Napkin Etiquette 5 Rules: How To Use Table Napkins Right

If you want to be a proper host or guest, you must properly set and use the napkin at the dining table. Follow the most important napkin etiquette principles and use your napkin the right way.

What napkin etiquette is

Napkin etiquette is the set of rules to properly set, use, and rest table napkins. Such rules help avoid behaviors that can disrespect and irritate hosts or guests.

If you are hosting, follow napkin etiquette to correctly set the napkins on your dining table.

If you are a guest, respect napkin etiquette rules to properly use or rest your napkin.

napkin etiquette: how to place, use, and rest your napkin

Napkin etiquette rules

Proper etiquette to fold napkins

1) Fold table napkins in a simple way

In the words of Leonardo da Vinci, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” While there are many creative ways to fold a table napkin, the most sophisticated ones are the simplest.

The traditional ways to fold a table napkin are three:

  • In square or rectangular shape.
  • In triangular shape.
  • Rolled.

If you roll the napkins, it is helpful to use napkin rings to help the napkins preserve the rolled form.

Where to set the napkin on the table

2) Place the napkins according to the local table etiquette

Place the napkin on the place setting or to its right. The etiquette may be different depending on the country. In North American etiquette, the napkin is usually placed on the left side of the place setting.

On formal occasions, napkins should be cotton or linen, and perfectly clean. Use disposable napkins only on informal occasions.

The styles of the tablecloth and the napkins should match. White is always a good choice on formal occasions. Colors or themes could work too, but it is best to avoid excess. 

3) Unfold the napkin and place it on your lap

Wait for hosts and guests before you unfold the napkin

When all the guests are at the table, gently unfold the napkin and place it on your lap. Ideally, place the napkin on your lap upon seating. If you are a guest, wait for the hosts to take their napkins off the table and place it on their lap.

Unfold the napkin gently

Make your motion almost unnoticeable by the other guests. Unfold your napkin below the level of the table.

Do not snap it or shake it open. If a napkin ring is present, remove your napkin and place the ring to the top-left of the setting.

How to use a napkin: place it on your lap

Correctly place the napkin on your lap

The napkin should cover your lap, the area between your knees, and the upper section of your thighs. It should not go over your knees or reach the line of your belt.

If the napkin is small, unfold it completely and cover the lap fully. If the napkin is large, unfold it halfway or partially so that it does not extend over your lap.

Do not tuck your napkin into your collar, or between the buttons of your shirt, or in your belt. While it is not polite to tuck the napkin into your collar, it might be allowed on some informal occasions such as in a seafood restaurant. The other exception to this rule is persons with movement difficulties, such as children and seniors. 

4) Use your napkin frequently but keep it clean

The golden rule in napkin etiquette is to keep your napkin as clean as possible. At the same time, you should keep your lips always clean, dry, and not greasy. When eating, bring the food directly into your mouth. Avoid contact with the outer lips. 

Use your napkin frequently during the meal to dry or pat your lips. Do not wipe your lips. Do not use your napkin for anything else. Avoid contact between your napkin and your nose or other parts of your face. Pat your lips before drinking, to avoid leaving a mark on the glass. 

5) Fold your napkin when leaving the table

When leaving the table temporarily during the meal, fold the napkin and place it on the table to your right (or on your left in North American etiquette) or on the seat of your chair. Fold the napkin loosely, keeping the used side hidden on the interior of the folding. 

At the end of the meal, fold the napkin and place it on the table to your right (or on your left in North American etiquette). If the center of your place is empty, place the napkin there instead. Again, fold the napkin loosely, keeping the used side hidden on the interior of the folding. 

Keep the napkin on your lap as long as you sit at the table. If coffee and drinks are served at the table after the meal, do not remove the napkin from your lap.

napkin etiquette mistakes

Napkin etiquette: the worst mistakes

The Rude Index identifies and ranks negative behaviors. 

A high score (8-10) means that the behavior has the potential to trigger a conflict with others. A medium score (4-7) means that the behavior risks making you look inelegant and unsophisticated. More about the Rude Index and its methodology here.  

Avoid the worst napkin etiquette mistakes. 

  • 7/10. Tucking the napkin into your collar.
  • 7/10. Grossly soiling your napkin. 
  • 6/10. Not folding your napkin when leaving the table.
  • 5/10. Unfolding your napkin before other guests took their seats.
  • 2/10. Folding the napkin in a complex way.