Eating utensil etiquette

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Dinner fork

Various customary etiquette practices exist regarding the placement and use of eating utensils in social settings. These practices vary from culture to culture. Fork etiquette, for example, evolved differently in Europe and the United States, and continues to change. In East Asian cultures, a variety of etiquette practices govern the use of chopsticks.

Fork etiquette[edit]

When used in conjunction with a knife to cut and consume food in Western social settings, two forms of fork etiquette are common. In the European style, the diner keeps the fork in his or her left hand, while in the American style the fork is shifted between the left and right hands.[1][2][3] Prior to the adoption of the fork, the custom in Europe was for all food to be conveyed to the mouth by the right hand (using a spoon, a knife, or fingers). When the fork was adopted, it followed this rule; it was held in the left hand while cutting and then transferred to the right to eat. This custom was brought to America by British colonists and became the American style. Europe adopted the more rapid style of leaving the fork in the left hand in relatively modern times.[4]

The difference between the American and European styles has been used as plot point in fictional works, including the 1946 film O.S.S. and the 2014 series Turn: Washington's Spies.[5] In both works, using the wrong fork etiquette threatens to expose undercover agents.

European style[edit]

The European style, also called the continental style, is to hold the fork (with the tines pointing down) in the left hand and the knife in the right. Once a bite-sized piece of food has been cut, it is speared and conducted to the mouth by the left hand. For other items, such as potatoes, vegetables or rice, the blade of the knife is used to assist or guide placement of the food on the back of the fork.[6] The knife and fork are both held with the handle running along the palm and extending out to be held by thumb and forefinger. This style is sometimes called "hidden handle" because the palm conceals the handle.

American style[edit]

In the American style, also called the zig-zag method or fork switching, the knife is initially held in the right hand and the fork in the left. Holding food in place with the fork tines-down, a single bite-sized piece is cut with the knife. The knife is then set down on the plate, the fork transferred from the left hand to the right hand, and the food is brought to the mouth for consumption. The fork is then transferred back to the left hand and the knife is picked up with the right.[1][7] In contrast to the European hidden handle grip, in the American style the fork is held much like a spoon or pen once it is transferred to the right hand to convey food to the mouth.[6]

Etiquette experts have noted that the American style of fork-handling is in decline, being perceived as inefficient and pretentious. This has resulted in the increased use of a hybrid of the traditional American and European styles. In this new style, the fork is not switched between hands between cutting and eating, and may also be deployed "tines-up" as a scoop when convenient.[6]

In defence of the traditional American style, Judith Martin wrote "Those who point out that the European manner is more efficient are right. Those who claim it is older or more sophisticated—etiquette has never considered getting food into the mouth faster a mark of refinement— are wrong."[4]

Table setting[edit]

Tables are often set with two or more forks, meant to be used for different courses; for example, a salad fork, a meat fork, and a dessert fork. Some institutions wishing to give an impression of high formality set places with many different forks for meals of several courses, although many etiquette authorities regard this as vulgar and prefer that the appropriate cutlery be brought in with each course.[8]

In American dining etiquette, different placements are used when setting down the utensils to indicate whether a diner intends to continue eating or has finished.[9]

Chopstick etiquette[edit]

While etiquette customs for using chopsticks are broadly similar from region to region, finer points can differ. In many East Asian cultures, it is considered impolite to point with chopsticks, or to leave them resting in a bowl. Leaving chopsticks standing a bowl is perceived as resembling offerings to the deceased or spirits.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "How to Use a Knife, Fork, and Spoon". CuisineNet Diner's Digest. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  2. ^ "we are the only country in the world whose inhabitants shift the fork, after cutting, from the left hand to the right" Letitia Baldrige's new manners for new times: a complete guide to etiquette, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003, p. 195.
  3. ^ "...eating the European way, with fork in left hand and knife in right, is considered the correct way. Most Europeans have had enough contact with Americans to know that they have a different way of wielding a knife and fork. Still, some older Swedes may interpret a fork in the right hand as less-than-perfect manners." Christina Johansson Robinowitz & Lisa Werner Carr, Modern-day Vikings: a practical guide to interacting with the Swedes, Intercultural Press, 2001, p. 147.
  4. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-09-26. Retrieved 2011-09-18.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ Dick, Bernard F. (2015). The Star-Spangled Screen: The American World War II Film. University Press of Kentucky.
  6. ^ a b c Vanhoenacker, Mark. "Put a Fork in It". Slate Magazine. The Slate Group. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
  7. ^ Martin, Judith (1997). Miss Manners' basic training : eating. New York: Crown. ISBN 9780517701867.
  8. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1998-01-25. Retrieved 2011-10-27.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ Martin, Judith (2005). Miss Manners' guide to excruciatingly correct behavior. New York: Norton.

Further reading[edit]

  • From Hand to Mouth, Or, How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons and Chopsticks, and the Manners to Go with Them by James Cross Giblin. New York: Crowell, 1987.
  • The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
  • The History of Manners by Norbert Elias. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.