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 Thanksgiving Dinner Etiquette

by Susan Dunn

The days of dining by plucking fruit from trees and roasting small animals over the fire, eating with fingers, and perhaps fighting with others over the scraps are long gone. Or are they?

More and more we swing our car through the drive-in, grab our food from the window, and proceed to eat with our fingers, so perhaps you need a brush-up on the basics of formal – shall we say “civilized” dining – before the great Thanksgiving feast.


Rules of civilized dining evolved because, according to Margaret Visser (“Rituals of Dinner”), “animals are slaughtered and consumed, the guest-host relationship is … a complicated interweaving of the imposition of obligation and the suspension of hostility, and the ordinary table knife is related to actual weapons of war.”

Utensils were to be handled delicately, so as not to alarm. For instance, the knife was not to be held in the fist, like a weapon, nor pointed threateningly at anyone, and conversation was to be gentle, not provocative.

Unless your Uncle Fred manages to provoke your father once again, your festivities are not likely to be quite so overtly hostile, but lets review the basics on how to be the consummate Thanksgiving guest.

1. Respect time.

Arrive on time with a smile on your face and plan to have a good time. Leave on time. If it hasn’t been stated, you will have to use your EQ—your intuition. Watch the host for subtle cues – the more formal the occasion, the more subtle the cues, i.e., changing position in his chair, sighing, and talking about “what a big day we have tomorrow.” As you say you must leave, expect protesting, and expect to leave anyway. It’s a “formality.”

As festivities in people's homes become more rare, the complaint we hear most often is "they just wouldn't go home." One woman wrote me that they had guests come at noon who had to jetissoned at 10 p.m. That's not a get-together, that's an ordeal.

2. Wear your uniform. Do your job.

Yes, as the guest you have responsibilities. Dress appropriately and festively, and prepare to make it a happy occasion. Note “make.” It doesn’t just happen; those in attendance must make it happen. Eat, drink and behave in moderation.

3. When summoned, obey the summons.

As a long-time PR person, you can’t imagine how we appreciate the “leader type” who, when we say, “It’s time to take you seats,” heads for the dining room and beckons her friends to come along; and when the hostess says, “Shall we retire to the living room for coffee,” does the same. Or when she looks at her watch, gives a small haute-yawn and says, "Oh my, it's getting late" -- head, politely, for the door!

4. Observe protocol.

Age before rank. “Special” people would be the great-grandmother, then if you’ve invited your boss, or there’s a guest of honor. The most special person “sitteth on the right hand” of the host and hostess, who are seated at opposite ends of the table. If there are not place cards, it’s appropriate to ask, “Where would you like us to sit?”

5. Once seated, stay awake!

Look to your hostess to lead. At this meal even the most unsuspecting people will say a grace, for instance. The hostess will indicate when to start passing things, and when she starts to eat, you may eat. Facilitate the meal for others – start passing the shared items, the salt and pepper (both), the butter, the cranberry sauce, and the gravy.

6. The passing of things.

If your plates are served, then when someone asks for the salt, pick up both the salt and pepper and place them down beside the person next to you. They are not passed hand-to-hand, and only the requesting party may use them. Inefficient? Manners are not about efficiency.

7. Make conversation.

It’s an active thing! At a smaller seating, there may be one general conversation; in a larger group, talk with the people across from you and on either side of you. If you’re conversation-challenged, work with your coach and come up with a list of conversation-starters, i.e., Did you see that great special on PBS last night? What are your plans for Christmas this year? How was the traffic at the airport? What football team are you rooting for? Start training your children young. Help them come up with a list of things to talk about. They’ll love it and feel included.

Your hostess will appreciate if you keep the conversation going, spend some time with the shy people or the octogenarian, and help with awkward silences. At formal dinners, businesses lunches and other dining occasions traditionally when the food is served, everyone starts eating and there’s a silence. Someone needs to “break the ice.” Plan for this and be prepared with a confident and cheery, “It sure gets quiet when the food comes,” or “Marcella, where did you find fresh arugula this time of year?”

8. What about all those utensils and glasses?

The general rule is work from the outside in. Go here to review: http://www.cuisinenet.com/digest/custom/etiquette/manners_intro.shtml 

9. Beginnings and endings.

The napkin. When you’re seated, place your napkin in your lap. When you’re finished, place your utensils on your plate; don’t push it away. Place your napkin loosely to the side of your plate.

10. Odds ‘n’ Ends

Sit upward in your chair; don’t lean back. Don’t rest your elbows on the table. It’s permissible to lean forward slightly and rest part of your upper arm on the table. If you take medication, do it discretely and neither mention it nor notice it in others. Something in your mouth you don’t want? The way in is the way out. Spit the olive pit into your palm and place it on your plate. Deposit the turkey bone back on the fork and place in on your plate.

What can you eat with your fingers? Artichokes, plain asparagus, bacon, bread, cookies, corn on the cob, chips, French Fries, hors’ d’oeuvres, sandwiches, small fruits, berries, and cubed cheese. When in doubt, wait and see what your hostess does.

Susan Dunn, San Antonio, TX, USA
Learn more about
Thanksgiving dinner etiquette
Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ Coach, http://www.susandunn.cc , mailto:sdunn@susandunn.cc. Coaching, Internet courses and ebooks around emotional intelligence for your personal and professional success.

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