Etiquette 101: Divisive Social Rules that Cause Anxiety, But Don’t Have To

My mother instilled manners into me as a child. I was the little black girl who balanced books on her head for posture. I drank tea with my pinkie out, and sometimes I would eat pizza with a fork and knife. On top of that, my mother always made me wear these adorable frilly ruffle dresses with white stockings. She wanted me to look the part and act the part… Unfortunately for her, I was a brilliant “tom-boy” who did not want to live by her gendered stereotypes. So those stockings came back home ripped every day because I climbed something or attacked someone for being mean to my older brother. I was a feisty child, and I will be a feisty lawyer.  Nonetheless, my mother did me a service by teaching me how to wine and dine in ultimate snooty fashion. 

Now, full disclosure, yes, pretentious table manners are mostly just elitist nonsense. They are used to differentiate people: by creating a whole new set of mannerisms that only the supposed highest classes of society can emulate, it’s just another way to exclude unqualified, “lesser” people.  But, even while it is B.S., knowing the rules will help allay any dining anxiety you will have. There are a few key rules to keep in mind no matter the circumstances:

    1. The napkin goes on your lap; never bib yourself. (If you are in a situation calling for a bib, you will be handed an actual bib.)
    2. Take only the bread you will eat from the bread basket. Never cut it with your knife; break off small bite sized pieces, then butter the small pieces
    3. Identify your bread plate and drinking glass by making the “okay” sign with each hand; if the middle finger, pointer and thumb together look like a lower case “b,” that side is your bread plate, and if it’s a lowercase “d,” that side is your drinking glass.
    4. Utensils always go from the outside in towards the plate with each new course.
    5. Never talk with your mouth full, and don’t waive utensils around as you talk.
    6. Cellphones off the table.
    7. Purses go on the floor or chair– never the table.
    8. Try not to slouch, and no elbows on the table while eating.
    9. Never order a messy meal at meetings. So no spaghetti or soup, and look for meals you can eat with a fork and knife (for instance, choose a steak over a burger or fried chicken).
    10. At a buffet, take smaller portions than you thought. Do not over pack your plate.

Alright so those are your ten commandments of fine dining…. But, unfortunately, there are many more rules.

So You’ve Been Invited to an Event… What to Wear?

While it is tempting to immediately pull out a suit and jacket, it may be very beneficial to give it a little more thought.

First, see if you were given a dress code or if there is a clearly known dress code. Many invitations will have a dress code or if you’re going to an interview you pull out your interview suit. If there is no clear indication then, second, determine where you are going. Many venues will indicate a dress code on their websites or can help give you clues about the attire (e.g., if you are going to a country club, normally country club casual works). If that still doesn’t work, then, third, determine what the occasion is. Finally, if all else fails ask the host. This step can be first depending on your relationship with the host or the type of occasion, but it can also be a no-no. For example, if it’s a birthday party or brunch for a close friend, ask away. But if it’s a traditional interview, please don’t ask: you will wear business dress. 

Traditionally, there are a handful of dress-codes you should already be familiar with. Rule of thumb is to dress professionally: slacks/skirt, a light-colored shirt, and a blazer. So the moral of the story is that even “casual” dress in a business environment, casual doesn’t mean casual.

More CasualMore Business-ey
Casual—Does not mean come as you are— NO SWEATPANTS.
This is literally just a hairsbreadth more casual than business casual.
Use for informal gatherings like BBQs and picnics.

Business Casual— Less formal than traditional business clothing but still professional enough to be office appropriate.
Women: skirt or slacks, button-down blouse, and closed-toe shoes.
Men: button-down shirt, slacks, and dress shoes.

Smart Casual— An adventurous business casual.
Think Business casual but with sneakers or some other informal piece like jeans or a graphic tee.
Used for creative and informal networking events
Everyday Business— Slacks and blazer that match or are complimentary, with dress shoes.
Men: button-down shirt, any color/pattern that matches.
Women: button-down or pullover shirt that matches. Alternately, a dress (if it’s sleeveless, wear a blazer; if it has sleeves, contemplate wearing a blazer).

Business Informal— Think suit or interview attire that is a bit dressier or more “daring.”
For instance, wear a turtle neck orllama-patterned shirt with a suit.
Used for business lunches or conferences.

Semi-Formal— Afternoon dresses and business suits with button-down shirts and ties.
Used for afternoon corporate events.

What about for really formal events?

