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20-40-60 Etiquette has question from Michigan!

Please send etiquette questions to Helen  -


By Callie Athey, Lillie-Beth Brinkman, Helen Ford Wallace

QUESTION: I have some questions relating to table manners — more specifically, to the passing of food plates, sauces and condiments. These questions arose on a recent fishing trip. All of the table etiquette posts that I've read online deal with passing to the right but fail to say much about what should trigger the passing.

First though, please help me understand who initiates the passing, based on where the item is: those to the left of it, and/or those above your place setting? What if someone else is responsible to start the passing but that person is not taking the initiative, and the item resides within your reach? Should you ask the person to pass the item, or can you start the passing yourself, or is it OK to do nothing? Is it ever OK to reach in front of someone's place setting to get something?

Then, is it OK to take some of the item first if you're a party to the passing of an item to someone who has requested it?

If there is a food plate next to you that has gone around the table and you would like another serving, should you ask if anyone else would like another serving, too, after taking some for yourself?

Now to the heart of my issue: With a table full of diners, the waitperson sets down something next to you where it would be your responsibility to initiate its passing. After you partake of it, would it be a faux pas to set it back down and wait for someone to ask for it before passing it on? Does it make a difference if it were a plate of food verses a pitcher of maple syrup, where everyone has been served pancakes and obviously wants syrup, or salt and pepper, which may or may not be wanted by anyone? 

I appreciate your insight.

— Phil in Michigan

CALLIE'S ANSWER: At the end of the day, communication is key. If you would like to eat something first, ask, “May I have some potatoes before passing to you?” If the food is in front of you, start the passing; if no one is initiating passing, ask if they could start. Always communicate to the rest of the table.

LILLIE-BETH'S ANSWER: Questions about passing food, condiments, salt and pepper at the table generate a lot of discussion and are more complicated than they appear, so I'm glad to get a refresher. If the food is within your reach, I think it's OK to pass it, wherever it sits. Don't reach across someone to get it, but if you need it, gently get their attention and ask them specifically to pass it. You are correct: It goes to the right (to keep food from colliding, or, at least, from someone getting two dishes at the same time).

If someone puts food on the table next to you, then initiate its passing around the table the first time it's served. Each dish should go around at least once, but the food should stop being passed once it's made its way around the table. If you want seconds, just ask for the dish and offer it to anyone else. (“I'd like some more mashed potatoes; does anyone else want some first?”) 

If something you want is passing by you at someone's request, such as the salt and pepper, ask the person for whom it is intended if they mind if you use it first. Of course they won't, but it's polite to ask. And set the salt and pepper down first on the table; don't hand the shakers directly to the person next to you. The custom, by some reports, prevents two people fumbling with tiny shakers at the same time, since you always pass salt and pepper together.

If you're having pancakes, you can initiate the maple syrup going around behind the pancakes at least once. Salt and pepper generally stay on the table unless someone requests it. Or the pair can go around after the food is served one time.

While there are specific table-passing rules, traditions and etiquette, some of what you are asking is a judgment call and depends upon people at the table talking to one another.

HELEN'S ANSWER: It is still the rule to pass food to the right. Set the item, salt and pepper or platter of food on the table instead of passing hand to hand. If you start the passing, offer it to left, help yourself, and pass right. Never stretch across the table to reach for food.

It is not good manners to help yourself as the food goes by on the way to someone else.

GUEST'S ANSWER: Hilarie Blaney, etiquette and international protocol consultant: I think if I start with the rule, it will answer all of your questions.

The “trigger” is to look around you to see what condiments, platters of food or roll basket might be around you, then you take responsibility to pass it. Never reach over another diner, but be aware of items that need to be passed where fellow diners are not paying attention.

The rule: Offer to the left, then partake yourself, then pass to the right. If you are offering a roll basket or platter, keep it in your hands to allow your friend to the left to serve himself or herself. Then you may serve yourself and pass to the person to your right. If you are passing salt and pepper or sugar, place those items on the table to your left, do not hold them in the air to pass them.  Hopefully the person to your left knows to place those items back to his or her right for you and not send them going the wrong way to the left!

If the food and condiment items have been around once, anyone may ask to use them again or ask for a second helping. I wouldn't take the entire last helping of food. And if you are asked by the person to your left, or close left, to pass something a second time, you need not send it around to the right and make eight people pass it; just send it left.

As for the syrup, it is a condiment, just like salt and pepper; these all need to be passed accordingly. Don't guess who wants salt and pepper; just pass it. If you don't want salt and pepper, you still need to keep it going around for the first time, then wait for others to ask after it has been around once. Finally, if someone says to pass the “salt,” please don't separate the salt and pepper, they are “married.”

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Helen Ford Wallace

Helen Ford Wallace is a columnist covering society-related events/news for The Oklahoman. She puts local parties online with daily updates. She creates, maintains and runs a Parties blog which includes web casts. She is an online web editor for... Read more ›

Lillie-Beth Brinkman

Lillie-Beth Brinkman is a Content Marketing Manager for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. She was previously an assistant editor of The Oklahoman Read more ›

Callie Athey

Callie Athey is 20-something and is a graduate from the University of Oklahoma. She has worked in various positions, ranging from Event Coordinator to Environmental Health and Safety Assistant. Currently, Callie is an Executive Assistant to a... Read more ›