American table manners that help you fit in while dining out

Dining out in a new country can be an adventure and an insightful learning experience. Table manners differ across the world, and what may be considered normal in one, may appear rude in another. By being aware of the customs and social norms, you can navigate any dining situation with success. All it takes is asking questions and learning from those around you to make the most of your new culinary experiences.

While meals are often a huge part of a country’s culture, don’t feel that you need to get caught up in the finite details of etiquette. As a famous American advice columnist, Emily Post once said, “Nothing is less important than which fork you use. Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.” To better appreciate the United States and Oklahoma City, is to recognize and understand the dining customs and the social norms surrounding food that bring us all together.

American style vs Continental style

You may notice that Americans have a different way of holding their utensils and cutting up food than most European countries. This style is known as the American style or “Switch and Switch” style. The method involves cutting up a few bites of food at once with your fork in your left hand and a knife in the right hand. Then switching your fork to your right hand with the tines facing towards you as you eat. This style of eating requires a slower pace due to the switching back and forth between hands.

The Continental or European style of eating requires less switching of utensils. Your knife is in your right hand, and the fork remains in your left. You eat with your left hand with fork tines remaining faced down.

While these two techniques are unique quirks of dining etiquette, most Americans won’t even notice which hand you’re eating with or what direction your fork is facing. Whether you’re dining at the high-end Vast restaurant on top of the Devon Tower in OKC, or the casual S&B Burger Joint, all you need to do is take cues from those around you and enjoy the meal.

Dining at someone’s home

Whether it’s a backyard BBQ, a child’s birthday party, or a dinner party for 10, it’s an exciting occasion when your new American friend invites you to their home. When it comes to the etiquette of visiting and sharing a meal, it’s important to remember that the United States is made up from many different cultures and there are no set rules to follow. Even regionally, you may find a different variation of what’s appropriate. To help navigate, just ask your host. Don’t feel embarrassed to ask, “what can I bring?” or “what should I wear?” if you’re uncertain.

Seating arrangements for this type of setting are generally casual. Your host may tell you where to sit or welcome you to sit wherever you choose. The head of the table is most often reserved for the host, but the other seats will be available for your choosing. Table manners are casual but polite in the home. Just follow your host’s lead, and you’ll be just fine!  

Business meals

Some jobs may involve taking clients out to dinner, working lunches, or dining out with colleagues. These types of meals may seem a bit more formal, but given the casual American culture, business meals still carry a more relaxed feel. Depending on the restaurant, if you are given a cloth napkin, unfold it and place it in your lap. The napkin should rest on your lap throughout the meal. If you need to get up, place it on the left side of your table setting, not on your chair.

In high-end restaurants you may see multiple silverware options at your place setting. The general rule of thumb is to work from the outside in. The salad fork is usually on the outermost left, followed by your dinner fork. On the right, the soup spoon will be on your outermost right, then salad knife, and dinner knife.

When it comes to paying for the meal, the one who does the inviting is usually the one who pays, unless prior arrangements have been made. If you are taking out clients, it’s often expected that you pay. But be sure to check with your company’s expense policy before making any plans.

Tipping etiquette

The United States is one of the few countries where tipping restaurant servers is widely accepted and expected. Under federal law, the wage that tipped employees receive is at least $2.13 per hour compared to $7.25 per hour for employees in other occupations. Although each state may set limits higher than the federal minimum wage, tipped employees usually receive a low hourly rate. Even though you are not required to tip, your generous contribution does help to make up for their low hourly rate. Your tip often also shared among other restaurant staff including bussers, bartenders, and hosts.  

According to Eater, whether you pay with cash or credit, the standard tip rate is 20% of your total bill for sit-down restaurants, and $1 per drink at a bar. If you are with a large party, at a hotel, or in a tourist area, your tip may be included in your bill. If this is the case, there will be a statement at the bottom of your check letting you know gratuity that has been added.

To know when you should tip, follow these general rules:

  • At a full-service restaurant where a server brings you drinks or your meal, it is acceptable to tip.
  • You do not have to tip at most self-serve restaurants. These are restaurants where you order food at a counter, bring your meal and drinks to your table, and clear it when you’re done.
  • You may see tip jars by the registers of coffee shops, fast-casual restaurants, and other food-service shops. While not required, it is your choice to leave $1 or $2 dollars as a thank you.  

General dining etiquette

Lingering at restaurants – American meals are typically enjoyed faster than in other countries. After the meal is over, most will leave the restaurant instead of lingering and socializing. If you are in a large party, it may be acceptable to stay and chat twenty minutes or so after the bill has been paid. On the other hand, it’s seen as courteous to allow the restaurant to seat other guests by not occupying the table after the meal is finished.

Receiving your check – Your server will most likely leave the check with you after the last course is served. Americans tend to fall on the impatient side, so an effort is made to deliver the check before it is requested, and in return, patrons vacate the table after the bill is paid to be courteous to those waiting to sit. If you are paying with cash, the server may ask if you need any change before looking at the amount you have left behind.

Reservations – Making a reservation at a restaurant is like any other appointment, you are expected to arrive at the scheduled time. If you are running more than 10 minutes late, call the restaurant to let them know. This will ensure that they keep your reservation and avoid giving your table to another party.

Fast food etiquette – When ordering food at a counter, there’s typically a queue to place your order. Be sure to wait your turn as it is considered rude to cut in the line or go ahead of someone who has been there before you. Before you reach the counter, have a good idea of what you’re going to order. If you’re unsure, step aside and allow the person behind you to place their order.

Sharing food – Americans generally do not share dishes, although they may have food at the same time around a table. This may depend on the familiarity of those you are dining with, but in most cases, you’ll order your own dish.

General table manners – Most meals are eaten with utensils, although there are some exceptions, such as sandwiches, pizza, french fries, and chips. If unsure, look around to see how others are eating. Another potential faux pas is blowing your nose at the table, as it’s considered impolite. Try to excuse yourself and use the restroom or somewhere away from those who are dining.

If you are ever in a situation where you are unsure of what’s acceptable, take a look at the people around you, how they order or what they are eating. As you will discover, ordering food at the food trucks at Bleu Garten, is a much different experience than eating at Packard’s or Hideaway Pizza. But with so many delicious choices in Oklahoma City, don’t let dining etiquette stand in the way of you and a tasty new meal. You can avoid future awkward misunderstanding with a basic understanding of culture and etiquette so you can spend more time enjoying your new experiences with confidence.

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