Skip to main content

Proper etiquette for every occasion

By Yolanda Wikiel; additional reporting by Kaitlyn Pirie, Real Simple
updated 6:33 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Etiquette experts offer tips on evenings out, travel, courteous kids and smartphones
  • In the Middle Ages, a code of conduct limited violence among competing warriors
  • Contrary to popular belief, elbows on the table are fine when you're not eating

(CNN) -- Welcome to Real Simple Finishing School -- your be-all, end-all, 2014 authority on awkward interactions, stressful situations and elbows on the table (still rude?).

Please be so kind as to take a seat. Class is about to begin.

Meet our wise and wonderful etiquette experts

Benet Davetian, author of "Civility: A Cultural History"; director of the Civility Institute; and associate professor of sociology at the University of Prince Edward Island, in Charlottetown.

Faye de Muyshondt, founder of the Socialsklz etiquette program, in New York City, and author of "Socialsklz:-) for Success."

Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas, in San Antonio.

Catherine Newman, etiquette columnist for Real Simple.

Anna Post, a coauthor of "Emily Post's Etiquette, 18th edition," and a great-great-granddaughter of the famed manners maven.

Patricia Rossi, etiquette coach based in Safety Harbor, Florida, and author of Everyday Etiquette.

Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith, an etiquette consulting firm in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and author of "The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners."

Manners 101

Where are your manners? Gone the way of hoop skirts and high tea? Beyond the reflexive "please" and "thank you" (just like Mom taught us), politeness sometimes seems like a low (and slow) priority in a fast-paced, 4G world.

RealSimple.com: 5 Great Things about Growing Old

Contrary to what you may think, we're not, as a culture, getting ruder. In fact, experts agree that we're more conscious of respecting others than ever before. Interesting when you consider why etiquette was invented in the first place: In the Middle Ages, a code of conduct was a way to limit violence among competing warriors. (Look at that -- a "no spitting at the table" rule works!) Later, in the Victorian era, according to Benet Davetian, author of "Civility: A Cultural History," complex rules of propriety were used as a means of differentiating among the classes. (Not so nice, right?) When the let-it-all-hang-out 1960s rolled around, many of the old social graces broke down. And now modern technology has introduced a slew of additional opportunities for rudeness (which we take full advantage of!). But, explains Diane Gottsman of the Protocol School of Texas, "today manners are less about faux pas than being mindful of how you treat people around you." So the rules aren't as cut-and-dried as they once were. If you're like most people, you have questions. That's why Real Simple rallied the experts for updated advice on everything from bread plates to bcc.

Your refresher course is served.

Manners at the table

Elbow placement

Elbows on the table are fine when you're not eating. What you don't want to do is use your elbow as a fulcrum for bringing food to your mouth. Wrists on the table are always OK.

Using the right fork

Work from the outside in: salad fork to dessert fork.

Using the right bread plate

Think BMW. Your bread plate is on your left; meal plate, in the middle; water, on the right.

Digging in

Wait until everyone has been served or the host gives you the green light. If there's a large number of people or a buffet, you can begin eating when you get your food. At weddings and in other situations where there's preset food, wait until the host gives you the OK to start.

Passing food

For the first time around the table, dishes should be passed counterclockwise so that the right hand is free for serving. (Sorry, southpaws.) If you're asked to pass salt or pepper, pass both.

Reaching

If you can get the item you need without fully extending your arm, go for it. Otherwise ask to have it passed.

Leaving the table

When you need to step away, say, "Excuse me. I'll be right back." No one needs to know the details. Leave your napkin loosely on the table to the left of your plate, not on your seat.

Manners for parties

RSVP'ing

Always do it, and do it on time. Websites like Evite have technology that allows the host to see who has read the invitation (and at what time). In other words, a snubbed or delayed RSVP comes off as ungrateful and careless.

Bringing others

Whoever is listed on the envelope is invited. If your baby's name isn't included, he's not invited. If it says "The Smith Family," then everyone living under that roof is welcome.

Special food needs

For large parties, you're on your own. Don't mention dietary needs to your host. For small dinner parties, let the host know as soon as possible. If you adhere to an especially tricky-to-accommodate diet, ask if you can bring a dish. And be sure to add, "I can't wait to be there."

Arrival time

For a dinner party, show up 10 to 15 minutes after the scheduled time. Never show up early, because the host may not be ready. Any later than 15 minutes and you need to let the host know.

Mingling

To join a new conversation at a cocktail party, catch someone's eye, smile, and enter the clique on a break. And if you see someone who wants to participate, pull her in when there's a lull.

Ditching and switching crowds

Instead of pulling the bathroom ploy, get used to saying, "It's been lovely chatting with you. Please excuse me." There's nothing wrong with moving on to speak with others. That's the purpose of a party -- to socialize.

Connecting people

Introduce the two parties and explain what they have in common. Then say, "I'm going to leave you two to chat. I'll catch up with you later."

