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Dinner Party Guidelines

Table Set

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Manners exist in every country and they’re something that we learn through the influence of those around us when growing up, but they are often completely different in every culture. Even if you move abroad, you often only learn about cultural manners through making a mistake and not doing things “the right way”. 

When it comes to etiquette, the UK takes this very seriously. As seen in many international films, schools of etiquette (also called “finishing schools”) are attended by many people, although they’re mostly associated with the wealthier and more “upper-class” population. As a result, there are many official books and guidelines to table manners and etiquette. 

Not everybody follows these to a T and some of the guidelines are for more official dinner parties, but today we’ll look at the common ones that you may find useful as a tourist in the UK or if you’re in the country for a business lunch or dinner.

Book

First of all, it’s important that you let your host know about any dietary requirements as soon as you’re accepting an invitation. Imagine going to all the work of cooking for many and then finding out that your guest is allergic to something and ends up going hungry! Use a polite expression like “just to let you know, I’m allergic to …” or “I can’t eat… would you like me to bring something else along”. If you’re the host, try and remember to ask your guest specifically if there are any dietary requirements.

Timing is everything in the UK. If you’ve been invited to somebody’s house it is considered rude to turn up early or late, so you need to be bang on time. Most hosts will have a set time to eat, prepare all the food and drink and get ready themselves, and by turning up early, it can stress the host out. If you’re running ahead of schedule, wait around in the car or walk as slowly as possible to the house. If you’re running later than 10 minutes, let your host know so the host can adjust their cooking times. Of course, if you arrive late, make sure you apologise for the delay. 

If you’re invited to someone’s house, don’t turn up empty handed. It can be seen as rude if you are invited for dinner at somebody’s house and don’t bring something in return. The most generic gifts that people bring are a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates or a bunch of flowers, but if you know the host more personally, you could always find a more specific gift. This should be given as soon as you arrive at the host’s house, whilst greeting them.

It is generally expected that, if the gift is chocolate or a bottle of wine, it is opened that same day for the guests to enjoy with the hosts together, so if you’re hosting a British guest and they’ve brought you a gift, they probably expect you to open it!

Gift

The British tend to want a drink first before tucking in for lunch or dinner, so expect a lot of small talk and a few drinks before you make your way to the dining room. Don’t help yourself to a drink, wait for the host to ask you, although most hosts will say something along the lines of “help yourself throughout the night”, in which case you can. If you’re hosting, try to keep glasses topped up at all times. It goes without saying that the British are quite heavy drinkers, so if you’re hosting British guests, be prepared beforehand with a few extra bottles.

It’s always a good idea to offer your help to the host. If the kitchen is in a separate room or area of the house, they may be running in and out cooking at the same time. Offer to help using phrases like “is there anything I can do to help?” “what can I do to help?” “how can I help?” The likelihood is they will say no and expect you to stay with the party, but it’s generous to offer anyway.

Once the host has announced that dinner is served, everyone will head to the dining table, but most families have set seating. You may find name places on the table. If you do, wander around to try and find yours and make yourself acquainted with the people beside you if it’s a larger party and you don’t know them. Don’t change the name places around, as tempted as you may be. The host normally puts a lot of thought into the seating arrangement, and will have seated you there for a reason. If there are no name places, I recommend standing around the table and waiting for the host to say where you can sit.

 Most families have a certain seat that they like to sit in at the table, so it’s better to wait for the host to direct you to the right places. Once you’ve found your place to sit, stay standing behind the chair and don’t sit down until the host says you can. 


The first thing you should do when you sit down at the table is remove your napkin or serviette and place it on your knee. Once this is on your knee, it should stay there throughout the meal until the whole party leaves the table, so don’t scrunch it up or put it on the table.

The host will most likely serve the meal to you next. Guests are normally served first and don’t be afraid to say what you do and don’t want from the table. Once your food is served in front of you, it’s considered impolite to start eating until everybody has been served and is ready. A host may say “please, start”, in which case you can dig in, but if they say nothing, don’t start eating until everybody has their dishes.

Girl being served food
Cheers

Whilst the food is being served, the drinks will most likely be topped up too and before eating, most people “cheers” their drinks and then it’s time to dig in.

If you’re eating more than one course, you start with the cutlery from the outside and work your way in. Your knife should be in your right hand and your fork in your left hand. 

Whilst eating most people will engage in conversation, but be sure to never talk with food in your mouth and to eat with your mouth closed. You should also keep good posture during a meal with no elbows on the table. Once you’ve finished eating, place your knife and fork together on the dish in the centre. This shows to the host that you’ve finished eating. If you leave your knife and fork separate, they will think you’re still eating. 

During a meal, it’s rude to leave the table, even to go to the toilet. So make sure you nip to the loo before you sit down for a meal and try to stay seated throughout the meal. If you’re hosting, do not clear any of the plates away until everybody has finished and all the knives and forks are together on the plates.

After a meal, the host will most likely ask if everybody has finished and start clearing everything away. They will stack the dishes themselves and take things through to their kitchen. Again, it’s polite to offer your help, but they may say no and prefer you to stay at the table instead. If they do ask for your help, take the dishes to where they ask, but I recommend leaving them and not doing anything else. Most people have a certain way they put things in the dishwasher or clean things in their kitchen, so it’s better to leave this to them.

Dishwasher

Once a meal is over, most people will stay at the dinner table and chat until the event comes to an end and try to read social cues, for when it’s time to leave. If the host is cleaning up the kitchen or the dinner table immaculately, saying they’re tired or talking about getting up early the next day or putting the kids to bed, then it’s probably time for you to make a move.

Say Goodbye

The day after a dinner or lunch party, make sure you get in touch with the host to say thank you for a lovely event and that you’ll be sure to return the favour. In British English, be careful with the expressions “we’ll do this again sometime” or “you must come round to my house next time”. This is the polite thing to say, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, so don’t get your diary out to fix a date. It’s just an expression that we say to be polite.

3 Dont’s at a Dinner Party

These are the set British traditions for dinner parties for a few guests, but the norms are ever-changing. Manners, such as arriving bang on time and eating at a table, may not be required, especially if they’re close friends or family. But, certainly in my experience, a lot of Brits still stick to etiquette and expect their guests to behave with perfect manners. 

Key Vocabulary

Below are 12 key words taken from this post with definitions. Please be aware that there are sometimes many definitions for one word, it will depend on context. 

Definition: Exactly at the right time 

In our blog: It is considered rude to turn up early or late, so you need to be bang on time.

Definition: Start eating

In our blog: A host may say “please, start”, in which case you can dig in.

Definition: Obviously/it is well-known

In our blog: It goes without saying that the British are quite heavy drinkers…

Definition: To leave/get ready to leave somewhere

In our blog: If the host is cleaning up the kitchen or the dinner table immaculately, saying they’re tired or talking about getting up early the next day or putting the kids to bed, then it’s probably time for you to make a move.

Definition: “To nip” means to go somewhere very quickly. “The loo” is another word for the toilet. So this expression means to go to the toilet very quickly. 

In our blog: So make sure you nip to the loo before you sit down for a meal and try to stay seated throughout the meal.

Definition: To do the same/ something similar to what you have experienced

In our blog: The day after a dinner or lunch party, make sure you get in touch with the host to say thank you for a lovely event and that you’ll be sure to return the favour.

Definition: To crush something and make it very small

In our blog: Once this is on your knee, it should stay there throughout the meal until the whole party leaves the table, so don’t scrunch it up or put it on the table.

Definition: Polite conversation about uncontroversial topics, such as the weather, what you did at the weekend etc…

In our blog: Expect a lot of small talk and a few drinks before you make your way to the dining room.

Definition: A sign, such as body language, speech, facial expression that helps you understand the situation

In our blog: Try to read social cues, for when it’s time to leave.

Definition: To place things on top of each other in a pile

In our blog: They will stack the dishes themselves and take things through to their kitchen.

Definition: Perfectly

In our blog: Not everybody follows these to a T.

Definition: To refill a drink so the glass it full

In our blog: Whilst the food is being served, the drinks will most likely be topped up too.

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