In my youth, I attended nearly six years of Cotillion lessons. Naturally, I was forced into the lessons for young women, but longed to sit in with the young men: I longed to wear a suit and tie, to ask a lady to dance, to pull out her chair at the table, etc. Although I was not present at the young men’s lessons, I did pay attention, and learned a bit about manners for a gentleman, as well as manners applicable to either gender/sex. So, here’s a quick run down of etiquette for a more formal occasion (weddings, formal dinners/luncheons, etc.), and, as usual, a chapter on “considerations for transmen:”
Sitting Down to a Meal
If you are attending a function with a lady (a date, a mother, a sister, or other female identified family member), it’s always a bit of a wow-factor when you pull out a chair for your guest. When approaching the table, pull out a chair, and make eye contact, indicating the chair is for them (sometimes a hand gesture is necessary, if they’ve never seen you do this before). When the lady stands in front of the chair, slowly push it forward so that it makes contact with the back of her knees, and continue to push slowly, as she slowly sits down. If you’re in sync, she should end up sitting at a comfortable distance from the table. Don’t worry if you don’t get it spot on with your first attempt…this kind of synchronicity takes time to perfect. Only take your seat after all the ladies at the table are seated.
When you first sit down, place your napkin on your lap. Don’t tuck the napkin into your shirt. If water is not poured yet, but there is a pitcher on the table, offer to fill any nearby ladies water first, before pouring your own. The same goes for any wine on the table: offer to pour for ladies first.
Remember to keep your elbows off the table, just like your parents taught you. I know this rule seems silly to many people (in fact, some argue the rule is obsolete; I disagree), but it is useful. You are more likely to keep your sleeves clean if you keep your elbows off the table. Additionally, you take up less space this way, and give your neighboring table-mates more room to move. All-in-all, it’s a good rule.
Conversation at a formal dinner can be a bit of a tightrope walk, especially if you don’t know your table-mates. Keep the conversation light and fluffy, and keep it going. A silent table is awkward and can ruin a perfectly good meal (it’s hard to enjoy food when everyone is feeling awkward and out of place). Avoid controversial topics in the news, religion, politics, any discussion that may be difficult to stomach (medical things, bodily functions, etc) and things like that. It’s always useful to have some backup topics in mind for these types of situations. Personally, I keep a few random trivia tidbits handy, related to the type of event I am attending; for instance, did you know that it’s a Czech tradition to throw peas at the newlyweds, instead of rice? Or that the bridal veil was a tradition started in ancient Greece to keep away evil spirits? These little tidbits can spark up conversation, and are harmless fun. Who knows what kind of trivia your tablemates may know!
The joke has been overdone in the media: a person sits down at a formal table, sees the wide array of silverware and asks “which one do I use?” The common, and most useful answer, is to start from the outside and work your way in. While this helps with the forks, it doesn’t work for every utensil in front of you. Rather than explain every single piece, I’m including a chart for a 4-course, formal dinner service (picture from www.professionalimagedress.com):
This is probably the most common formal dinner setting, but there are many more. For more place settings visit: http://www.professionalimagedress.com/dining-etiquette-seminars-place-settings.htm
I know it can be tempting to tuck into the meal as soon as it is put down in front of you, but hold back: don’t start eating until everyone at the table has been served. Not everyone at the table may follow this rule, but it is good manners, and it is kind to the person whose meal is taking a bit longer to get to the table.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a big fan of bread. So, when the basket of bread gets set down on the table, I want to rip into the first roll I get. However, there are manners to be had there as well. Don’t reach over anyone to get to the basket (and this is true for anything on the table: salt, butter, water, etc), even if you can reach it from your seat, ask someone to please pass the basket (or salt, pepper, etc). It is good manners to only break off individual bite sized pieces of bread, rather than to bite directly into the whole roll. Make sure the pieces you break off are small enough, so that, if someone asks you a question right when you put that piece in your mouth (which is a common occurrence), you don’t leave them hanging for minutes while you chew through a boulder of bread. Butter those bite sized pieces individually, rather than slather the whole roll in butter. Also, I know that the pasta sauce, salad dressing, soup, or other liquid was delicious, but avoid sopping it up with your bread. The exception to this rule is dipping sauces or oil and vinegar meant specifically for the bread.
Salads, believe it or not, can be tricky. Chefs are trained to cut the lettuce small enough that those at the table don’t have to navigate unmanageable bites; alas, some chefs forget, or, think that smaller pieces are not aesthetically pleasing. If you get a large piece of lettuce, you have two choices: leave it on the plate and not finish your salad, or cut it. Cutting it can be awkward, but it’s better than looking foolish with large pieces of lettuce sticking out of your mouth.
The tip about bites of bread goes for other foods as well: make sure the pieces you cut are small enough that you can still keep up conversation, without much delay between bites (remember not to talk with your mouth full). Go slow on your meal, there is no need to finish before everyone else. My mother, who happens to be a chef, used to tell me that you get a better experience if you eat slowly: you can savor the flavors of your meal, and really get the full experience. Chew each bite fully, just like your mother taught you, but don’t think of this as a chore: really think about what you’re eating, and enjoy it! Remember to bring the food up to your mouth, and not hunch over to eat it. This can be harder with soup (fears of dripping), but do your best to bring the food up to you. When you are done with your particular course, place your utensils on the plate, to be taken away.
Considerations for Transmen
Some masculine etiquette is taught to young men at an early age, and, let’s face it, we miss out on that. But, that’s no excuse. Read up on your manners, and be a gentleman, even if you didn’t have the luxury of being taught early. Also, if you’re concerned about passing, a little gentlemanly manners can be helpful. Pulling out a ladies chair, for instance, is not only masculine, but it can help you impress your date, or other ladies present.
Cheers – Mason