Saying good-bye

If there are fewer than a dozen people in attendance, you should say good-bye to the host. If there are more than that, you can slip out and send a text or an e-mail later saying, "What a great party! Thank you so much for having us."

Leaving promptly

Don't be the last guest unless you're a close friend. The evening is over when any one of the following is true: The music is off, the lights are on, the drinks are stoppered or the food is cleaned up.

Kicking out guests

When it's getting late, you can say, "I have an early morning tomorrow, and I'm going to have to start cleaning." Or be blunt yet kind: "I'm so happy you came and stayed until the end. But if you'll excuse me now, I'm going to have to turn in."

Mobile society leads to bad manners?

Manners for correspondence

Returning e-mails

Try your best to respond within 24 hours.

Expressing gratitude

When you receive a gift or someone does you a big favor, send a handwritten thank-you note. It only needs to be a few sentences. (And it's fine to continue on the back of a card if you need to say more.) Completely at a loss? Use small stationery and write one sentence ("I really appreciate..."). Include a warm greeting and a sign-off. Mail the note as soon as you can, but definitely within two weeks.

Business thank-you

After a job interview, send an immediate e-mail of thanks and mention that a note is in the mail. The latter has more impact because it's tactile, visual, and emotional. Some human-resources executives value this as a demonstration of strong interpersonal skills. Also send a handwritten thank-you for a college or job recommendation.

E-mail greetings and sign-offs

It's OK to drop the "hello" and "many thanks" after some back-and-forth. Also, pay attention to a person's signature. Does she go by her full name or a nickname? Then opt for her choice in future e-mails.

Reply all

Click this when you need to address the whole group. But if what you have to say concerns only the organizer, spare everyone else.

BCC on e-mails

Use bcc (blind carbon copy) only to maintain the privacy of addresses in a group e-mail, not as a sneaky one-way mirror to a conversation. If you want someone else to see what you wrote, forward the e-mail after the message has been sent.

RealSimple.com: Experts Offer Advice for Tough Times

Travel etiquette and bad manners

Manners for planes, trains and buses

Armrests

The person in the middle seat gets both, because he doesn't have the aisle armrest or the window to lean on.

Overhead storage

Unless the flight attendants tell you otherwise, use the compartment closest to your seat.

Headphones

The volume shouldn't be so loud that your seatmates can discern that you have a soft spot for Katy Perry.

Putting your feet up

Seats are for sitting. Keep dirty shoes off them.

Kicking off shoes

For trips under three hours (this includes commuter trains), footwear stays on. If you do remove your shoes for longer flights, don't go bare. Bring along a nice pair of socks or slippers. Any issues with odor? Keep the feet contained.

Crying kids

There's not much you can do except slip on noise-canceling headphones and offer a sympathetic look to the parents, who already realize that the sobbing is disturbing everyone on board.

Giving up seats

Stand up for pregnant women, young children, the elderly and anyone with a physical impediment.

Bringing food

Is it smelly or messy to consume? Never a good idea in close quarters.

Exiting efficiently

To avoid a pushy logjam in a plane aisle, don't get up until the person in the row ahead of you has left her seat.

RealSimple.com: 5 Things Worth Admitting To

Manners for evenings out

Getting the bartender's attention

Make eye contact and smile. Tip well for the first round so that he'll check in with you later. What not to do: snap your fingers, flash a wad of cash or do the hailing-a-taxi salute.

Squeezing past people 

In a theater row, face the stage so that if you lose your balance, you can grab the back of the seat in front of you, not topple onto a stranger. When people scoot past you, stand up so that the seat folds up, then step back. However, if the show is under way, just move your legs to one side.

RealSimple.com: How to Tell If Someone is Lying

Cell phones 

Off the table at restaurants, and turned off and put away at the theater. Don't assume that you can sneak a peek. The glow of the screen distracts others in the audience. Skip the public shaming. Alert an usher and let him handle it.

Critiquing the performance 

Hold your two cents until you're safely away from the theater. Family or friends of the performers may be nearby.

Smartphone syndrome

In a world where condolence tweets (hashtag #RIP) have become commonplace, is it any wonder that smartphones and social media have opened a can of etiquette worms? "We tend to get overly comfortable because of the ease of using our devices," says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman. In the interest of helping you clean up your highly wired act, listed (and corrected) below are some of the most flagrant breaches of digital decorum.

Posting about a night out when others weren't invited

It's bound to happen occasionally, but try to be mindful of people's feelings and think before you post.

Group texting

Refrain unless it's necessary to address several people at once. Otherwise reply only to the sender without dragging along the whole crowd.

RealSimple.com: How to Stop Procrastinating

Pressuring others to reciprocate a follow

Every follow is a judgment call, and you need to determine if it's a good fit for you -- as do others.

Caps lock

YOU'RE SHOUTING! Use caps sparingly.

