Business Dinner Etiquette: American vs. Continental Style Dining

business etiquette, business dining, american, continental

Business Dinner Etiquette and Dining

I’ve noticed more and more during meetings where food is served, some of my colleagues are eating with their utensils in both hands. I was taught to hold my fork in my right hand and place my left hand in my lap. Have the rules changed?” – Sarah

It sounds like you are referencing another style of dining known as ‘Continental Style’. For those of us raised in the States, we were taught to eat our food ‘American Style’, which is what you are describing; fork in the right hand and left hand in your lap. When sitting down to dinner in Europe with the locals, pick up your silverware, and dig in using the good old-fashioned ‘American Style’ – and they’ll look at you as if you’ve fallen off the turnip truck. They’ll be wielding a fork in one hand, a knife in the other, using them in tandem like Freddy Kruger, all while keeping their hands above the table.

Today we are such a multicultural society, and with the evolution of technology and a more global business world, our cultural boundaries are becoming more and more blurred along with our dining styles. It’s good to know the intricacies of both so you’ll be well versed and feel confident no matter whether you’re dining with Americans or Europeans, or your find yourself stateside in the Midwest, South, or a Metropolitan city. You will easily be able to adapt according to the situation.

What is American Style Dining?

There are three easy steps to master American Style Dining.

  • When cutting food “American style,” the fork is held in the left hand, and the knife in the right hand. The utensils are held as if they look like extensions of your pointer finger on each hand. Avoid gripping and stabbing your food like a Neanderthal. With your fork, ‘politely poke’ the piece that will end up in your mouth. Now taking your knife just behind your fork, gently push down, then back and forth to cut your food – try to avoid looking like a lumberjack.
  • Before placing food in your mouth, the knife is placed to ‘rest’ on the dinner plate (diagonally across the top portion of the plate) and the fork is transferred to the right hand and you place your left hand in your lap. The left hand is not to be seen again until it is needed to perform its duty as mentioned in step #1.
  • The food that is positioned on the fork is chauffeured by the right hand into the mouth. Eat and repeat…. Cutting one bite at a time.

American Style is often referred to as “zigzag” style since the fork is constantly changing from the left hand to the right. 

What is Continental Style Dining?

To master this style, you’ll start by cutting the same way as you do in American Style, but the transferring of the food to the mouth is were it gets tricky.

Some basic rules to remember for Continental Style Dining: The fork (tines down) is held in the left hand (for eating) and the knife in the right (for cutting). They are used together – in tandem. One does not work without the assistance of the other. The knife also acts as a “support” system to assist placing small items of food safely on the fork (instead of a sneaky finger). Continental Style, both hands remain above the table at all times, holding the fork and knife in your left and right hands, resting your wrists on the edge of the table. You only lay your silverware down in its resting position when you need to take a drink, tend to your bread, or when another duty is required of your hands.

  • See Step One for American Style – cutting is the same for both American and Continental style dining.
  • Transfer the food that is positioned on the fork directly into the mouth by the left hand – tines remain facing down. Food is either placed onto the tines by ‘politely poking’ or gently resting the morsel on the back of the tines. In some cultures, it is acceptable to turn your fork to scoop. Eat and repeat…. Cutting one bite at a time.

Next time you watch any of the reality show TV cooking contests, you might notice the judges eating ‘Continental Style’. It takes a bit of practice, but once you master the concept, I think it makes complete sense and is much easier and more efficient than ‘American Style’. Plus, it’s great for those international business dinners.

CareySue Vega

Carey Sue Vega is a business and youth etiquette expert. For ten years, she honed her skills with an international audience as Cruise Director for the Norwegian Cruise Line. Vega has been featured in numerous radio and television shows and magazine articles, sharing her etiquette expertise.  She’s also social savvy with social media. Connect with CareySue.

Reader Interactions


  1. Marshall Cypress says

    I’m a 50 year old American and I only recently heard about this “American style”. It has to be the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of, and I wonder who actully does this, as I have not seen it in actual use.

  2. Dennis Kender says

    If by an “American” you mean a person born and raised in the U.S.A. then “American style” should be your natural native method. “Continental style” (also called “European style”) is unusual in the average USA home. If your parents were raised other than in the USA, you may have not been taught in the “American style”.No offense meant, but perhaps your parents just did not know the “rules” for utensil usage in “American style” dining.

    To me the Continental style looks like a the person is in such a hurry to eat that they cannot take even a moment’s pause to put down their knife. It seems very de classa when seen in practice. I have seen people just sort of hunch over their plate and keep diving at their food; left and right utensils always moving, like some hungry bear mauling his catch.

    “Americans style” (if done properly) allows a person to visibly take his or her time while dinning. It has some elegance and class to it. The entire approach is not meant to be “utilitarian”.

    Do you actually eat peas (and other food) from the back of your fork? Do you never set your knife down during an entire mean? If you are naturally right handed, do you eat with your fork in your left hand?

  3. Paul Newman says

    Is it acceptable to mix Continental Style with American Style dining? For example my daughter will cut 2-3 pieces of meat to eat, and then proceed to eat the first piece with her left hand. She does this out of pure laziness, and will eat the remaining two pieces right handed, along with the rest of her meal. She doesn’t eat “Continental” in any other way. Would you say this is acceptable business dining etiquette?

    • Huck says

      I’m not an expert but what I do remember being stressed from a dining etiquette crash course I took was to never mix styles.

  4. Micah J Smith says

    I was born in the USA but I prefer the Continential style better. It seems to be more natural and elegant and easier. The American style is very awkward because one you hold the fork in left hand and cut a few pierces and then you put the knife down and switch the fork to the right hand and eat and repeat every several pieces. So it goes to show that we make everything so damn complicated here in the states.

  5. Christine says

    I would refer to “American” style as “North American” style. That method is consider “proper” in Canada as well. Perhaps it’s a colonial thing? Yes, there is a lot of switching hands, but I agree it is a lot more elegant. As previous posters mentioned, the continental method makes one appear to be rushing though a meal. In my family, continental style would be considered extremely poor manners, so much so that it would be remarked upon after the offender left: did you see how he was eating?? I know very few people who eat continental style.


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