, as well as cultural and religious groups, have different taboos, and dos and don’ts in matters of table etiquette.
This, therefore, raises key questions, whose rules of conduct are to be followed while dining, what appropriate behaviour entails, and what the conventions and expected behaviour patterns at the table are.
A story is told of a man who attended a conference where lunch was served by the poolside. The gentleman, after serving food, received a phone call as he walked to his table. So engrossed was he in the telephone conversation that he did not realise how close he was to the swimming pool. The next moment – he found himself in the pool! Thank God he fell in the shallow end.
To interact respectfully with people from different cultures, nations and regions, and to avoid peculiar embarrassments, especially in high-profile situations, below are a few tips to table mannerisms.
Punctuality: Respect the invitation time. If invited to a wedding, birthday or graduation party, respect the host by keeping time. Do not show up at 4.00 pm when the event was to start at 2.00 pm.
Hand cleaning: In formal dining, one is presented with either a hot towel or a finger bowl. A hot towel is for cleaning hands. Do not, suddenly, remember how hot it is and wipe your face with it. A finger bowl is a little bowl on the table amidst the cutlery, used for cleaning the tips of the fingers.
Do not dip the whole hand in the bowl thereby splashing water on the cutlery and table linen. A finger bowl, which would often have lemon water, may look so appealing that some people mistake it as part of the first course of the meal. This can be disastrous.
Napkins: Place a napkin on the laps. Some have buttonholes at a corner, allowing gentlemen to button on their shirts. Do not force it on your chest like a baby bib. Never crawl under the table to pick up a fallen napkin or cutlery. Ask for the waiter’s assistance.
Order of service: Always serve cold foods first except for dessert. In the case of lunch or dinner, one may start with a salad, then soup, the main meal, and finish with dessert. Cultures have prescribed ways of eating and using cutlery. In China, for instance, one is served with chopsticks. The continental style has cutlery: fork, and knife basically. Most African cultures would advocate for eating with fingers. Figure out the event and choose an appropriate method.
Fork and knife is a common formal culture, but one should serve the type of food that can comfortably be handled with the same. For example, avoid chicken wings. Instead, serve drum sticks which such cutlery could handle with ease.
Scanning: Know what is on offer, especially at a buffet. If there is no queue, walk around to establish the available food. Otherwise one might be at the third serving point with a plate full, only to spot the most favourite food ahead. Also, serve one item at a time.
It is ridiculous to serve salad, soup, main meal, and dessert all at the same time. This is not an opportunity to mobilise resources! Quality not quantity: Moderation is key. Buffet means there is a variety to choose from. It does not mean one serves everything.
Picture someone serving ugali, chapati (both white and brown), matoke, rice, and roast potatoes.
The person proceeds to serve fish, chicken, beef, goat ribs, and beans – all on the same plate. Surely, what else could be called corruption?
In dining, one is allowed to go for a second helping. It is, then recommended to serve a few items and if one would like to sample more, take a clean plate for a second helping.
Moving in tandem: In attending the same function and sharing a table with others, one should be careful to move at the same pace as the rest.
If one decides to skip soup while everyone is at it, a sip of water or other soft drink would assist in waiting for the others before the main meal. It is polite to wait until everyone has been served to start eating.
Sitting at the table: Always sit up straight and avoid placing elbows on the table. Access the right stuff at the table. One’s solids are always on the left-hand side – the side plate which carries bread and butter. The liquids - glasses and drinks - are to the right. The silverware should be worked from the outside to inwards as the meal progresses. The arrangement of cutlery guides on the menu items.
Handling utensils: The knife goes to the right hand and the fork to the left, unless one is left-handed. The index fingers provide support. Do not hold a knife like a spear! Cut one mouthful at a time. Chew with the mouth closed without making sounds. Never talk with utensils in the hand. They should be placed on the plate as one takes part in small talk at the table.
Intercepting a salt pass: Intercepting a salt pass is a no! No! If someone asks for salt, do not suddenly remember to use it. Pass it on first, once the person is done with it, then ask for it.
Cell phones: It is impolite to use a cell phone on the table. Please restrain from taking calls or sending text messages while still at the table. It is interpreted to mean that one does not regard the people they are with at the table.
Leave-taking: Should one want to leave the table ahead of the others for some reason, it is important to excuse oneself. Remember to thank the host. It is always courteous.
The writer is a trainer and Consultant in Communication, Official Protocol and Etiquette at the Kenya School of Government.