Knowing proper table etiquette is important, but it can be difficult to remember all of the rules. Trying to learn all of them, especially before an important dinner, can add even more stress to the situation. Luckily, most of the rules are common sense.
Proper table etiquette starts before the meal begins. You should always arrive on time, preferably ten minutes early. Don’t be late unless it is absolutely unavoidable. In that case, be sure to call your host as soon as possible to explain the holdup. Don’t wait to call until after you are already late. Once you have arrived at the table, it is rude to sit before your host, unless you are invited to do so. At a restaurant, it is okay to just take your seat.
Do not start eating, or even pick up your utensils, until your host does. Keep track of which drink glass and utensils are yours. Your drink should be set to your right. The best way to remember this is Drink Right -- DRink. Bread baskets or other food will go to your left. It is impolite to allow your used utensils to touch the table. They should be set on the side of your plate when not in use. Use good posture, and don't set your elbows on the table. Some sources say that it is okay to set a hand in your lap when it is not being used, but others say this is rude. Follow the example of your hosts, and note their preferences.
When asked to pass something, only reach for it if you are the closest to the item, unless you were specifically asked. When asked to pass the salt or pepper, the correct thing is to pass them together. Do not help yourself to food or condiments as you pass them. Wait until after the person asking has used them, and then request them for yourself.
Butter should be put onto the side of your plate when it is your turn with it, not onto your bread or onto your food. Use the butter from your plate to discourage contaminating the butter container with food. Do not use the salt and pepper until after you have tasted the food first. Many cooks are sensitive to this. They have already seasoned the food, and you should always try it first. It may not need further seasoning.
Many rules of table etiquette have been taught to children for generations. Don't rush through eating. Take your time, and make plenty of conversation. Follow common sense table manners: don't talk with your mouth full, don't eat loudly (slurping, crunching), and be sure to say please and thank you. Do not blow your nose, put on makeup, or take a phone call at the table. If you need to leave the table, excuse yourself. Other than that, don't get up until your host does. Your cell phone should be either set to vibrate, or, better yet, turned off.
There are plenty of more specific etiquette rules, like how to properly eat soup or which foods are okay to eat with your hands and which ones aren't. For the most part, though, the best way to behave is to play it safe and follow the cues of the other diners. A little common sense will go a long way as well. If you make a mistake, apologize and move on. Table etiquette isn't difficult, and knowing how to use it will make a great impression on your hosts.