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14 Obscure Etiquette Rules You Probably Break All the Time

Who's that hostess gift really for?

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Emily who?

Etiquette rules can be a tricky business. They’re far less cut-and-dry than, say, laws, and yet some are often taken just as seriously. When they go out of fashion, sometimes we say good riddance, but other times we wish they’d come back! And many etiquette rules have gone somewhat out the window because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Oh, and there are plenty of little rules that you’ve likely never even heard of, or maybe heard once but never took seriously, that you’re probably breaking all the time. After all, even Emily Post had her not-so-polite moments.

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Expecting your hostess gift to be opened

You probably already know that you should bring a gift to a party or gathering when someone is hosting you, in exchange for their hospitality. But what’s a bit more surprising is the fact that you really shouldn’t be expecting to partake in it yourself. For instance, “bringing a bottle of wine as a hostess gift and then expecting it to be opened during the party because it’s your favorite vintage,” explains etiquette expert Lisa Grotts. “It’s a gift—not a gift to yourself!” The hostess gift, she maintains, is to be enjoyed by the hostess (or host, of course).

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Not giving an RSVP

In our 21st-century world of casual gatherings—think Facebook invites, text chains, and, especially now, Zoom get-togethers—you might think it’s okay to just let your RSVP slide if you can’t make it. But no—it’s still disrespectful! “RSVPs are for accepts and regrets,” Grotts says. “Never leave your host hanging.” Learn more about the etiquette of RSVPs (and what those letters actually mean!).

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Be picky when you’ve been invited out to eat

We’ve all asked for a tweak to something on a restaurant menu at some point—hold this, add that, prepare this dish slightly differently. And while Grotts says that that’s fine in many circumstances (as long as you’re polite about it, of course), she says that you absolutely should not do it when you’ve been invited out to eat. If someone else is paying for your meal, sticking to the predetermined menu is the respectful thing to do—especially if they chose the place. Learn more things polite people don’t do in restaurants.

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Announcing your bathroom breaks

If you’re seated at the dinner table, a restaurant, a party, et cetera, and have to get up, don’t tell your party where you’re going, Grotts says. If you excuse yourself, “announcing where you are going during a meal, such as to the bathroom or to make a phone call, is uncouth,” she says. It seems a little counterintuitive since it probably seems ruder to just leave without providing any information, but hey, that’s likely why it’s an obscure rule. Grotts says that no matter where you’re going, you simply need to say “please excuse me.” In other words, even if it might seem benign, it can come across as TMI. Speaking of the bathroom, you’re probably breaking these bathroom etiquette rules.

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It’s tempting. It’s human nature. But, for etiquette’s sake, resist the urge, implores Grotts. “Gossiping about others is toxic behavior,” she says. “[Instead], we should be talking about…COVID-19 and how to stop its spread.” In fact, here are some etiquette rules to follow when gathering with friends right now.

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Slicing and dicing your food

That’s right; we’re getting into food-related etiquette rules. Grotts says that you should not be cutting all of your food before you eat it; cut and eat one piece at a time. “Cutting all foods on your plate at once is a food crime,” she says. “The rule is one piece at a time. You’re an adult, not a baby.” In that vein, learn some etiquette goofs you should have stopped making by age 30.

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Pass the salt—and pepper

Here’s another food-related one you’ve probably never known about. When you hand someone salt and/or pepper, you should be handing them the other one as well, according to proper etiquette. “Salt and pepper are always passed together, just in case someone five seats away wants both,” Grotts says. Sure, that may not be the case, but it can’t hurt, can it? Here are some more little etiquette rules to follow when dining.

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Pass food to the right

If you’re at a large enough table where food needs to be passed, you should be passing it to the right, not the left (or counter-clockwise). This is another rule that might seem somewhat arbitrary, but Grotts explains it: “People are [generally] right-handed; therefore, we go counter-clockwise. That way they hold the plate with their left hand and serve with the right.” Of course, this isn’t ideal for left-handed people—and that’s just the start. Find out all the things you shouldn’t be doing with your left hand.

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Use titles in introductions

When you’re introducing someone who uses a formal title, use that title in the introduction! “It’s poor etiquette to disregard rank in introductions,” Grotts says. “If someone has a title—think doctor, U.S. senator, admiral—then use it; they earned it.” It might seem old-fashioned, but it’s still good etiquette! Find out 50 more little etiquette rules you should always practice.

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Drinking in your own toast

Guilty of this one? Yes, us too. All the time. But technically, if people are toasting to you, you are not supposed to drink; it’s akin to tooting your own horn, applauding yourself. Oh, and while we’re on the topic of toasting etiquette, “one never clinks a glass in a toast—just raise it,” Grotts says. Why would this possibly be a rule? Well, to prevent the possibility of aggressive clinkers causing glasses to break. If you’re willing to assume that risk, go ahead and continue clinking—but it is technically a breach of etiquette. Learn about some surprising little-known etiquette rules from around the world.

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Talking on your phone in public places

Phones are so ubiquitous that you’ll see them anywhere and everywhere, but there really is a time and a place for them. Or, more accurately, a time and a place not for them. Specifically, avoid yakking on your phone when you’re in line at a store or business, ordering at a restaurant, or any other public encounter that requires interacting with someone who is not the person on the other end of the line. “[It’s] disruptive and rude to the person serving you and others in line,” Grotts says. Learn more cell phone etiquette rules you should always follow.

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Using speakerphone in public places

Also disruptive? Using your speakerphone in public—or really at any time you’re around other people. “Never keep your mobile phone on speaker while in public,” Grotts says. Even if you’re not having a private conversation, everyone around you shouldn’t have to hear your entire chat. Check out these etiquette rules that changed in the last decade.

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Over-using fragrances

“Less is more” is the bottom line of this rule, according to Grotts. When you’re applying a perfume or fragrance, a little goes a long way, and your scent shouldn’t overpower others, or even come close. “Don’t be heavy-handed with perfume,” Grotts says. “Do a perfume check before you leave the house.” (And, yes, this applies to both men and women.) For more fragrance etiquette, learn 5 spots you should never apply perfume.

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Don’t be boastful

Being proud of your accomplishments is great, even encouraged. But boasting? Not cool. “You have just received a promotion or purchased a yacht, but your friend might be unemployed and doesn’t even have a car,” Grotts says. “Good for you, but be humble about it.” This is especially relevant right now when huge numbers of people are experiencing unprecedented hardships and it’s important to be sensitive to that. Next, find out more etiquette rules you should still follow even during COVID.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine.