Setting the table is often a hurried, last-minute chore. But it’s the holidays; make it special. Mindy Lockard, an etiquette and lifestyle expert and founder of the Gracious Girl blog, says the art of table setting is an important part of her world. Many of our modern-day place-setting traditions can be traced to 17th- and 18th-century European protocol influenced by French and English aristocracy, and Lockard, who lives in Portland, Ore., gives lectures on why etiquette is still relevant in today’s world.
Q: Why are table-setting rules still important?
A: We have rules for driving because it gives us a direction. Rules keep us from bumping into each other. This is what manners and etiquette do. They organize us and help us and give us a range. This helps us extend respect to others.
Q: Why should you put the fork next to the napkin and not on top of it?
A: You do not put the fork on the napkin because it’s an extra effort for people when they sit down. They would have to take off the napkin and reposition the fork. If you put the napkin next to the fork, you don’t have to navigate any utensil — you just grab it.
Q: And what about setting the table with napkins folded on the dinner plate?
A: There are a couple of reasons I don’t put a napkin on a plate. Your napkin may have been in your drawer for a while. Or it may have gone through the laundry and might still have some detergent on it. You don’t want something that might be on your napkin touching the plate you will be putting food onto.
Q: What are your thoughts on napkin rings?
A: I love napkin rings, as well as other things that encourage people to have fun with their place settings. Special additions such as napkin rings or place cards make people feel as if they are coming to something special. Think of other things to do at the table that incorporate your family or your traditions. It makes the evening an experience and not just a meal.
Q: How can kids get involved in table setting?
A: Let your children make place cards, and don’t get hung up about them not being perfect. People will appreciate knowing a child has been involved in that process. Also hand them [a diagram] and let them set the table. If kids enjoy being part of the party, they can learn a life skill.
Q: Are there rules for centerpieces?
A: Test the visibility of your centerpiece. Sometimes we don’t realize we cut off the eyesight of people sitting across from each other. The right height is important. If you create a wall down the table, you have lost the energy of your guests. Sit in a few chairs after you put your centerpiece down and make sure no one’s sight is being blocked.
Q: What about cellphones at the table?
A: There are times in our household when we do need to use our phones at the table. But if you have a guest in your home, I think it’s best not to. I suggest putting out a basket to collect phones when guests walk in for a holiday dinner. This will allow people to engage. The younger generation may scoff at it a bit, but they will also see they are happy once they are disconnected.
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Home Front chat: Etiquette expert Mindy Lockard joins staff writer Jura Koncius for our weekly online Q&A to discuss table setting. Submit your questions.