Napkin Nuances: Correct placement of the napkin after a meal

by epi on September 30, 2011

Q: My wife and I had argument last night while dining out.  She placed her napkin (paper) on top of her plate when she had finished her dinner.  I said it should be placed beside the plate.  Placing one’s napkin besides the plate is all that I have ever heard or been told to do.  Her argument is that it is preferable to put the napkin on your plate not the table.  Could you explain this?  Is there any place that this would be acceptable, other than a BBQ on paper plates that you are abut to discard.

A: You are correct. The napkin, whether paper or cloth, is placed to the left of the place setting when you are finished and about to leave the table.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth September 30, 2011 at 11:20 am

One may be ‘correct’ about something, but one can also ruin a perfectly nice evening by correcting one’s spouse over trivial matters. In very casual dining establishments, like a diner, it is extremely common to place a paper napkin on one’s plate because it signals to the waitress that you’re finished and want the plate taken away, and it also allow the waitress to not have to touch your soiled napkin, which may have collected not only food but also used to dab at a nose, etc. I would never place a cloth napkin on a plate, though. I think there’s a strong value in etiquette norms to “do as the Romans do,” meaning to act according to the customs of those around you and not impose a rigid sensibility upon those who may not share your norms. This situation is a good example of of a situation in which the wife may have acted just like many around her and was chastised and subject to an argument unnecessarily for it.

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Country Girl September 30, 2011 at 11:37 am

I was just about to submit the same feeling when I saw your post pop up. As a waitress in a fast paced restaurant, often times you don’t get a chance to wash your hands after clearning a table. As a fellow customer, I would much prefer my waitress hadn’t just had to pick up 10 grimy napkins before serving me my food. :-S yuck.

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scdeb October 1, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Taking note of Elizabeth’s comment, I feel the need to add this:
Good manners (and etiquette) are something you impose on yourself not on others. To do so is not showing that you have any manners. The only people who need to be schooled are your children when they are still young. Pointing out mistakes unless you are paid to do so or are asked to do so is plain rude. Correcting a spouse in the manner described is a mood killer and having a argument over dinner or in public is very poor etiquette; far worse than where someone places their napkin after use.

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Just Laura October 1, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Correcting a spouse in the manner described is a mood killer and having a argument over dinner or in public is very poor etiquette

Well said. Couldn’t agree with you more.

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bethenny October 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm

If my husband argued with me about the placement of a napkin, I’d wonder why on earth I married such a control freak who treated me like a child. Especially if he then wrote in to an etiquette blog to prove his “rightness.”

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Winifred Rosenburg October 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm

I assumed that he was exaggerating when he said “argument” and it was more a discussion of differing viewpoints as married couples are known to have. Perhaps I was wrong in my assumption.

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TootsNYC October 4, 2011 at 10:09 am

The letter writer might get through to his wife if he pointed out–”Why make laundry harder?” If there aren’t food stains on the napkin before, there SURE are after she’s put her napkin on a dirty plate!

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Elizabeth October 4, 2011 at 11:15 am

The original question had to do with a paper napkin, not cloth. I don’t think anyone would disagree that cloth should not be placed on a dirty plate.

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Jerry October 4, 2011 at 10:09 pm

I hesitated to jump in here, but the comments on this board have a sort of a “if a man speaks and there is no one to hear him, is he still wrong?” vibe.

Putting a napkin on the top of a plate is kind of disgusting, particularly if there is sauce or something else on the plate that the napkin starts to absorb it. Just hold that image in your head . . . disgusting. Or what if she had thoroughly soiled the napkin throughout the course of the meal, and then balled it on the plate and left it for her husband to stare at . . . disgusting. And if husband nicely told his wife that he had always thought the napkin should be beside the plate as opposed to a more abrupt and angry response with which some people on this board are suggesting.

