Napkin love

napkin rolled in a napkin ring resting on a plate

I have to admit that I have a thing for napkins. I simply can’t sit down to a meal without one on my lap. Even if I’m eating fast food I will put one of those flimsy little paper napkins on my lap. I guess my mom’s constant reminders to use my napkin stuck.

I’ve been in a few homes where nary a napkin is in sight, which makes me anxious. How will I wipe my mouth, protect my lap from spills or clean messy fingers? I suppose no napkin is better than a communal one. Someone told me that she visited friends who used a dishcloth as a napkin that everybody shared. Ugh!!

I strive to be a current and relevant etiquette consultant but there are a few etiquette practices I believe are important to honor. Using a napkin is one of those traditions. The humble napkin has several jobs. It’s used to wipe crumbs and grease from your mouth, it protects your lap and it keeps you from having to lick food off your fingers, which is a big no no.

While the napkin has a few purposes there are some practices to avoid. Do not use your napkin as a handkerchief. I don’t know about you, but the thought of wiping my mouth with a snot-soiled serviette (sorry, couldn’t resist) is really not appealing. Instead, carry tissues or an actual handkerchief with you in case of a sneeze or runny nose emergency. Never blow your nose at the table. Go to the bathroom and honk away. Another job the napkin does not have is to remove unwanted food from your mouth. If you get a piece of gristle, bone or something else that’s not edible take it out  with your fingers and put it on your plate. Yes, really.

Place your napkin on your lap when you sit down or after the host puts their napkin on their lap. If it’s folded in any shape other than a rectangle, unfold it under the table and refold it into a rectangle, which will cover more of your lap. If it’s a small napkin you can unfold it completely before placing it on your legs. Use it frequently while dining, especially before taking a drink from your glass, which will prevent greasy bits from getting on the vessel. When you get up during the meal put your napkin on your chair. Think of it as signaling that you are saving your seat and returning to the table. Keep your napkin on your lap until you are finished with the meal and are about to leave the table. This prevents having soiled napkins on the table while people are still sitting there. When you do place it on the table crumple it up a bit so that the waiter doesn’t assume it’s a fresh napkin. Place it to the left of the plate or where the plate was. Never place your napkin on your plate, further soiling it.

A final word. I much prefer cloth napkins over paper napkins or paper towels. Not only are cloth napkins nicer they can be washed and used over and over. Paper napkins or towels use precious resources and create unnecessary waste. You can reuse cloth napkins in your home for a few household only meals so that you don’t have to wash them every day. Use napkin rings with family member’s names on them or fold them to hide stains and keep them at each person’s usual place at the table.

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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Kaye Simonetta on May 23, 2022 at 1:55 pm

    Arden, I love this! I am a napkin snob and I, too, get anxious when there’s not one around–and it happens often, even in my own family. I’m glad to know I am in good company.

    I also think having a cloth napkin available elevates the meal, even if it’s just Tuesday night spaghetti and they may even get children to pay a little more attention to the table manners we are trying to teach them if the table is a little nicer.

    One last thing on the sustainability of cloth napkins over paper ones. I remember a sorority sister participating in what was probably one of the first Earth Days pointing this out. I was still living in a dorm and did not own a cloth napkin, or a plate or fork for that matter, but I have always remembered that cloth napkins are better for Mother Earth and have used them since I got my first apartment.

    As usual, a great blog post. Hope all is well!

    Kaye Simonetta

  2. Arden on May 23, 2022 at 2:37 pm

    So nice to hear from you, Kaye. I love that a sorority sister talked about the sustainability of cloth napkins. I’ve always used them in my home and like how they make even a simple meal a little nicer. Thanks for saying hello.

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