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.

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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. 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 on May 17, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    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 on December 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    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 on December 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm


    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 on December 21, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    @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 on February 17, 2016 at 9:36 am

    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 on February 17, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    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.

  8. […] Napkin Folding Guide Clise Etiquette Wikipedia – Napkin Food […]

  9. Daphne on September 10, 2016 at 7:17 am

    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 on September 10, 2016 at 7:50 am

    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 on November 4, 2016 at 8:48 am

    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. Arden Clise on November 4, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    Julie, thank you for sharing the history of why in European etiquette the napkin does not go on the chair. Very interesting.

  13. Mrs. Barnett on December 27, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    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.

  14. Arden Clise on December 27, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    Thanks for your comment Mrs. Barnett. You have to do what feels comfortable for you.

  15. […] you leave the table, set your napkin on the left side of the plate. In the U.K. some people put the napkin on their chair; personally, I’d avoid leaving my […]

  16. Dottie Hempel on July 29, 2017 at 6:18 pm

    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.

  17. Arden on August 1, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    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.

  18. Tracy on September 30, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    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? 🙂

  19. Tracy on October 1, 2017 at 8:41 am

    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. 🙂

  20. Arden on October 2, 2017 at 9:52 am

    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.

  21. Arden on October 2, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Thanks for sharing this tip.

  22. Jennifer on October 12, 2017 at 6:11 pm

    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).

  23. Arden on October 12, 2017 at 8:25 pm

    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.

  24. Kate on May 25, 2018 at 10:41 am

    I, too, vehemently disagree with placing the napkin on the chair when leaving the table temporarily. I will not place my napkin where untold numbers of rumps have pressed heavily with untold amounts of overbearing weight doing untold smelly things. When I leave the table temporarily, I will place my napkin on the table with the rest of the items that I use to enjoy my dining occasions. Placing the napkin on the chair is an unappealing etiquette and it is past time for it to be abolished.

  25. Sarah O'Brien on September 24, 2019 at 12:06 am

    Thank you for your article. The article has obviously stood the test of time, as it is 8 yrs later and your still receiving comments! I wanted to say that my British grammy taught me to always place my napkin to the right of my plate when stepping away from the dinner table or when I was done eating my meal, and to never sit with my hands in my lap while at the table. It is considered rude for some reason. In addition , I was also taught was to place the folded napkin under the knife and spoon when setting the table…I read recently that this is common in England, have you ever heard of that?

  26. Monica on October 30, 2019 at 2:02 pm

    Hi, I just came across this page while searching where to place your napkin before you leave the table.

    My mother who was very proper and taught us all the rules, had always told us that before rising, we place our unfolded napkin on the left. I’ve always taught my son to do it that way. My son is now 18 and has the habit fully ingrained. However, for the past 6 months or so, my husband has been saying that upon rising, we should place it on our right side. It’s driving my son crazy because every day my husband makes him change the side where my son has just placed his napkin. I decided to do a search and I’m happy to see that my mother was correct And, I’m happy to see that I’ve also taught my son the correct placement and our family “problem” is solved!

    I do have a couple of comments to make regarding where to place your napkin if you temporarily leave the table. I’ve been taught, like you, to leave it on my chair. There is one part that you, and others, have forgotten . If you are dining in a fine restaurant, when you return to your table, usually the waiter/waitress will have replaced your napkin that you placed on your chair. They will have put a new and clean napkin to the left of your plate, thereby avoiding the uncomfortable feeling of now dabbing your mouth with a cloth that has been laid on a chair where everyone has sat.

    I also wanted to comment as to when you open your napkin; I was taught that if you are a guest, you do not open or place your napkin on your lap until your host/hostess has done so. The rules are the same upon finishing. When your host/hostess picks up their napkin at the end of the evening and places it on the table, that is a signal for everyone else to follow suit.

  27. Monica on October 30, 2019 at 2:30 pm

    Ooops??‍♀️ I forgot to add that I love your blog!

    My mom has always taught us that good manners allows us to feel comfortable wherever life may take us and it makes me happy to see that for many others manners are still important in today’s world. Keep up the good work!

  28. Arden on November 12, 2019 at 8:37 pm

    Your mom was right Monica. Thank you for your support.

  29. Arden on November 12, 2019 at 8:38 pm

    Monica, that is correct. If there is a host or hostess, you wait for them to put their napkin on their lap before putting yours on your lap.

  30. Edward on November 22, 2020 at 9:32 am

    Letitia Baldrige, Complete Guide to the New Manners, says to put the napkin on your chair if you leave the table during the meal. Peter Post, Essential Manners for Men, says to put the napkin on the table to the left of your plate.
    An intern at the university where I teach part-time read the wrong advice: At a business lunch, he put the napkin on the table in this situation. Fired! The company providing the internship told us “Tell this student NEVER to use us as a job reference, and DO NOT send us any more students!”

  31. Arden on November 24, 2020 at 6:43 pm

    Manners matter. Hard lesson for the young man. Thanks for sharing this Edward.

  32. Edward Williams on February 7, 2021 at 3:46 pm

    I am very pleased that you recognize differences in etiquette rules. A friend of mine is a job-placement officer at a local university; hence he helps graduating students get jobs. Different corporate interviewers have told him (A) “We took one of your students to lunch and staged a phone call to the restaurant to make him get up during the meal. The idiot left his napkin on the chair, not on the table! We’ll never hire him — why don’t your students know basic manners?” (B) “We took one of your students to lunch and staged a phone call to the restaurant to make him get up during the meal. The idiot left his napkin on the table, not on the chair! We’ll never hire him — why don’t your students know basic manners?”

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