First produced by me as an answer to a Quora question, this became relatively popular over there, so I thought I would bring it home here and share it with you. It is a few unwritten rules (now written) for how you can avoid comment or offence of general faux pas in these eating situations known as buffets, and they include rules that apply in varying contexts, including conference or party buffets where people know each other or who are supposed to be getting to know each other, as well as restaurants having buffets like the “Swedish table” at breakfast where you are not expected to be using the food as an adjunct to another social purpose. Some are in public places, others inside comanies or even people’s houses. Some of these buffets are culinary occasions intended to enable the tasting of different types of food and some are mere convenience, with containers piled with cheaply made and poor-quality food. Some of these rules don’t apply therefore to every occasion, whereas some probably would. Unless you know that a rule wouldn’t apply, assume it would.
- If there’s a queue, don’t jump it.
- Once you have charged your plate with a reasonable amount of food, move away from the area in order not to cause congestion.
- If there are platters for vegans, or food allergy people, only take from them if you are in that group, unless it is close to the end and you’re sure they won’t need them. It’s a dirty trick by greedy pigs to analyse what some other people can’t eat in the company and come to that last, but go first to the only stuff those people can eat. Don’t be like that.
- Don’t hog all the best things because you were lucky enough to be near the front of the queue.
- Don’t pile your plate high.
- Don’t take more than you can eat. I know you cannot send the food from this buffet to the starving children, but that is not a reason to be wasteful.
- Take the cutlery and handle it appropriately. If you are not sure you can handle the food in mod air without dropping it on the floor, take it to one of those tables (in mixer situations). Then ask the people who are already round that table if you can join them.
- Don’t handle the food with your fingers, and if you have taken something, don’t put it back. Don’t maul the collective food even with the tongs. If you have to cut cheese, know how to cut it in a civilised way, with a “nez” and not straight on like some kind of philistine. If you are no good at cutting bread, don’t do it. If you do want to cut bread, handle the loaf via the cloth. try and show a certain culture in a discrete way, because people may be observing you even without especially meaning to.
- Likewise don’t sneeze, cough, fart, spit, or leave your dirty plates and cups around the food. Leave the dirty plates, glasses and cutlery in the place provided or give them to the waiter. Especially don’t leave glasses in places where someone could accidentally break them and cut themselves.
- If the idea of the buffet is a social event then bear that in mind and use it as a means to the end of getting to know people and don’t live for food like some modern Epicurian.
- If you have a buffet arrangement as part of a job interview then bear in mind you are still on parade during this time and someone is likely watching your savoir-vivre and true character which tends to come out when the trough opens before certain people’s snouts.
- Use the cloakroom especially if it is a standing buffet. Don’t have people tripping over your briefcase, and don’t knock someone’s plate or glass out of their hand with your stupid backpack. Don’t come inappropriately dressed if there was a dress code stated on the invitation, and don’t wear outdoor clothing to an indoor event.
- If you are the host, or an employee of the hosting company or organisation, you must stand back and give the best of it to the guests.
- Don’t juggle with too many containers or items of cutlery, and don’t take risks with other people’s carpets.
- If it’s a restaurant don’t take the food out unless it was all paid for by the event organisers and would just go to waste, in which case you should indeed take some to go but always check with the manager. If it’s an in house do make sure any decent left overs are saved for those colleagues who couldn’t attend the event.
- Don’t gatecrash if you are not supposed to be there or try to weedle other unexpected guests in at the last minute. Likewise if you are expected but know you cannot attend, try to give the organisers some notice, the more the better.
- Be polite to the wait staff and the cloakroom attendant, including being aware of and adhering to the tip culture of the place you are.
- Don’t hog one person if it is a networking buffet, cramping their style, but circulate. Work the room, and develop some elegant ways of rounding off conversations. If you tell someone you have to go home and they see you chatting away to someone else ten minutes later, you can well imagine what conclusion they will come to and what they will think. Better is to say “I promised such and such to catch up with him this evening, please excuse me”.
- Don’t forget you business cards for social buffets and don’t forget the follow-up in mail or phone afterwards. Don’t worry if you don’t meet everyone. I usually leave when I have ten cards even if I could get more. Good follow up on ten cards is better than thirty cards with poor follow up.
- Have some regard for your health. If you are on a diet, the abundance of quality free food is not reason enough to abandon it. I like to walk home afterwards, weather and safety permitting.
Just for your information, a title plus the first name is decidedly old-fashioned in English now. We use it for people with very high titles, such as Sir Cliff (Richards), Dame Edna (Everage) but not Lord and Lady. Mr, Miss and Mrs were used only with surname already before Ms was revived in the 20th Century. Ms plus first name is recorded in the seventeeth century. Ms then went out of use for two centuries, (because it is actually short for “mistress” which took on a risqué meaning).
The use of any title less than Sir or Dame plus first name seems decidedly quaint now. One is put in mind of that traditional old Texas oil baron Jock Ewing, who persisted in calling his wife “Miss Ellie” even after they were married and even just before his funeral. I understand that this is a bit of a Texas thing.
In the English-speaking world, first names seem to be in general use now and in the main people do not even ask for permission to switch to it. However there are still situations where deference is called for, such as to a client or a teacher, in which case Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms or a professional/academic title like Dr or Professor are used with the surname. More highly honorific titles still, such as Excellency for embassadors, highness or majesty for royalty are not usually combined with names at all in direct address. It is also usually appropriate to use the term once in a meeting and then default to “sir, ma’am” after this. The use of first or second name after foreign titles used in English will follow the usage in the language of origin. Examples include Don Giovanni, Sheikh Yamani, Mufti Menk and Imam Bayildi.