In my last blog post, I previously went over how the napkin always goes on the lap during a meal. But what happens when you need to leave the table?
This is one of those aspects of etiquette that is hotly debated among etiquette professionals. There are those that follow tradition, and there are those – like myself – that follow logic.
The short, logic-based answer is that you gather up your napkin and place it to the left of your plate. You do this when you’ve finished eating the meal, and if you need to get up during the meal. (Preferably only for an emergency and/or only between courses, of course!)
There is no disagreement that the napkin goes on the side of the plate at the finish of the meal, it’s only in where you put it if you must leave the table during the meal.
Why doesn’t the napkin go on the chair?
Let me explain the logic behind this. One of the primary functions of a napkin is for wiping food off your hands and face. The key takeaways are that 1) The napkin gets dirty and 2) The napkin touches your face.
1) The napkin gets dirty. Even the prettiest napkins made from the fanciest of fabrics are there for tidying up your face and fingers. Some meals, the napkin looks perfectly clean when the meal is finished. Then there are those meals where the tomato sauce drips off your fork with every bite and by the end of the meal it looks like the napkin got into a fight and lost. For those meals, you would have to be very careful when lying your napkin on the chair to make sure that you don’t transfer any of that sauce onto your seat (and possibly eventually onto your clothes). Upholstered chairs aren’t always easy to clean, so it would be better to risk transferring sauce to the table or tablecloth instead. Besides, the napkin is going to eventually end up on the table when the meal is finished. Why risk getting the chair dirty when you don’t have to.
Even the prettiest of napkins are made get dirty.
“But I don’t want my tablemates to see how messy my napkin is!” That’s easy to fix. If you’ve been using your napkin correctly, the bottom of it (the part directly touching your lap) will be clean. Just discreetly fold the napkin in half with the clean side on the outside and – voila – the dirt is now hidden as you place the napkin on the table. This also makes it easier for you to return the napkin to your lap without transferring any dirt to your clothes. (If your napkin is completely soiled and you can’t take the risk of putting it back on your lap, kindly ask your server for a new one.)
2) The napkin touches your face. Unless you are the world’s neatest eater, at some point you will need to gently wipe around your mouth. Think carefully about what other surfaces that napkin is going to touch. What do you think gets washed more often: the table/table cloth or the chair? How many diners have sat their bottom down in that chair before you? (Hint: ABC News did some tests in 2012 and discovered that restaurant chairs were the dirtiest place in a restaurant. Seventy percent of chairs tested had bacteria on them, including e. coli.) So do yourself a favor and don’t rest that napkin on your seat. No need to have your hands or napkin touch that seat if you don’t have to. And you certainly don’t want to wipe something on your face that was once on that dirty seat!
So the next time you are out to eat – or dining with your napkin on your lap at home as you should – I hope you remember this blog post. And when you get up and leave the table, you put your napkin on the table to the left of your plate.