Manner Matters: The Knife-and-Fork of It

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[Image: Robyn Lee]

Dear Molly,

I have a question about table manners. My mother was particular about how we set the table and table manners in general. She's gone now, but I could have sworn that if we weren't finished with our meal, our knife and fork were to be placed in an X across the plate. I remember thinking the big X indicated "Don't touch it!" But if we were finished and the plate could be cleared, the knife and fork were to be placed across the plate side by side (at about 5 o'clock).

I wonder if I'm making a mistake when I have dinner at a nice restaurant and the server seems to ignore my empty plate. Sometimes they pick it up, sometimes they don't, and I'd like to make sure I'm sending the correct signal (whether the wait staff knows it or not).

Sincerely,

Trying to Communicate With Utensils

Dear Trying to Communicate With Utensils,

You are absolutely correct —well, remarkably close in any case. And boy oh boy, do I wish this were common knowledge. How many conversation-interrupting exchanges with servers could we all avoid if this were so?

This issue is, in fact, a prime example of how etiquette and a common set of manners can make life easier—not fussier or more complicated as nay-sayers would have you believe.

Imagine a world in which we all agree that a knife and fork set across the plate with one handle pointing left and the other right, sort of in that space between the diner's body and their arms, at the ready to be used —more of an upside-down "V" than a giant "X" —meant that the diner was still eating. And that when the diner was done eating and ready to have their plate cleared, they would communicate that by placing the knife and fork side-by-side with their handles to the right, pointing towards about 4 or 5 o'clock on the plate, as you say. (While we're at it, can we also agree to set our utensils on our plates so the handles are up in the air, not resting on the table? Once you've picked them up off the table, they stay that way. They're yours! No one else wants them! Plus, they stay in place so much better that way!)

In this world, no server ever asks, "Are we still working on that?" or whispers "Are you done?" in one's ear just as a friend is about to reveal how, exactly, that comically horrible date ended. And servers, imagine how much easier your job would be! The freedom to whisk plates away with confidence. No need to wait for a pause in the conversation to tend to that particular task with each diner at every single table.

How can we achieve this nirvana? That's the rub, isn't it? Share the knowledge, readers! Spread the word, whether it be through talk, text, or tweet. Then practice what you preach: align your knife and fork only when well and truly done, and when done eating, match those utensils up!

More Manner Matters

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Manner Matters runs every week and we're looking for questions! Have you found yourself in a dining-related pickle recently (and not the delicious kind that indicates you are in a good deli)? Email etiquette@seriouseats.com to submit your question. All questions will be read. Unfortunately, not all can be answered.

About the Author: Molly Watson honed her ability to guide others in tricky situations by telling her little brother the best way to do everything. See what she has to say beyond dining at Ask a (Sensible) Midwesterner. Catch her work as a recipe wizard at Local Foods.

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