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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.