Elizabeth: you’re right that one may be correct about something but ruin a perfectly good meal by correcting one’s spouse. (A spouse generally does not have jurisdiction to correct the other spouse’s manners.) But it takes two to argue and the wife may be just as guilty (if not more so) than the husband depending on (i) what husband said in the first instance, (ii) her (over?)reaction to husband’s original statement.

The original question asked for EPI’s assistance in settling an etiquette question. We don’t know anything about (i) who said what to whom, (ii) whether any spouse actually corrected the other’s manners or whether one spouse unfairly and improperly escalated the matter, or (iii) who was really at fault. (And no, a husband is not required to take verbal abuse from his wife just because she may want to fight.) For all we know, wife flew off the handle for a perceived slight that husband is looking for some support. It’s disappointing that he couldn’t find some here.

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Just Laura October 4, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Jerry, the EPI supports the gentleman in question.
You’re right in that we don’t know the full details of the night’s repast, yet his saying that his way was “only thing he had ever known” indicates that he did not simply nicely explain where the napkin should go. Yet if he did, in a most pleasant tone, let his wife know that her napkin placement was wrong, he was correcting her in public.
I dislike few things more than being corrected in public, and I know there are men who despise being treated like children by women who “know better.”
What if the tables were turned, would you side with the women nattering at her beloved about where he set his napkin?

I am curious about one thing, and I wonder if you noticed it as well, Jerry. I find it odd (amusing?) that a person has married another person yet seems surprised when he learns where she discards her napkin.

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Jerry October 4, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Indeed, it was the fact that husband mentioned that he had an argument with his wife and that placement of the napkin on the plate was at issue suggested that there was more to the evening than was initially disclosed in the question. (Even though we’re still newlyweds, I’d like to think my wife has no surprises left with respect to her eating habits.)

In any case, you’re right that one spouse should not correct the other’s etiquette, and if the husband was the first offender he was certainly at fault. And, yes, if the situation were reversed and the husband had flown off the handle and picked a fight where one did not need to happen, I’d blame him too. (I’m an equal opportunity grump.)

But the question asked to EPI was where does the napkin go, and it was a bit disconcerting to see so many people pile on this guy who obviously had a bad enough evening to write into an etiquette blog the next day for some reassurance.

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Elizabeth October 5, 2011 at 12:29 am

Jerry,
I agree that there are two separate issues at hand – first, where does a soiled napkin go? and second, is it ever alright to correct a spouse and have an “argument” over a really petty point of etiquette. My original response may have conflated or confused the two. It is entirely possible that the husband brought it up in a nice way and it wasn’t an argument at all.

However, I still stand by my original position that it is not always rude to place a used napkin (a balled-up paper napkin) on a plate. It is absolutely the norm at casual restaurants. If they are not placed there, the first thing a waitress or busboy does is to put the napkins on the plates and then stack them up. Whatever scraps and bits of sauce left on a plate are no prettier or uglier with a balled-up paper napkin sitting on it or next to it. Personally, I have an aversion to napkins (and extraneous plates, etc) littering the table. I prefer to stack them up, ready to be taken away. I would not do this at anything BUT a very casual establishment.

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Jodi Blackwood October 5, 2011 at 1:47 am

Jerry,
Thank you for speaking up. As Laura pointed out, the EPI’s response does answer the initial question about correct napkin placement … and I don’t see where you were questioning this. Furthermore, when the letter writer said “Placing one’s napkin besides the plate is all that I have ever heard or been told to do”, there is no indication that he said this to his wife; he was simply explaining to EPI his reasoning for his comment. I would think that this statement is something we can all relate to, in one way or another! Personally, I think the intention of the writer is to simply ask “Am I correct in my understanding that the napkin should be placed beside, not on, the plate, when finished?” … And by the way, the napkin should only be placed back on the table as you are about to stand up and leave the establishment; otherwise, it is to remain on your lap the entire time you are seated.

This man did not write in to have the relationship he shares with his wife discussed or critiqued in such a manner. He wrote in to an etiquette blog to have an etiquette question answered. The first response by EPI took care of that quite well.

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