Share on Facebook

A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

13 Dinner Etiquette Rules Everyone in the White House Must Follow

Ever dreamed of attending a dinner at the White House? Here are some rules you should follow should you ever find yourself invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Shutterstock (9640535v)<br data-image-analytics='{Shutterstock The State Dining Room setup for tomorrow evening’s State Dinner honoring President Emmanuel Macron of France and his wife, Brigitte Macron, at the White House, in Washington, DC.
Donald Trump hosts Emmanuel Macron, Washington DC, USA – 23 Apr 2018″ width=”5760″ height=”3840″ />

Step inside the State Dining Room

Snagging an invite to the White House is far from an ordinary affair. Ann Stock—Bill and Hillary Clinton’s former White House Social Secretary—shared fun insider tips on what to expect at a party at the executive residence. Find out the 18 etiquette rules everyone in the royal family must follow.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Shutterstock (5943225am) A place setting for the State Dinner in honor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen during a preview for members of the media, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington Obama US Germany, Washington, USA Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Shutterstock

Know which fork is which

Formal silverware is used at all White House dinners, so make sure you know the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork. Here is an easy cheat sheet: Utensils are placed in the order of use: from the outside in and top down. So, begin your meal using the outside fork and knife or spoon. And when in doubt, look at your neighbor! Here are 50 little etiquette rules you should always practice.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP/Shutterstock (5945215a) Valerie Jarrett Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, right, takes a photograph with her iPhone as President Barack Obama speaks as he hosts an Iftar dinner, which celebrates the breaking of fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, . Obama also made comments about Syria and the Israel and Palestinian conflict Obama, Washington, USACharles Dharapak/AP/Shutterstock

Stay away from the selfies

While some White House events will have a mandatory “cellphone check-in area” where guests will have to leave their phones, like Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday party, it’s strongly suggested by White House etiquette experts to put your phone away. While glancing at your phone during dinner or interrupting a conversation to snap a selfie is considered rude anywhere, consider that should you find yourself at the White House, it might truly be a “once in a lifetime” event, so you should take in all the splendor and history instead of spending all your time struggling over lighting of getting the “right” picture. These are the 13 social media etiquette rules you need to stop breaking.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Shutterstock (5992571a) President Bush, center, delivers opening remarks before the toast for Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo during the start of the State Dinner in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. And the first state dinner of President Barack Obama's administration goes to ... India. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is coming to America for a state visit Nov. 24, just before Thanksgiving. Such visits include a state dinner, one-on-one time with the president and an elaborate arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn Obama State Dinner, Washington, USAPablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Shutterstock

Say adíos to your spouse!

Partners are never seated together at White House dinners, a longheld tradition that is still recommended—lest they spend all night talking to each other—or bickering about whose telling the right version of the story. Knowing this ahead of time allows couples to feel comfortable and enjoy the company at their table. P.S. It’s considered rude to try and switch tables, so we don’t recommend it. Find out the 10 table etiquette mistakes you need to stop making.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Haraz N Ghanbari/AP/Shutterstock (5983652b) A spoon, engraved with the words "Presidents' House," that will be used for the State Dinner in honor of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, is seen on a table in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington Bush Royal Visit, Washington, USAHaraz N Ghanbari/AP/Shutterstock

Don’t steal the silverware

As you can imagine, the White House has beautiful silverware from France and England, dating back to President Monroe. Trying to bring home a White House “souvenir,” like a silver spoon, is so common that butlers count the silverware every time they pick up from a course. If you happen to “drop” a piece of silver in your bag, know that the butlers will be gracious enough to suggest that perhaps you “accidentally dropped some silverware on the floor” giving you time to place the item in question back where you found it! Find out 12 facts about the White House you may have missed in history class.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ira Schwarz/AP/Shutterstock (5958842a) President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter share the first dance of the evening at the Congressional Christmas Ball at the White House in Washington, as guests look on Jimmy Carter, Washington, USAIra Schwarz/AP/Shutterstock

Save the last dance

While iconic images of dancing at the White House, like Princess Diana boogying down with John Travolta, might inspire you to be the first on the dance floor—slow your roll. White House etiquette dictates that the President and First Lady always have the first official dance, before handing off to their guests of honor. Much like a wedding, you should stay seated until everyone is welcome on the dance floor. Find out the true story behind the famous Princess Di and John Travolta dance.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ira Schwarz/AP/Shutterstock (6010143a) President Reagan shakes hands with Sonny Werblin, owner of the New York Jets football franchise at the conclusion of a White House reception in Washington, on for the President's Council on Physical Fitness Thursday in the State Dining room Ronald Reagan, Washington, USAIra Schwarz/AP/Shutterstock

Shake don’t embrace

Our very first president, George Washington, used bows as a greeting, supposedly to avoid physical contact with people. Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, did away with that and introduced the handshake that is still used today. While presidents like Obama were relaxed and known for their fist pumps, the protocol of the White House is to greet with a firm, quick handshake, no bows, high fives, fist pumps, or embraces—the last of which may cause the Secret Service to interrupt. Find out what your handshake reveals about your personality.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock (6010767a) President Franklin D. Roosevelt poses for photographers with a cigarette in his mouth as he started his 11th year in the White House. He said, "Let's make one this way, boys." On Jan. 11, 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released an emphatic and authoritative report that said smoking causes illness and death - and the government should do something about it Smoking Report Anniversary, Washington, USAUncredited/AP/Shutterstock

