How to Place Your Hands and Silverware at the French Table

Did you know the French use their silverware position to indicate whether they are done eating? Table manners are quite different in France: you must keep both hands over the table, eat with your index finger extended on the silverware – read my lesson for French table etiquette tips and vocabulary.

1 – Keep Both Hands Over the Table in France

You should keep your hands on the table, on each side of the plate, in a relaxed manner. Palms may be down, or your hands can be on the side, but both hands should be on the table, never under the table on your lap.

How to place your hands in a French Table

People will put their elbow on the table, rest their head in it, or cross their hands. That’s OK in a very relaxed setting, like at home, or at a barbecue or at a café, but in a fancy restaurant, or at a formal business meal, you should sit very straight in your chair, and keep both your hands on the table.

This is actually a habit that is hard to break: when I lived in the US, I was invited for Thanksgiving to the mother of a friend’s house. Of course, I wanted to show off my good side, and be polite, so tried to keep my hands on my lap to conform to the American code of table manners.

Each time I used my fork and knife, or drank, my hands went back on the table…I’d realize it and put them back on my lap. And then they’d go up on the table again… It must have been fun watching me doing this little hand dance all afternoon long!

2 – How to Politely Hold Your Knife and Fork in France

When holding your knife and fork (le couteau et la fourchette), your index finger should be extended on the handle. In France, we never hold our knife or fork in a fist like position at the table, even when we are cutting something.

The fork will always be placed to the left of the plate, and the knife on the right. The knife with the sharp edge towards the plate.

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Your knife will always be used with your right hand, even if you are left handed.

If you are only using your fork or spoon, it will be with the right hand. Your knife should then be resting on the knife rest (le porte-couteau).

Then, when you are eating something that requires cutting, you’ll switch your fork to the left hand and hold your knife in the right hand.

3 – Fork Tines Up or Down in France?

This is a tricky one, and not everybody agrees. Most French table will have the fork tines up. I don’t really know why, some say it is not to damage the table cloth…

Other people put the tines down. If you have real silverware, there is often some pretty drawing / initials on the handle and it’s prettier that way. I prefer setting my table with fork tines down, but I know this is not the case in the majority of French homes…

4 – What about Le Porte-couteau?

Many restaurants won’t have un porte-couteau (a knife rest) because… well, they are going to wash the tablecloth anyway, so who cares if you leave a big spot with your knife? Well, I don’t wash my tablecloth after each meal in my house… So I like to use them :-)

5 – How To Indicate Your Are Done Eating or Not With Your Silverware in France

Between two bites, put your silverware at 4 and 8 o’clock on the plate, but not crossing, nor falling out of the plate to indicate you are still eating.

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Your silverware should never touch the table when resting on the plate. If you prefer, and if they are not covered with sauce, you may also put your silverware back on the table: under your knife, you will probably have a little stand, like a chopstick stand, to rest the knife. It’s called “un porte-couteau”, and you should rest your knife on it. It will prevent the tablecloth (la nappe) from getting soiled.

When you are done, place your silverware parallel slightly to the right side: this is will indicate you are no longer eating, but it doesn’t mean the waiter will take your plate away instantaneously. Meals are a long affair in France. But, it should get things moving.

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6 – Other Tips About Silverware Etiquette in France

Depending on the formality of the place, you may get several pieces of silverware (les couverts).

The minimum is

  1. a fork (une fourchette – to the left of the plate),
  2. a knife (un couteau – to the right)
  3. maybe a soup spoon (une cuillère à soupe – next to the knife if soup is to be served),
  4. a small spoon (une petite cuillère, usually placed between the glass and the plate)
  5. maybe a small fork (une petite fourchette) for dessert (placed by the small spoon).

You may also get several different kinds of forks and knifes to the side of the plate, for fish, meat etc…

Work your way from the farthest to the closest to the plate, dish after dish. It is rather common to give a smaller knife (un petit couteau) for cheese, a smaller fork for cake and fruits, a small spoon for other less solid desserts…

To help yourself to a dish at a French home, special silverware will be offered, usually a big spoon and fork (les couverts de service), or a knife for cheese.

Help yourself, then don’t forget to put them back in the dish, then turn the dish to face the person next to you when you hand him/her the dish.

At the end of the meal, put your napkin (la serviette) by the side of your plate, without folding it.

7 – Glasses Etiquette at the French Table

Glasses (un verre) are placed above the plate, left to right from the tallest to the smallest;

  1. champagne glass (une flûte ou une coupe),
  2. red wine glass (un verre à vin rouge),
  3. white wine glass (un verre à vin blanc),
  4. water glass (un verre à eau)
  5. liquor glass (un verre à digestif)

You could have up to 7 glasses, but usually, in a regular French home, you’ll have two; one for water, one for wine.

VERY IMPORTANT – you need to wait for everybody to have their glass filled, and often give a chance for someone to make a toast, to start drinking. Even water.

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8 – Plate Etiquette at the French Table

First of all, be careful not to mistake the word “une assiette” and “un siège” which means a seat. Because the verb “to sit” is “s’asseoir”, I hear this mistake very often.

We have different kind of plates used for different courses:

  1. une petite assiette (une assiette à fromage, une assiette à dessert par exemple) – smaller plate used for cheese or dessert for example.
  2. une grande assiette (une assiette à entremet) – a bigger plate, used for the main course.
  3. une assiette à pain – a very small plate for the bread
  4. une assiette à soupe, une assiette creuse: soup plate

Note that a very small plate to put under a cup is called “une soucoupe”.

9 – French Silverware, Glasses and Plates Vocabulary Recap

  1. un couvert – a piece of silverware
  2. un couteau – a knife
  3. une fourchette – a fork
  4. une cuillère – a spoon
  5. une assiette – a plate
    —all of the above could be completed with: à fromage, à dessert, à poisson – for the cheese, for dessert, for fish…
  6. un porte-couteau – a knife stand
  7. Les couverts de service – serving spoon and fork
  8. une nappe – a tablecloth
  9. un set de table – a place mat
  10. une serviette – a napkin
  11. un verre à vin – wine glass
  12. un verre à eau – water glass
  13. une coupe de champagne – champagne glass (large and cup like)
  14. une flute de champagne – champagne glass (wide and tall)
  15. la vaisselle – dishes
  16. l’argenterie – silver silverware
  17. la table – the table
  18. une carafe à eau – a water carafe
  19. un décanteur – a wine decanter
  20. un dessous de plat – a (hot) dish stand

Last tip: French hosts pay close attention to the setting of the table; they carefully choose tablecloth (we have many different ones), plates and glasses to best feature the food they are preparing. They might decorate the table with candles (des bougies) or other decorative ornaments, or take out their Grandma’s real silverware (l’argenterie) etc…

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This is not to show off, but it’s part of the culture, to welcome our guests and give them the best dining experience. It is a nice gesture to comment on the table setting “quelle jolie table” (what a pretty table setting), “oh les belles assiettes” (what gorgeous plates), “cette nappe est ravissante” (this tablecloth is delightful)…

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