Table Manners Mishaps

Dealing with unexpected difficulties at the dinner table is a concern for the polite diner. Such challenges can be managed with aplomb just by staying calm and keeping your sense of humor.


If you spill food on the table while taking it from a serving dish, neatly pick up as much as you can with a clean spoon or the blade of your knife; then wet a corner of your napkin in the water glass and dab the spot. If you knock over a drink, quickly set the glass upright and apologize to your tablemates: "Oh, I'm sorry. How clumsy of me! I hope none of it got on you." Get a cloth or sponge and mop up the liquid right away. In a restaurant, discreetly signal the server, who will put a napkin over any stains. In someone's home, immediately tell your host and help with the cleanup.

Hot or Spoiled Food

If a bite of food is too hot, quickly take a swallow of water or another cold drink. If that's impossible or doesn't help, discreetly spit the scalding food onto your fork (preferably not into your fingers and definitely not into your napkin), and put it on the edge of the plate. The same goes for a bad oyster, clam, or any other food that tastes spoiled. Remove it from your mouth as quickly and unobtrusively as you can.

Wayward Food

Occasionally running your tongue over your teeth may let you know if you have a bit of food caught between your teeth. If the food stays put, excuse yourself from the table and remove it in the restroom.

If you notice food stuck in a fellow diner's teeth or on her face or clothes, you're doing a favor by telling her. If you're in a group, silently signal by catching her eye and lightly tapping your chin with your fore­finger.

Coughing and Sneezing

When you feel a sneeze or a cough coming on, cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief or tissue-or your napkin, if that's the only thing within reach. (In an emergency, your hand is better than nothing at all.) If a coughing or sneezing bout is prolonged, excuse yourself until it passes. Coughing and sneezing often lead to nose blowing. If you need to, excuse yourself and blow your nose in the restroom, being sure to wash your hands afterward.


If you choke on a bit of food and a sip of water doesn't take care of the problem, cover your mouth (if you can, though that would hardly be the time to worry about manners!) and dislodge the food with a good cough. Then remove it in the most practical way you can. If you have to cough more than once or twice, excuse yourself and leave the table.

Serious choking is another matter. If you find yourself unable to cough or speak, do whatever is necessary to get fellow diners to come to your aid. Thankfully, many people (and most restaurant personnel) are trained to perform the life-saving Heimlich Maneuver-a technique anyone will benefit from learning.