Don’t light up

Nancy Reagan was known to put out ashtrays so guests could enjoy a post-meal puff, but by the time the Clintons arrived, smoking had been banned from the White House. Smoking cigars is also banned, though Bill Clinton was known to chew on unlit ones. President Obama caused a stir when a tweet revealed that a guest at a White House dinner was vaping. With Donald Trump’s new proposed ban on flavored e-cigarettes, we can only imagine that vaping is now too prohibited from the White House. Smoking is only one of 11 things that used to be banned in the White House.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP/Shutterstock (5942720g) Yousef Al Otaiba, Susan Rice Yousef Al Otaiba, the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States of America, left, and Susan Rice, National Security Adviser, talk before the start of an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan in the State Dining Room of the White House, in Washington Obama Ramadan, Washington, USACarolyn Kaster/AP/Shutterstock

Be a conversation starter

The one thing the White House prides itself on is inviting a huge array of guests, such as diplomats, media folk, celebs, and other influential people. That said, because you never know who you’ll be sitting next to, the White House social secretary highly recommends brushing up on current affairs and having some conversation starters in your back pocket. Normal conversation etiquette includes never interrupting a speaker and to think before you speak. You’ll also want to follow these magic phrases that can save an awkward conversation.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Susan Walsh/AP/Shutterstock (9641564j) President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron toast in the State Dining Room during a State Dinner at the White House in Washington Trump US France, Washington, USA - 24 Apr 2018Susan Walsh/AP/Shutterstock

Take it easy on the booze

While open bars of champagne, wine, and cocktails are readily served at the White House (we hear that the eggnog has quite a kick) getting drunk in front of heads of state is highly discouraged. We get that being in the White House is a reason to celebrate, but stock up on snacks before you arrive to avoid any embarrassment—or an escort out. Follow these party etiquette rules if you want to be invited back.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/Shutterstock (6010918a) Susie Morrison White House Executive Pastry Chef, Susie Morrison, shows the dessert called "a stroll through the garden" and a lightly buttered artisanal bread accented with a delicate egg custard including a Meyer lemon curd and lychee sorbet, during a preview in the State Dining Room of White House in Washington, for the state dinner of the visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping. It will be Colorado lamb on the menu and Grammy-winning R&B singer Ne-Yo as the entertainment, when President Barack Obama welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping to the White House for a state dinner on Friday State Dinner China Redo, Washington, USAManuel Balce Ceneta/AP/Shutterstock

Cheat on your diet

If you have any allergies, you can definitely let the office of the White House social secretary know beforehand. But if you are able to at all be flexible, or cheat on your diet, now would be the time to do it. Fancy cuts of meat, like rack of lamb or dry-aged rib eye beef, are often served in addition to courses of seafood, veggies, and scrumptious desserts. While heaps of veggies would probably be on the menu during the Obama administration, given that Michelle cultivated her own impressive garden, we hear a White House fave for Donald Trump is meatloaf and ketchup. Find out what your favorite food reveals about your personality.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by William Smith/AP/Shutterstock (5967268a) Dwight Eisenhower, Adolfo Lopez Mateos, John Eisenhower Mexican President Adolfo Lopez Mateos, his wife and daughter, Eva, who arrived in Washington, on on an official visit, pose with the Eisenhower's prior to a formal dinner the same evening in the White House. Left to right, Mrs. Eisenhower, President Lopez Mateos and his wife, President Eisenhower, Miss Eva Lopez Mateos and Maj. John Eisenhower, son of President Adolfo Lopez Mateos with Dwight Eisenhower and John Eisenhower, Washington, USAWilliam Smith/AP/Shutterstock

Dress appropriately

The White House does not have an official dress code, but every event invite should state what attire is expected whether it is a garden party or black-tie affair. Black tie translates to a tuxedo for men, and formal dresses for women—think Oscars. Cocktail and business attire can be viewed as the same, a suit for men, and a cocktail dress for women. Garden or day parties call for lighter, brighter fabrics.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ron Sachs/Shutterstock (444938l)<br data-image-analytics='{Ron Sachs/Shutterstock George W Bush shaking hands with Jeb Bush and Sonny Perdue

Don’t fret about an intro

If you’re imagining what you’ll say to the president or White House staff when you finally come face to face, don’t worry, they have people on hand to make your introduction. In any formal receiving line, the White House will have you write down your information on a card, including your name, title, and hometown. Upon meeting the president or host, an official White House greeter will “announce” you so you can just smile in case you get so nervous you forget your own name.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Alex Brandon/AP/Shutterstock (10461265d) Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., left, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mike Milley, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talk before for a Medal of Honor Ceremony for U.S. Army Master Sgt. Matthew Williams, currently assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group, in the East Room of the White House, in Washington Trump, Washington, USA - 30 Oct 2019Alex Brandon/AP/Shutterstock

When in doubt, look for someone in uniform

All five branches of service (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy) have their own official White House social aides whose jobs are to help normal people like us feel comfortable at formal occasions at the White House. So, if you are unsure where to discard an hors d’oeuvre, where to sit, or where to find the bathroom, someone in uniform should be able to point you in the right direction. For extra protection, every table at a White House dinner is assigned a table host, so you can always follow them for social cues.

Robyn Moreno
Robyn Moreno is former Editor-In-Chief and Co-President of Latina Media Ventures, an Emmy-nominated TV host, a keynote speaker, and author of two lifestyle books, Borderline Personalities (Harper Collins;) Practically Posh (Harper Collins). She has interviewed powerhouse women from Rihanna to Latina activist Dolores Huerta, Jennifer Lopez to Hillary Clinton, and is working on a new book and podcast, Finding My Magic. A certified yoga teacher and life coach, she lives in Cold Spring, New York, with her spirited daughters and her hubby, Sven.