Reader asks if the table set up etiquette has changed so that the knives face outward

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QUESTION: I recently attended two lunches where the knife edge was pointed outward. I was taught to point that knife inward for good table etiquette. What is the right path? Also on the table was a large spoon, placed inside the knife? Was it for my main course? There was also a small fork placed with the dessert spoon at the top of my plate. What was it for? The salad dish was a bowl of berries. There was no salad fork.

Are the table settings changing or are people just too lazy to get it right?

CALIE’S RESPONSE: I don’t know if “too lazy to do it right” is that. I think it’s a lack of guidance and education. To answer your question, no, the table settings haven’t changed. But I think you knew that and the fact that it wasn’t correct upset you.

LILLIE-BETH’S RESPONSE: It remains a good way to set a table in a formal occasion, and really, in an informal occasion. Perhaps the staff lacked training or guidance from the event planner on the days you attended.

I don’t know if people would know this unless they were taught, but generally the knife will always be on the right side of the plate (from the point of view if you are facing the table), and the spoon must go on the outside of the knife. On the other side, the forks are placed in the order they will be used from the outside in – so the smaller salad fork is on the outside, with the dinner fork next to the plate itself. The towel goes underneath.

As dinner gets more complicated, there is also room for other utensils, like perhaps a dessert spoon or fork at the top of the plate. In these cases, it is best for the event planner to consult the etiquette manuals and adjust the set-up based on what is being served. But then the planner needs to pass that information on to the staff who set the tables. It seems that this did not happen in these cases.

If anyone is unsure, there are many resources that can guide you. (I often refer to the gold standard of etiquette – Emily Post at emilypost.com – when I’m not sure.) Sometimes knowing there’s a “right” way to set a table is enough to know that you can research how to do it.

HELEN’S RESPONSE: The table settings remain the same and the cooking utensils are placed correctly so you can easily access them. The knife blade is always directed inwards.

I’ve seen the large spoon placed next to the knife for soup, but never for anything else. The small fork placed with the small spoon at the top of the plate is mainly intended for desserts (cake fork, ice cream or custard spoon).

The unique silverware further adds to a beautiful table and I think more and more people are trying to get it right. Etiquette classes are offered locally, and many companies hire professional etiquette teachers to teach etiquette classes to their employees.

GUEST RESPONSE:Sherry Sullivan, Lawyer and Community Volunteer: Obviously, the knife blade should always point inward. (Historically, it was very important to show that the blade was aimed at your food and not your neighbor.)

I don’t know why a large spoon would be placed inside the knife. If it was outside, maybe it was for the berry salad (which I never saw). Or, they may have wanted it and misplaced it, like they placed the knife.

If you choose to give the options of a dessert spoon and a dessert fork, they are both placed correctly above the plate.

Since 2009, Callie, Lillie-Beth and Helen have written this generational etiquette column. They also include responses from customers of a wide range of ages each week. So many years later, Callie is over 20; Lillie-Beth is over 40 and Helen is over 60. To ask an etiquette question, email [email protected]


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