Early-a.m. or late-p.m. texting

You may give someone a very rude awakening. Unless you're familiar with a person's schedule, check in during business hours or network prime time.

Scooping someone's news

Don't steal a friend's baby announcement thunder by tweeting "OMG!" before she has told her coworkers. Also avoid posting images from an event until you OK it with the host.

Tough talks

Don't hide behind the keypad. If you get an upsetting text from someone you know, telephone him or discuss it in person.

Courteous kids

Faye de Muyshondt, the founder of the Socialsklz etiquette program for children and young adults in New York City, recommends not using the word "manners" unless you're a glutton for eye-rolls. Here are some key social skills for kids and teens and how to teach them.

What to say in a thank-you note

Young kids don't have to say much. A drawing is a perfect thank-you. For older children, a small note card with three short sentences is plenty. Here's what to say: what you're expressing gratitude for ("Thank you for the kite!"), how it made you feel or how you're going to use the gift ("I can't wait to fly it in the park"), and something nice about the gifter ("You're a cool aunt.")

How to pick up their cell phones

Explain that it's rude to send every call to voice mail. That said, also make sure that they know that "hello" or "hi," not "hey" or "whassup?" is the appropriate greeting if a grown-up is calling.

How to talk to very old people

On the way to grandma's house, say, "Remember to speak slower and louder because Grams can't hear as well as you can." Never correct kids in front of others. This creates a negative association and may inadvertently insult someone else. Instead, talk later at home about what to do next time.

How to shake hands

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

Demonstrate that the web between the index finger and the thumb should meet the other person's web. Curl your fingers around the bottom of the other person's hand with a firm, not bone-crushing, grip. Shake for the duration of the intro ("Hi, my name is..."), maintaining eye contact and good posture while smiling.

How to respect other people's ears

Time to role-play. Blast music that you know the kids don't like so they understand that not everyone wants to listen to their loud tunes or gaming sound effects.

How to respect personal space

Get nose to nose and ask, "Is this too close?" Then show them how it feels to converse with in a more comfortable range (about half an arm's length away).

How not to say "Eww!"

When you have company or are visiting someone's home, give kids a pass on eating foods that they don't like, but tell them that words like gross and yuck should never be uttered, because it's hurtful to the person who cooked. You don't have to be the Manners Enforcer every night, by the way. You'll get better results if you practice skills weekly with a "fancy Friday" dinner at home.

RealSimple.com: 5 Ways to Stay Cool Under Pressure

How to expand beyond one-word answers

Turn learning conversational skills into a ball game. The rules are: Whoever has the ball has to say more than one word and ask a question before passing the ball. Try to keep the back-and-forth going for 30 seconds, then progress to one minute, then two.

How not to stare at someone who's different

In the moment, remind kids of the "only eyes" rule: If they're going to look, they should focus on the person's eyes, not gawk at his funny outfit. It's also a good idea to prep children before you run into a situation so that they're not caught off guard. Go through a few examples of the types of people they may encounter, then ask them how they would feel if strangers were eyeballing them.

Highly specific (and perhaps hilarious) dos and don'ts from Real Simple readers and staff

DO remove both earbuds when having a conversation. DON'T clip your nails in public.

DO smile at coworkers as you pass in the hall. DON'T ask newlyweds when they plan to start a family.

DO cover your mouth when yawning. DON'T wear so much perfume that people can smell it from more than an arm's length away.

DO be kind to restaurant and retail staff. DON'T say that you'll be there in 10 minutes if it's really 20.

DO hold the door for the person behind you, and also grab the door when you're the one for whom the door is being held. DON'T blow your nose at the table.

DO put your shopping cart where it belongs instead of leaving it in a parking space to crash into a random car. DON'T ask when she's due if you're not certain she's pregnant.

DO wipe down the exercise machine at the gym after you're finished. DON'T say "No problem" when you mean "You're welcome."

DO move to the right when you pass other pedestrians on the sidewalk. DON'T be too much of a stickler for manners or you'll drive yourself bananas -- life is short!

Get a FREE TRIAL issue of Real Simple - CLICK HERE!

Copyright © 2011 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Living reflects your life. From advice for modern parents to the freshest news in food: It's all here.
updated 12:06 PM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
Travis and Joyce Miller started producing hickory syrup as an experiment. Demand for the unique flavor has turned into a full-time business.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
These happy couples kept the campfire flames burning, and turned summer flings into lifetime commitments.
updated 1:33 PM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
Shanesha Taylor says a moment of "desperation" led her to leave her children in a car during a job interview.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Bikinis might dominate the beaches, but style editors and trend forecasters say the one-piece is the "fashion-forward" choice this season.
updated 10:42 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Are you ready for this? These guidelines tell you when to wash everything, from sheets and cars to bras and hair.
updated 7:21 AM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
"I am a canvas of my experiences, my story is etched in lines and shading," says tattoo artist Kat Von D. Is this a good thing?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT