Table manners for physicians: 30 tips for better dining etiquette

Table manners for physicians: 30 tips for better dining etiquette

A few years ago I was engaged by the director of a residency program in my community to teach the program residents table manners. Now, you may wonder why medical residents need to know how to navigate a dining table gracefully. But good table manners are a must for professionals in any arena.

The director of the program stated that she felt some of the residents were lacking in good table manners and that this could be a deal breaker for potential candidates considering the program. The senior residents did a lot of interviewing and answering questions of the medical students considering this program over a meal. If a certain level of sophistication wasn’t displayed she was concerned that the program would lose people to more metropolitan areas that were perceived to be more sophisticated.

I couldn’t agree more with her line of thinking, but not only interviewing potential people for a residency program … consider the residents who are being interviewed for jobs in medical groups after they finish their training. Many of those interviews are conducted over a meal. Poor social skills may be a liability, in spite of technical skills.

Also, physicians participate in lots of board and committee meetings that involve meals. Being the guy who is splayed all over the table acting like it is his last meal is a real turn off.

So, along with knowing how to handle a scalpel, knowing how to manage a knife and fork gracefully, will be to any physician’s advantage.

Here are some of my top dining tips:

1. Assess the table and pause before picking up any silver. Wait for your host or hostess to start or senior person at the table. Once you have picked up flatware it never goes back on the table again.

2. Open your hands, palms up. Place the knife and fork on the open hands. Let half of the handle rest on the palm of each hand; the remainder rests on the index fingers.

3. Grasp the knife and fork and turn your hands over, resting your index fingers along the handles.

4. Eating in the American or continental fashion is acceptable in America today.

5. Don’t gesture with your knife and fork.

6. Cut one bite at a time.

7. Put napkin on lap to unfold. When leaving the table temporarily, place the napkin on the chair. At the end of the meal, place napkin to the left of plate.

8. The soup spoon is held like a pencil.

9. Soup is spooned away from you toward the center of the soup plate. Sip off the side of the spoon.

10. The soup plate may be tipped away from you in order to fill the spoon with the last sips of soup.

11. Do not blow on soup or stir it if it is too hot. Skim off the top or wait until soup cools.

12. Refrain from putting crackers in your soup when out or at a formal meal.

13. The soup spoon may rest in the soup plate when finished or in between bites. The spoon rests on the saucer when it comes in a cup.

14. When encountering a multi-course meal with multiple pieces of flat ware and you are questioning what fork to use first, start from the outside and work in toward the plate.

15. Solids are on the left of your dinner plate, such as, bread and butter plate and liquids are on the right.

16. Break bread in bite size pieces and butter one bite at a time over the bread and butter plate.

17. Pass food to the right. If you start the food, take your portion when it comes back around to you.

18. Taste your food before seasoning it.

19. When someone asks for the salt, pass both the salt and pepper in anticipation of their need. Set it on the table in front of them and let them pick it up.

20. Keep personal items such as purses, glasses, cell phones, etc. off the table. Purses should stay on your lap or under the chair.

 21. Refrain from putting on makeup, combing hair, picking teeth, blowing nose vigorously at the table. If you do it the bathroom, don’t do it at the table.

22. If someone offers a toast to you do not drink to yourself.

23. When offering a toast, remember to be appropriate for the audience and be brief. It’s a toast not a roast.

 24. If in doubt about what to do, watch someone at the table who knows. It can prevent an embarrassing situation.

25. When leaving the table temporarily do not announce where you are going. Just say, “Excuse me.”

26. Chew with your mouth closed. Take small bites to avoid talking with food in your mouth.

27. Try a little of everything presented unless you are allergic to a certain food.

28. Don’t talk about food likes and dislikes at the table.

29. Maintain good posture at the table. Keep arms and elbows off the table.

30. Don’t push your plate away from you when finished eating and wait for everyone to finish before plates are cleared.

Karen Hickman is founder, Professional Courtesy and can be reached on Twitter @Karen_V_Hickman.  

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  • Suzi Q 38

    ROTFL. Especially for tip #’s 22 and 25.

    • DoubtfulGuest

      #2 is worded in a way that’s a bit hard to follow. I read #21 as: “If you go to the bathroom, don’t do it at the table.” :/ Need more coffee, I guess.

      All kidding aside, the point of etiquette is to help everyone feel comfortable, right? I recall the first time I went to a formal banquet, there was a professor’s wife at our table who had exemplary social skills and table manners. I was quite nervous, but I learned a lot by watching her. Most importantly, she helped everyone at the table to feel comfortable. She was so genuinely interested in people and she seamlessly drew each one of us into the conversation. No matter what she asked you, you felt like the smartest person in the world, and not judged at all if you weren’t sure what to do: “DoubtfulGuest, would you please pass the dressing?” :)

    • Patient Kit

      LOL! For further chuckles, we could combine some of these rules and expand on others. For example, if someone offers a toast to you, do not drink to yourself while gesturing with a knife. And when returning to the table, do not explain in detail what you did while you were gone. :-D

  • Brad_Majors

    Pretty soon following these rules will be required under ACA

  • Patient Kit

    Alternatively, basic common sense and courtesy and consideration for others will override any wrong fork mistake you might make.

  • ErnieG

    Actually, none of this sounds stressful. Being laid back has nothing to do with common table etiquette and manners. In fact, when done right, table manners should make everyone feel at ease. At first it may seem challenging, but really they will come naturally after a few meals.
    I am a physician, and a physician’s son. When I was younger, my mother (married to my father the physician) was appalled by the table manners of other physicians that she witnessed at dinner gatherings. This is coming from someone born and raised in a small town in Mexico where the best paying job was at the sugar cane refinery.
    I too have also witnessed this- many physicians just are not well mannered at the table. You may of course choose not to follow manners, and a well mannered fellow diner is not going to correct you or make you feel uncomfortable, but if you want to leave an impression of a well mannered individual at ease in social settings, learn manners and etiquette.

    • DoubtfulGuest

      I always wonder what it means when someone is appalled at others’ table manners. Are we talking really slovenly, inconsiderate behavior? Or “wrong fork” kind of mistakes?

      • ErnieG

        Slovenly and inconsiderate.

        1) starting to eat course or drink a glass of wine at a table of, say 5-6, before everyone is served
        2) talking with their mouths full
        3) stating they did not like the food at the table
        4) leaving without excusing themselves or announcing they are going to the bathroom.
        5) interrupting when people are talking (which is more a problem with diners you don’t know well…at home or family not really an issue)
        6) chewing loudly or slurping their soup
        7) putting napkin in water glass to say wet it and clean your hands
        8) putting napkin in dish when done
        9) ask about dessert before rest of people are done at the table
        10) letting others know there is somewhere else you should/could/can be at that time
        I am not making this up, I have witnessed these things
        “Wrong fork” issues are innocent, and fall more into table etiquette rather than manners. Pushing the plate away, posture, hands/elbow off table, etc are things “your mother should have taught you”.

        • DoubtfulGuest

          The “things “your mother should have taught you”, that’s what I was wondering. Not everyone has a mother, or is taught everything they need to be taught as a child. Everyone should take the initiative to learn as adults, but I tend not to be easily appalled unless it looks like someone is being inconsiderate on purpose.

          “I am not making this up, I have witnessed these things”. Uh-oh…I have a neuromuscular disease and have made some of the clumsy mistakes (e.g. unintentional soup noise, less than perfect posture when tired). I’m always trying to improve. Some of these items on the list seem much worse to me than others. Napkin in dish when done? Your own dish? Not great, but is it on par with #3 or #10 which are certain to make someone feel bad? Just my $0.02.

          • ErnieG

            As far as the exceptions you state stemming from a
            neuromuscular condition, it becomes pretty obvious when a slurp and mishandled fork
            from a slouched person comes from a poor manners or from a medical condition—this
            is all in the context of a meal and how the person conducts themselves
            otherwise. If you have a condition, there is no need to avoid eating soup or worry
            about picking up a fork. You do your best, and no one will judge.

            I suppose it really comes down to social convention, and
            whether you think it means something or not. I would argue that it does in ways
            that are not readily apparent. When you
            meet and dine strangers or lesser known acquaintances, there tend to be small unwritten
            familiar rules that signal familiarity. Americans, for some reason, have lost
            the idea of table manners. Decades ago,
            this would not have been an issue since almost all cultures have table
            etiquette (not necessarily Western table etiquette, but a common one. My Korean in-laws have a slightly different
            one—for example relating to how drinks are poured at the table, how chop sticks
            are handled, etc. This is not a “formal”
            dinner convention either). This etiquette is not necessarily something you grow
            up with– if you were poor, and moved up, table etiquette was something you
            made an effort to learn. Certainly it was something that was expected. The
            rules by the original poster are clearly within the social convention of Western
            table etiquette. Whether you want to follow all, none, it is up to you. If you
            want to avoid feeling embarrassed or out of place, learning and following them
            are a good idea. If you want to leave a good impression, learn them as well as
            learn how to make small talk with your immediate diners (which is essentially learning
            how to make the other person talk). Like
            it or not, physicians, because of income and learning, are at a social level
            expected to know and follow these conventions.

