Table Etiquette for the Uninitiated

IT was one of those discreetly disastrous dinners, done in a typically understated English way.

My mother, a transplanted American, was preparing for her first big dinner party as a young wife, she later told me. Determined to do it in a proper English manner, she starched the linens, polished the silver, and dusted the cut glass. The table was the picture of elegant dining.

Laboring in the kitchen most of the day, she had created dish after dish of artfully arranged vegetables, condiments, and desserts, while keeping an eye on the roast as it cooked to succulent perfection.

Shortly after the guests arrived, my mother ushered them into the dining room. Light conversation and laughter bubbled over the candlelit table, along with compliments on the lavish spread. My mother beamed. Fitting in with finicky English etiquette might not be such a challenge after all.

After a suitable pause, she asked the guests if they would like a second helping. All politely declined. Momentarily disappointed, my mother started to clear the table. What she did not see, however, were the equally disappointed faces of the guests as the buttered vegetables and half-eaten roast slid back through the hatch to the kitchen.

Later she learned her mistake. In some English circles it is customary to ask guests three times if they would like more. To accept the first time might sound overeager, a little too ravenous for English tastes. A second refusal is a simple show of restraint. But the final ''Yes!'' can burst with genuine desire.

Another convoluted rule of table etiquette in our home was the delicate art of never asking for anything directly. For instance, if your potatoes need an extra shake of salt, and the saltcellar is down at the far end of the table, you ask the person nearest to the salt if he or she would like some first. He or she declines and then offers it to you. A sort of: ''Would you like some Brussels sprouts, Hilary?'' ''No, thank you, Henry, but would you?''

An American colleague, finding this all very amusing and quite absurd, decided to extend it beyond the dinner table. Arriving at the house after a long flight and keen to freshen up, he asked my mother: ''Elizabeth, would you like a shower?''

My mother blushed, laughed, and showed him to the bathroom.

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