Welcome to Real Simple Finishing School -- your be-all, end-all, 2014 authority on awkward interactions, stressful situations and elbows on the table (still rude?).
Please be so kind as to take a seat. Class is about to begin.
Meet our wise and wonderful etiquette experts
Benet Davetian, author of "Civility: A Cultural History"; director of the Civility Institute; and associate professor of sociology at the University of Prince Edward Island, in Charlottetown.
Faye de Muyshondt, founder of the Socialsklz etiquette program, in New York City, and author of "Socialsklz:-) for Success."
Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas, in San Antonio.
Catherine Newman, etiquette columnist for Real Simple.
Anna Post, a coauthor of "Emily Post's Etiquette, 18th edition," and a great-great-granddaughter of the famed manners maven.
Patricia Rossi, etiquette coach based in Safety Harbor, Florida, and author of Everyday Etiquette.
Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith, an etiquette consulting firm in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and author of "The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners."
Where are your manners? Gone the way of hoop skirts and high tea? Beyond the reflexive "please" and "thank you" (just like Mom taught us), politeness sometimes seems like a low (and slow) priority in a fast-paced, 4G world.
Contrary to what you may think, we're not, as a culture, getting ruder. In fact, experts agree that we're more conscious of respecting others than ever before. Interesting when you consider why etiquette was invented in the first place: In the Middle Ages, a code of conduct was a way to limit violence among competing warriors. (Look at that -- a "no spitting at the table" rule works!) Later, in the Victorian era, according to Benet Davetian, author of "Civility: A Cultural History," complex rules of propriety were used as a means of differentiating among the classes. (Not so nice, right?) When the let-it-all-hang-out 1960s rolled around, many of the old social graces broke down. And now modern technology has introduced a slew of additional opportunities for rudeness (which we take full advantage of!). But, explains Gottsman of the Protocol School of Texas, "today manners are less about faux pas than being mindful of how you treat people around you." So the rules aren't as cut-and-dried as they once were. If you're like most people, you have questions. That's why Real Simple rallied the experts for updated advice on everything from bread plates to bcc.
Your refresher course is served.
Manners at the table
Elbows on the table are fine when you're not eating. What you don't want to do is use your elbow as a fulcrum for bringing food to your mouth. Wrists on the table are always OK.
Using the right fork
Work from the outside in: salad fork to dessert fork.
Using the right bread plate
Think BMW. Your bread plate is on your left; meal plate, in the middle; water, on the right.
Wait until everyone has been served or the host gives you the green light. If there's a large number of people or a buffet, you can begin eating when you get your food. At weddings and in other situations where there's preset food, wait until the host gives you the OK to start.
For the first time around the table, dishes should be passed counterclockwise so that the right hand is free for serving. (Sorry, southpaws.) If you're asked to pass salt or pepper, pass both.
If you can get the item you need without fully extending your arm, go for it. Otherwise ask to have it passed.
Leaving the table
When you need to step away, say, "Excuse me. I'll be right back." No one needs to know the details. Leave your napkin loosely on the table to the left of your plate, not on your seat.
Manners for parties
Always do it, and do it on time. Websites like Evite have technology that allows the host to see who has read the invitation (and at what time). In other words, a snubbed or delayed RSVP comes off as ungrateful and careless.
Whoever is listed on the envelope is invited. If your baby's name isn't included, he's not invited. If it says "The Smith Family," then everyone living under that roof is welcome.
Special food needs
For large parties, you're on your own. Don't mention dietary needs to your host. For small dinner parties, let the host know as soon as possible. If you adhere to an especially tricky-to-accommodate diet, ask if you can bring a dish. And be sure to add, "I can't wait to be there."
For a dinner party, show up 10 to 15 minutes after the scheduled time. Never show up early, because the host may not be ready. Any later than 15 minutes and you need to let the host know.
To join a new conversation at a cocktail party, catch someone's eye, smile, and enter the clique on a break. And if you see someone who wants to participate, pull her in when there's a lull.