            The dinner etiquette is different from being intentionally inconsiderate—there
            are many subtle polite ways to be inconsiderate.

          • DoubtfulGuest

            Thank you for your thoughtful response. My medical condition is not always obvious. I do okay energy-wise, appear normal to others for some time, then fatigue sets in and I have more trouble. I have gotten the stiff, pained smile from an appalled person now and then. So I try not to do that to anyone else. Furthermore, I hear our faces can freeze that way. I’ve known other folks with different diseases who struggle with appearing normal but have trouble functioning at full capacity. I’m not in a wheelchair yet or anything that would make it a no-brainer, so I try to assume the best of others.

            Yes, social convention is important. My field is engineering, I go to professional events on a regular basis. None of this is news to me, I just don’t think or care much about social hierarchy or exclusion based on where the napkin goes. Most of the people I’ve met take the same approach. Now, there are sound reasons for most if not all of these rules, right? For example, economy/ease of movement at a crowded table? Much of what could appear to be snobbery isn’t. However, I’ve rarely seen an explanation behind the rules, even though that would help many people.

        • buzzkillersmith

          Flatus anyone?

  • ninguem
    • ninguem

      Notice, this is shot in Edgartown Massachusetts.

      And remember, when in Edgartown on a date, after parking your car, be sure to open the car door for your girlfriend.

      Don’t be like Ted Kennedy and just swim to the surface.


      • Suzi Q 38

        Thank you!
        I will send this to our children who bypassed the cotillion
        group and made it to adulthood without it.
        Our daughter got a little training at the sorority, and for that I am grateful.
        Our son really needs this, LOL.
        I think even my Hawaiian relatives would be impressed.

    • buzzkillersmith

      Beautiful. I also like “What to do on a date” and “Dinner with your family.” and a film about personal hygiene whose name I disremember. Mystery Science Theater 3000 shorts.

  • ninguem

    I’d say in about five minutes, my med school class would have gone full Stooge in a class like this.

  • ninguem

    When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.

    From “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation”.

    A French etiquette manual originally written by Jesuits about 1595, an English translation about 1640, which was hand copied by George Washington as a schoolboy. There were 100 rules total.

    His handwritten copy is still extant, Library of Congress or at Mount Vernon, I’m not sure, and digitized copies can be found on the web.

  • ErnieG

    These rules are not “formal” in the same way that there are
    rules to a formal dinner. These are more like social conventions having to do
    with culture. People are not going to be “truly concerned” about the way you
    eat—only people from other classes who wish to keep you out or make you
    excluded/uncomfortable would (Notice I did not say people from higher classes. There are lower class snob rednecks who call
    out non-rednecks higher class guests for their choice of beer). Rather, they
    are cultural rules, and how you choose to follow them at the table signals how
    much you want to be part of a common culture at the table. This does not in any
    way mean you are a “rebel” or

    “free thinker” if you choose not to follow them, or “conformist” if you do. But
    rather you come to an activity which is most of the time intimate with close
    family (eating) and which is now shared with strangers (dinner party), so there
    should be rules. Some “make sense” some may not, but they are there. Again, you may choose not to follow them, but
    if you do, you will most likely feel at ease at any western dinner party, and
    at least look like you can be polished (if you want to look polished, learn how
    to make small talk with your immediate diners which is essentially learning how
    to make the other person talk). I have to stress that these rules are not
    strict, nor limited to formal dinners, but rather really social conventions
    about how to eat and share food at a table outside of your home.

    • DoubtfulGuest

      Hmm…When you put it this way, I agree. Your position comes across differently here.

  • Suzi Q 38

    My Hawaiian culture would not take to these rules very well, especially rule #2. Sometimes, we like to eat certain foods like poi, for instance, with our first two fingers.

