Napkin wars

Sometimes etiquette consultants don’t know all the answers. Shocking, I know! And sometimes etiquette consultants don’t agree with each other. I have been amused by a rather vociferous exchange on one of my etiquette consultants LinkedIn groups about what to do with your napkin when you get up during a meal and when you’re done at the end of the meal.

Most etiquette consultants agree the napkin should be placed on your chair when you leave the table for a moment during the meal. The napkin goes to the left of the plate, slightly crumpled up to hide any stains, at the conclusion of the meal. But several consultants weighed in to state that the napkin should be placed on the back of the chair, the arm of the chair or on the table when you step away during the meal.

One consultant even said the napkin is not meant to wipe your mouth, but merely to cover your lap from spills and that there should also be paper napkins on the table for wiping your mouth. I had to both laugh and cry at that one. And what do you do with the paper napkin? Oy vey!

When I am looking for the final word on etiquette I turn to my etiquette books written by Letitia Baldridge, who was Chief of Staff to Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House, author of numerous etiquette books and named by Time magazine as “America’s leading arbiter of manners.”

I was pleased to read that what I teach corresponds with what Letitia espouses.

I thought a primer on napkin etiquette might be helpful to you, my dear readers. Put your napkin on your lap as soon as you sit down. If the napkin is folded in a triangle, unfold it under the table and refold it into a rectangle. That way your lap is better covered in the event of spills. If it’s a small napkin, put it on your lap unfolded completely.

Blot your mouth often, but especially before you take a drink from your glass so that you don’t leave greasy lip prints on your glass.

And, as I stated earlier, when you get up during the meal to use the restroom put your napkin on the seat of your chair. Keep your napkin on your lap during a presentation even if you are finished eating. Your napkin stays on your lap until you leave the table. Then it gets crumpled up a bit hiding any stains and placed to the left of the plate. Never put your napkin on your plate. 

Now that said, if your host does something different, then feel free to follow suit. The bottom line with etiquette is to be kind and gracious and not make anyone feel uncomfortable. 

I’d love to hear if you were taught to put your napkin in a different place.

29 thoughts on “Napkin wars

  1. Beth Buelow, ACC, The Introvert Entrepreneur

    I love that there was a heated debate about this somewhere 🙂 Knowing what I can get riled up about, I can appreciate it!

    I learned my napkin etiquette from you,so I’ve been following your advice and feeling much more civilized (the impulse to remove the napkin from my lap after eating but before leaving the table is deeply ingrained!). SO – is it EVER appropriate to remove your napkin from your lap before the completion of the entire event/meal? For instance, I’m at a networking luncheon and there’s a speaker. I’m finished with eating, and want to take notes on the only spot available – my lap. I’d rather not have my napkin under my notebook (esp if I blot often 🙂 ), so is it OK to neatly fold it and put it to the left of my plate? What do you advise?

    And as for the lipstick-on-the-glass thing, I remember being told to give my bottom lip a quick lick, which keeps the lipstick from transferring. Of course, this could look rather strange to others if it’s too often/obvious… but my guess is that it’s a reflex few would notice. ?? 🙂

  2. Arden Clise

    Hi Beth,
    Isn’t it fun that napkin placement could cause an uproar?! Such is the life of an etiquette consultant.:-)

    Anyway, to answer your question, the reason we don’t put our napkin on the table before we leave the table is you don’t want people looking at a soiled napkin. Some people even feel that it’s germy to have a used napkin on the table even if the soiled part isn’t showing.

    So, if you wanted to write on your lap and not endure a soiled napkin touching your notebook, just fold it up on your lap so that the soiled part is not showing and then put your notebook on it.

    I had never heard the trick to give your lips a quick lick to keep the lipstick from transfering onto the glass. I’ll have to try it. But the other reason for blotting your lips with your napkin before drinking is to avoid grease or food particles from getting onto the glass.

    Thanks for the good questions. I may feature them in my next radio show.

