Six-Course place setting
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Tête-à-tête: A master on etiquette

I just wrapped up a weekend of entertaining family.  Since my guests wanted to spend most of their time in the city, my entertaining was limited to appetizers/pre dinner snacks and breakfast.  Despite the fact that I was only responsible for snacks and breakfast, when I prepare, I sometimes wonder whether I will have enough food, whether the table is presentable, and whether my guests will feel comfortable?

There is endless amounts of how-to information on the Internet to point you in the right direction to answer all three of these questions.  One question, however that can always benefit from a bit of brush up is on the topic of etiquette.   Etiquette is something I think about from time to time (or not at all).  Most often, I think about etiquette when it’s too late and I’m in a situation without an answer and I’m left wracking my brain wondering “What did Emily Post say in the book, Etiquette?” or “What did Kate Spade say in the book, Manners?”  The answer is, I don’t know! So, when you get to have a tête-à-tête with a master on etiquette, you get your pen and paper ready.   I had the opportunity to speak with a modern day etiquette master about table etiquette including how to set the table, how to alleviate stress when it comes to entertaining and to learn from her experience in the etiquette business.

From whom did I receive such helpful advice you may ask?  Leah Hawthorn is both a certified business image + etiquette coach and a Master Trainer for the Protocol School of Washington. In other words, this talented woman know how to whip manners into tip top shape for all sorts of social occasions and scenarios.  Out of curiosity and general interest in brushing up on table setting etiquette, Leah graciously provided me with some advice, tips and anecdotes which I will share with you below.

Leah Hawthorn:
– Entertaining is fun – really?!  Those are the words most people are thinking.  Of course, everyone loves to be invited to a party in someone’s home, but to do it yourself – Unthinkable!!  It isn’t as scary as it seems.  I promise.  There is one key word to keep in mind, and that word is fun.  Whether you are putting on a formal dinner or a cocktail party with heavy hors d’oeuvres, fun is the main ingredient. To make entertaining a success, let’s review the differences between formal and casual entertaining at home.

Make sure the table is set correctly.  Are you dining Continental or are you dining American?  As a Master Trainer for The Protocol School of Washington, we teach the subtle differences between Continental table settings and American table settings.   The difference is slight, but there is always a chance that your guest might notice.  Despite a couple laughs, or a fruitful debate over fork positions, having someone sit at your table and ask why the salad fork is beside the plate instead of outside the dinner fork is undesirable as a host.  This is why brushing up on table setting etiquette couldn’t hurt.   (See PSOW Dining Map). 

Four Course- American
Countlan magazine set the table

Four Course Continental 
Four-Course Continental

Six Course Place Setting
Six-Course place setting
Photo/Diagram Source: PSOW 


Don’t be afraid to mix and match tableware.  Be creative!  This is supposed to be fun.  Do you have a beautiful punch bowl that can double as your shrimp display?  What about those vintage nut bowls for dips?  Don’t be afraid to mix and match, from napkins all the way to wine glasses. 

Use real forks and glasses.  Yes, I know that plastic ware and paper plates are less work, but purchasing real, inexpensive forks and wine glasses will be worth its weight in gold! 

For All Entertaining Events:

Map out your table layout before you do anything.  Visualize in your head what you want to have on the table and where you want things to go.  Once you put it to paper, it isn’t nearly as overwhelming, and you can start setting the stage a little at a time.

Candles, Candles, CandlesPresentation is everything and nothing sets the stage better than the glimmer of candlelight.

Keep centerpieces low to the table.  There is nothing worse than sitting at a formal dining table and trying to talk around a huge table arrangement.  While the table arrangement might be beautiful, it is nice to see the person that you are talking to.

Check for allergies or dietary restrictions. Making an incredible meal sounds good enough, right?  Well, your guest, Alfred, can’t eat anything because he is allergic to every course on your menu.  Ask before you plan.  Believe me; I had Alfred at my table once.

Music. Music is part of the presentation and entertaining experience.  Try to have some background music that is appropriate to the age group of your party.  Even better, if there is a theme, you can easily make a playlist or find a CD to fit the occasion perfectly.  I once had a formal sit-down dinner party for an engagement party and the couple was getting married in Hawaii.  I went out and bought a CD of beautiful Hawaiian music.  Along with the Leis, and Hawaiian centerpiece, it really set the stage. 

Smile.  If you’re not enjoying your party, you’re never going to host another one.  Space out the preparation and tasks, keep it simple and smile.  Your guests aren’t there to critique you; they are there to enjoy your company.


INTERVIEW: Five Minutes with Leah Hawthorn, certified business image + etiquette coach and a Master Trainer for the Protocol School of Washington.

01 What was the most memorable dinner party you have personally attended and why?
I would have to say the most memorable dinner party that I ever attended was a seven-course dinner, hosted by Pamela Eyring, Owner of The Protocol School of Washington. This dinner party was held at The Ritz Carlton, Tysons Corner, Washington DC. The meal started with incredible hors d’oeuvres and ended with magnificent champagne. The staff was attentive and it was clear who the host was at all times, which is a must in the formal dining arena. There wasn’t anything left out. The guests were my co-trainers at PSOW and these are the Masters who train dining etiquette so it was unbelievable. The reason that it was so special was it was a birthday party in my honor. It was truly beautiful.

02 What is etiquette school and why would someone seek out your help or take a course?
There are many different types of etiquette schools. Some are for business and some are for the social arena, some are for both. An etiquette school used to be called “Charm School,” which was mainly for the training of social etiquette. The people who seek out my help are people who want to learn more about business etiquette and to make an investment in their most valuable asset – themselves. There are certain guidelines that everyone needs to know. 85% of the reason you get a job, keep a job, move up in a job or get promoted is because of your social skills. Whether you are taking a course for business or to heighten your social intelligence, etiquette is the art of protocol. I think people want to learn basics. They want to know how to network properly; how to dine properly; how to deal with other cultures properly and know the etiquette and protocol that goes along with all of it. International Protocol, dining etiquette and business etiquette are more important today than ever. People want that competitive edge.

03 What is the most common question you are asked by your students when it comes to entertaining?
If I am a guest and I don’t like what I am served, what do I do? Remember when your mother always told you not to play with your food? Well, in this case, you will act as if you are dining. In most cases, the host will make sure that you like what is on the menu before the party, but sometimes that doesn’t always happen. So, yes, play with your food. Unless you are allergic to it, please try it. You just might like it.

04 What is the biggest fear that people have when it comes to entertaining?
I think the biggest fear is whether guests will like the meal. No one wants you to fail. They are there to have a good time. As I have said before, your guests aren’t there to critique you. They have been invited to have a good time. Smile. My biggest fear is timing. I think timing and presentation is everything. You want the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres to be on time as well as the meal.

05 What three items can always be found on your table when entertaining at home?
Candles, fresh flowers and individual salt and peppers for each service.

06 Why is the cocktail fork angled in the map?
The cocktail fork in the spoon at an angle dates back to the 1920’s. This is really for convenience, and this is the way that PSOW has been training table settings since its beginning; It seems to look and work the best. You will see small variations whenever searching for table settings.

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