  • John C. Key MD

    The conversation is far more important than the table manners. My wife, a totally non-medical person, married me during my general surgery residency. It took years for her to get used to me and my colleagues discussing various bowel activities at the table.

    • Suzi Q 38

      Yes, with 3 brothers, a husband, and a son, I can imagine.


    There’s a difference between being polite and having to obsessively adhere to yet another long list of mandates and rules. Given today’s culture, future residents will better adhere to more of such artificial metrics, and as others have observed, we will cultivate more rigid, robotic rather than warm physicians.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    I once went to a Giants game with a guy who bought his wife a hot dog and then reached over and grabbed it and shoved half of it into his mouth. The only thing was he accidentally grabbed my girlfriend’s hot dog by mistake. He had “issues” with depth perception.

    One the fondest memories of my youth. I still dredge it up from time to time for purposes of personal amusement.

    Along with the guy who thought the horseradish was mashed potatoes.

    • Suzi Q 38

      Reminds me of our wedding 31 years ago. It was at that part where the bride and groom cut the cake. Our wedding was large, with about 350 guests.
      We were all formal, with the photographer taking a gazillion pictures of us. I got really immature (at 28) and smashed a bit of the cake in his face.

      It reminded me a bit of the scene in “Animal House,” where Belusi yells: “FOOD fight!!!”

      His mother NEVER forgave me for that, but my husband and I still get a good laugh out of the memory.
      He said he will NEVER trust me with food again…….


      At one of the higher end doctors’ lounge they serve free lunch where we gather, exchange ideas and discuss cases.

      One day a new doctor of Middle Eastern origins came in and introduced himself, very collegial, until he asked for the Chinese super hot sauce (much hotter than Tabasco) and started pouring it on his food.

      The table grew quiet as we watched him, thinking this guy is either crazy or has amazing taste and pain tolerance.

      He took one bite and jumped up in immediate distress.
      We went to his aid with ice water and towels and then we all had a good laugh and the young doctor immediately became popular.

      He had mistook the Chinese hot sauce for ketchup, one of his favorite condiments, not readily available in his native land.


    This article is a joke right?
    Please tell me it is a joke.
    Residents, interns, and medical students, watching our patients, let me emphasize that, OUR PATIENTS, live and die every day, in front of us… care one iota about our table manners???

    • Suzi Q 38

      What he said.


        When 99% of us were/are in training, we were damn glad to get any chance to sleep on a stretcher or ‘hot bunk’, let alone sit and eat. With or without utensils. And we are supposed to be concerned about our table manners???

    • JR

      If someone said “excuse me” and left the table without stating where they were going (the bathroom) I’d think that’s rude.

      So I don’t think these are universal guidelines.

  • Suzi Q 38

    When I am home, I like to eat with my fingers….and only in the presence of my husband or daughter. I like to feel the vegetable before I devour it.
    Odd habit, but no one cares, and I do this only at home.

  • Marc Cantwell

    If the purpose of introducing the formal table manners was to win over applicants, couldn’t it have the opposite effect? Say you were the applicant at that dinner. You are on your toes because you’re trying to make a good impression; you are in a state of greater observation. The meal comes and you observe the rest of your party following these directions. Directions which you have not been made aware of before hand, therefore you are the only one not following the list of table manners (yes there is a line about observing others if you don’t know, but 1) you don’t have this list before hand and 2) that would leave you in a position of awkwardness having to watch everyone like a hawk and basically act like monkey see, monkey do). You are now aware of an in-group versus out-group situation, where the residents are the in-group and you are the out-group. What does your gut say? That they would accept you? That you would fit in there? Or do you feel like this isn’t the place for you, or perhaps their actions are a direct indication that they don’t want you? Like others, I can see that not talking with your mouth full of food, slurping soup, or interrupting people should be the basics that everyone should know, but making sure the solids are on the left and the butter is on the right? Really?

  • T H

    Lots of over-reaction here: if physicians want to be treated with some respect, manners are a good way to earn it, especially when civility seems to be breaking down in so many parts of our culture.

    Good manners are never wrong.

    The only thing I would add to her list are (especially for physicians) “Please” and “Thank you” go a long way.

  • querywoman

    Table manners are part of the picture. How about the irritating habit of doctors calling patients by their first name, and in my case, a nickname I hate?
    I have fired doctors over using that nickname, and not even asking me how I prefer to be addressed.
    I like what Indian doctors do, call adults, “Sir,” or, “Madame.”

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