Interviews— You’ll never be faulted for dressing conservative.
Black, navy blue, or dark grey two-piece suit (i.e. blazer and slacks/skirt). Make sure the colors match; you are not here to impress people with your fashion sense.

Men: A light colored, preferably white, and low to no patterned button-down shirt. Make sure it fits properly, you don’t want to look sloppy. Plus, a tie. Bow-ties may be too “edgy.” Dress shoes.

Women: A light color, preferably white, low- to no- patterned button-down or pullover shirt. If it’s a button down, it shouldn’t be tight around the chest; also no cleavage during the interview. Why? Because people suck and may judge you on it. Closed toe dress shoes.

Formal/Black-Tie/Black-Tie Optional— Channel your inner red-carpet persona.
Dress to the nines. Gowns for ladies and three-piece suits for men.

At The Event…


Interview: If you are driving to an interview, make sure you are early to find parking. In some cities there is metered parking and parking garages can cost a lot of money.
Wedding or other location specific events: Valet parking becomes more common the ritzier the event is. There are seven valet rules

    1. Tip Pre-Emptively. Tip the valet taking your car $2-$5. This will influence the treatment your car will receive.
    2. Take out your valuables, or at least hide them. Why invite trouble when you can circumvent it?
    3. Take what you need for the night– Cellphone, keys, wallet, tickets, and gift. If you forgot something the valet can retrieve it, just tip the valet afterwards.
    4. Leave the car running but put it in park. The valet zone tends to move quickly.
    5. Get your ticket and don’t lose it!.
    6. When picking up your car, tip the valet who retrieves it $2-$5.
    7. Check for damages. Do a check before dropping it off and immediately after pick up. If you find damages, take a picture of the damage. You will also need to collect the following information: the name of the valet driver, the contact info of the valet company, and the info on their insurance company. If the valet worker won’t give you the info, ask the business you visited if they have it. Within 24 hours, report the information to your insurance company. You may need to file a report with the police.

Inside the event

When you’re finally inside your destination, you should always greet the host, no matter how formal or casual your relationship to them. Say your hellos and drop off your gift. If you are at someone’s house, ask if they need help.  

Introducing Yourself

When introducing yourself don’t brag. You should have two introductions, a short one and your two minute sales pitch. 

Short: Hi, Mel Walker (With a firm handshake).

Sales Pitch: Hi, I’m Mel Walker a 2L at Seton Hall Law where I am SBA Vice President. I am currently interning at XXXX where I analyze health concerns in the city of Newark in hopes to bring legal recourse to the inhabitants that are inflicted by these issues. After Law school I hope to work in environmental justice, especially in areas concerning civil rights.  

Of course this is tailored to certain situations. If I’m at a hosted event I would say my relationship to the host.

Example: Hi, I’m Mel, I know Julie through law school.

Talking Points

Talking is a huge source of anxiety. It can be awkward if you talk too little or too much. If you aren’t a naturally extroverted person then best thing to do it get your host talking, you do this by: 

Be attentive. Look around and see what your host is interested in. Look at the environment, decorations, and even socks! People like talking about themselves and you want them to feel like they are educating you. Don’t look bored.
Be impressive. To impress people, make them think you are impressed by them. It’s a great way to learn about someone’s field (especially when talking to a lawyer).
Use talking points. Most current events are safe, but steer clear of any polarizing topics. Other safe points include pets, jobs, and an assortment of “what if” questions. Here is a list of possible appropriate talking points.
The best line to ask is “Tell me about…” This will make the person feel as if they are educating you.
Use body language.

Body Language

Body language is the unspoken way we all communicate

Establishing Confidence Creating a Bond
Lead in with a confident handshake, always put your right hand out, and give a good –not too tight—squeeze. Mirror their body language. While not copying every gesture, subtly mirroring the body language of a person will make them more at ease. Mimic vocal pace and volume.
Maintain good eye contact. If you are uneasy maintaining eye contact, look at the bridge of the nose. Smile. Try to practice smiling in a mirror to make sure your smile isn’t creepy.
Maintain good posture, back straight, and feet shoulder width apart. Look interested! Keep eye contact and your feet pointed towards the person.
Uncross your arms, keep an open posture! Crossing your arms creates a barrier; instead try talking with your hands. This will also create a sense of connection.
Try using the superman pose. Sometimes it just feels awesome.