  3. PhilVenih

    You received your napkin etiquette from the person who taught Jakie O… that’s been HOW LONG AGO? I’m sorry, but when Jackie O was in the White House, it wasn’t a fad for women to wear thongs or go with NO under wear at all like they do today. The short little dresses /skirts they wear, make it pretty nasty to put something on a place where many different people’s butts (and worse) are sitting (and fermenting) for about an hour each, several times a day. There is sweat, and skin diseases, bacteria, and a world of other nasty hosts waiting to jump on your napkin then get transferred to your lips/mouth when you return. I’m sorry, but I disagree with you…NEVER NEVER place a napkin in the seat of your chair.

  4. ArdenClise


    Most contemporary etiquette books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette, and current consultants also advocate the napkin on the chair practice. And, Letitia Baldridge is still alive and still revising her books for today’s dilemmas. She continues to teach that the napkin on the chair when you step away is proper.

    That said, if you wipe your mouth with your napkin and put it on your lap when you eat, that’s all I care about.

    Thank you for your sharing your views.

  5. maybe

    @PhilVenih I absolutely agree with you…I have been teaching etiquette in Europe and using a logical reason rather than following an old “proper” way. Times changed, so changed people’s behavior also.

  6. Betty Hilliard

    I refuse to put my napkin on a chair where so many bottoms have been parked unless I am sure someone will bring me a fresh napkin.

    And who are these people who determine “proper etiquette”? Sort of like, who are these fashion designers who determine what hem length we should wear for whatever season?

  7. Arden Clise

    Hi Betty,

    I can understand your concern. But, I think one’s kitchen counter is probably more germ-ridden than a chair. Etiquette rules are determined by etiquette experts, like me. One could ask the same question about justices who decide what is and isn’t constitutional or legal. There are many professions that make determinations about rules. Etiquette is not an exact science, but we all need guidelines on appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

    Thanks for commenting.

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  9. Daphne

    I prefer my napkin to go on the back or arm of the chair. It’s just something about my napkin going on the chair where people’s butts have been that I can’t digest. Putting it on the table is a definite no no! For the sake of giving in to my sometimes OCD behaviors, I’m willing to step outside the etiquette box, and NOT do the napkin to butt, I mean chair thing. Just a lil light humor adied at the end folks!

  10. Arden Clise

    Hi Daphne,

    Thanks for commenting, love the humor. Yes, you’re not alone in feeling uncomfortable with putting your napkin on the seat of a chair. I think putting it on the back of your chair is a fine alternative as long as you can hide any stains, thereby grossing people out.

    All the best to you.

  11. Julie

    European etiquette (not Continental which is a combination of European and American) dictates that one’s napkin be placed on the table and never the chair. I have been teaching British and European etiquette for many years and understand the history behind this was that aristocrats would have dining chairs with fine coverings made of silk or other luxurious materials and would never want to risk damage. I therefore believe that what starts on the table should stay on the table. Etiquette rules are determined not by ourselves as etiquette teachers but by our history and culture. We may take certain rules and adapt them for modern living. We should follow the rules of the situation or country we find ourselves in.

  12. Mrs. Barnett

    I agree with the others about not wanting to put the napkin on the seat of the chair when leaving the table. I don’t think you could pay me enough to do that. On the other hand, I don’t feel comfortable leaving it on the back of the chair, either. At least if I put the napkin back on the table, I know that the table was (hopefully) cleaned, or the tablecloth, so I will be setting my napkin back on something that was cleaned before I arrived. However, to put my napkin on the back of the chair, who knows how many hands have touched the back of that chair, before I arrived, and I doubt they get cleaned very often. I would think that could be a potential way to catch the flu or something. I have always put the napkin back on the table, in front of me. I think in this current century where we are learning more and more about illness and cross-contamination and such, these seemingly strange napkin customs will hopefully one day disappear. I guess I really don’t see what the big deal is of putting the napkin back on the table near where you are sitting, as long as it’s not gross looking with stains or something. Best regards.

