Using a napkin is not a daily habit. We don’t always sit down to a weeknight dinner at home and place a napkin on our laps. Napkins are reserved for those special, formal occasions, and, as a result of our lack of experience with them, our napkin etiquette tends to be terrible. Using a napkin isn’t at all complicated, but there are a few rules that should be followed.
Your napkin will be either on your plate, underneath your forks, or to the left of your forks. But don’t leave your napkin on the table right until the appetizer arrives. Either put it on your lap as soon as you sit down, or, if you’re being entertained, wait for your host to place it on his or her lap, and then move yours at the same time. When moving it from the table to your legs, don’t shake it out extravagantly, flicking the people next to you, and flapping it in your neighbors face; move it carefully and quietly, with as little fuss as possible.
The napkin should then remain on your lap for the entire meal. If you need to wipe something away from around your mouth, fold it up so there’s a small corner, and use it to dab it where required. Make sure you never pick up the whole thing, and never use it for scrubbing your face clean, blowing your nose, or wiping your sweaty forehead. Napkin usage should be subtle and minimal. Don’t use it like a tissue or hand towel, and never tuck it into your shirt like a bib.
If you need to get up midway through the meal, excuse yourself politely, and place the napkin on your chair. Your napkin should never be placed on the table in the middle of a meal. If you’re dining in someone’s home, your napkin should be where you left it when you return, and if you’re in a fancy restaurant, it’s likely a server will have refolded it or replaced it with a new one by the time sit back down. When you get back, don’t flap it around again; just place it back on your lap and continue as you were.
At the end of the meal, when everybody has finished eating, you can finally remove the napkin from your lap. To signal that the meal is over, you should place the napkin carefully on the table, next to your plate, with any soiled areas hidden underneath the clean side. Don’t fiddle with it once it’s on the table; simply leave it there, and your napkin etiquette test is finally complete.