Ending a Conversation

Ending a conversation can be as stressful as beginning a conversation. We all wish we had a secret passageway or bush to hide in when a conversation goes on too long. There are 4 steps to end a conversation: 

    1. Give a reason why you have to leave.
  • “I promised myself I would meet 3 people here tonight, can you introduce me to someone…”
  • “I have to check on my…”
  • “Look I’m sorry but I have to go”
    2. Leave things on a positive note. 
  • “… it was really nice talking to you,”
  • “… I hope to hear from you soon,”
  • “… I’m glad we were able to talk,”
    3. Restate one or two of the main points you talked about.
  • “I hope your cat feels better, hopefully he stops eating rocks.”
  • “Good luck with your new promotion, wrangling ducks is a hard yet rewarding career.”
    4. Walk away.
  • Actually walk away, don’t just turn around and pretend to disappear.

Where do I sit?

Parties have three forms of seating, enough chairs, not enough chair, and no chairs. I personally hate it when there are no chairs. Typically, you can sit near your friends, just don’t take up extra chairs for no good reason. (Purses can be hung from the side of a chair or placed under the chair). If you are dining with your partner or a business associate, you typically sit across from them. 

When there are not enough chairs or no chairs, this means that the host wants to encourage awkward mingling and a short-ish party (or if you are at a rich shindig, you will soon switch to a seated area). No one likes to stand, and eat but this forces you to get very small plates of food, complain about the lack of chairs, and network while waiting on food and cramming at tables.

At weddings you sit where you are assigned. Most weddings have assigned seating. Don’t ask to be reseated (there are ways to finagle this, but you were assigned there for a reason).

OMG! We Can Finally Eat!

Oh Fork! So Many Utensils!

A formal place setting is typically something you will see at fancy restaurants with terribly small food portions or at weddings. Sometimes there are way too many drink glasses that you don’t have to worry about unless you recently discovered that you are meant to be a sommelier. The rule of thumb is red wine in wider glasses (for aeration; you can pretend to be a red wine snob by swirling it), white wine uses a glass thinner than the red wineglass, and the thinnest glasses (aka “flutes”) are for champagne/sparkling wine. (Bonus tip: champagne is sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. Sparkling wine can be made anywhere.)

The informal place setting, or an interpretation of it, can be found at many dine-in restaurants.

Honestly, YouTube is your friend here and there is a video below you should watch. Here are some golden rules: 

  • Silence your phone.
  • When you sit at your place setting, put your napkin on your lap.
  • Watch one of these videos

What to do with my napkin? 

Napkins are used to show if a spot is taken or when you are done with a meal.  When you sit down to eat, your napkin goes on your lap. If you have to go to the bathroom, the napkin either goes on your seat or on the back of the chair. When you are done with your meal the napkin is folded and placed next to your plate.  

There’s a proper eating technique? 

I suggest you learn a proper eating technique, not because you are eating wrong, but only because you will one day find yourself surrounded by fancy snobs and you might suddenly become self-conscious of your fork and knife work. There are two proper techniques, and yes there is a YouTube video (and No, you don’t have to adhere to all of it). The technique you should learn is the continental.

You want to give a toast? 

The hard rule is that you don’t give a toast unless you are the host; that’s for the host or the guest of honor. If you are giving a toast but aren’t a seasoned toast-giver, then never be the first person giving one. Giving a toast is a skill that many don’t have, and some cannot teach. For instance, I will say “speak from the heart” which is BS advice since I can speak from my heart for hours about someone I met two minutes ago. 

If you must give a toast, then please check out this article on giving an awesome toast.


Thank You Notes 

Thank you notes can be an important signature touch after many events. If you were invited to a Christmas dinner, a thank you note is a great way to let the host know they did a good job and you enjoyed yourself. Emails are great, but hard copy is better! You should invest in thank you cards where you can put handwritten sentiments on paper and deliver them.

Dear Hafsa,
Thank you for inviting me to your dinner party. You are a wonderful host and made everyone, including myself, feel welcomed. I enjoyed the amazing food! 
I can’t wait to return the favor. 
Lots of Love,

You can also check this out for some interesting thank you card messages.

Remember, this is just a guide to help you navigate the weird world of etiquette. Not every situation will require staunch adherence to etiquette, and there’s almost always room for a gaff or a few bent rules.  This guide was created to relieve the anxiety that first generation law students may feel in new situations; it was not created to discourage. You will be fine. Actually, you will be great.

And, more importantly, you can use this guide to make fun of etiquette and its divisive nature. Cheers.

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