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  14. Dottie Hempel

    I enjoyed reading your blog and I just have a question. When folding a napkin in a rectangle, should the tips of the napkin (not the fold) when placed on the left side of the plate be pointed toward the plate or away from the plate. Thank you.

  15. Arden Post author

    Hi Dottie, thanks for reading my blog. You know. I don’t think it matters which way the triangle faces. Do what looks right to you.

  16. Tracy

    Hi there, I love all things “etiquette” so, this is right up my alley. I was taught as a child to pick up my napkin and unfold it under the table, refolding it into a rectangle and placing the fold toward my knees.
    The napkin is more likely to fall this way as the weightier part (the fold) is slipping relentlessly during your meal as gravity beckons. I found only one reference to which side of your lap the fold should be on and it was towards your tummy.
    Dare I hope this is right and I may switch
    my napkin fold to my tummy side? 🙂

  17. Tracy

    P.s. If you’re not tri-foldibg the napkin, the fold should always face the plate when placing napkins on the table to the left of the plate and forks. 🙂

  18. Arden Post author

    Hi Tracy, thanks for stopping by. The napkin fold actually goes towards your lap. I don’t know the reason why, perhaps because as you say the weight of it makes it fall down if it’s facing towards your knees.

  19. Jennifer

    My grandmother would have loved such a resource! Among other things, she taught me the proper way to fold her Damask napkins so as to display pattern while accommodating a an easy transition to the lap. She even addressed direction of fold in the lap.
    Just for fun and to demonstrate her Victorian values, two other unrelated etiquette tips I learned (the hard way)…young ladies don’t use public restrooms and they don’t remove their shoes outside their home or in company of guests (even when you are 10 years old visiting family for holidays and your dress shoes are wreaking havoc on your not-yet callused feet).

  20. Arden Post author

    Jennifer, thanks for sharing some fun tips from your lovely grandmother. I bet she would roll in her grave if she knew women were taking their shoes off in many places outside their home and use public restrooms. I’m curious what you did if you were out and about and had to use the bathroom? My grandma wasn’t quite as strict, but we always had to get dressed up if we went downtown. I kind of wish we still did that today.

  21. Jennifer

    My grandmother is approaching 100. I don’t recall how I came to navigate that rule as a child in her presence. We haven’t revisited the subject of public restrooms in the last couple of decades, but I suspect she has loosened her grip on the “no public restrooms” policy 😉

  22. Tissa

    With all do respect, of all the places I have been in the world, Americans have the worst table manners. I’ll not even get into how they don’t know the appropriate usage of knives or the fact that they never heard of a knife designated for eating fish. But I’d like to point out the misguided teachings of the usage of paper napkins. Americans place paper napkins on their lap and that is a huge gaff. Paper napkins should be folded and placed to the right side of you plate. Only fabric napkins go on the lap. When it comes to table manners, research the Europeans’ royal books, not the White House.

  23. Arden Post author

    Tissa, every culture has its etiquette nuances. What is correct in Europe may not apply to the United States. So, napkins, cloth or paper, go on one’s lap not the table in the U.S.

  24. Susan Brushafer

    The ‘great napkin debate’ lives! I teach business and dining etiquette at my company, and I, too, am a germphobe when it comes to putting napkins on the seats of chairs. The first thing I teach is that diners should have used the restroom and washed their hands before sitting down for the meal. If, however, one needs to excuse oneself to take an important call, the possibility of which the customer has already been alerted to before the dinner (e.g., we’re expecting our baby any day now — yes, that kind of important call), there is a simple way to avoid seat-of-chair phobia. Place the napkin as folded on one’s lap on the seat of the chair. When returning to the table, pick up the napkin and after being re-seated, quickly refold the napkin so that the dirty side is on the inside. (Frankly, I’m more concerned about the germs lurking on menus than on chair seats. I might feel differently if guests were not required to wear slacks or skirts.)

  25. Arden Post author

    Thanks for sharing a helpful tip Susan. And, you’re right, menus, door handles and banisters all carry more germs than the seat of a chair.

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