How to Pass the Pass the Potatoes Test
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“How to Pass the Pass the Potatoes Test,” New Era, Mar. 1980, 30

How to Pass the Pass the Potatoes Test

(And Other Tips on Modern Etiquette)

In the play The Miracle Worker, one of the first lessons Annie Sullivan tries to teach blind-deaf Helen Keller is that of how to eat at the dinner table. Helen is used to shoving food into her mouth with her hands and snatching whatever she wants off the plates of those seated nearby. She does learn, however, and in so doing, takes her first steps toward becoming a refined and civilized young lady. Like Helen, we also had to learn the basics of good table manners; unlike her, it was probably a relatively painless experience for us.

But sometimes our need for an understanding of etiquette extends beyond the basics, beyond the traditions and customs we practice in our own homes. For example, have you ever been at a formal dinner and found yourself bumping into someone who was passing the potatoes in one direction while you were passing the peas in another? And at that same formal dinner were you shocked to discover there were four forks, three spoons, and two knives at your place setting alone?

Although some of the rules of good etiquette change over the years, there are some that will likely always endure simply because of their practicality and effectiveness. Do you know what they are—and why they are important? Priest adviser Steve Stewart from the Monument Park 12th Ward, Salt Lake Monument Park Stake, decided his quorum should be able to answer “Yes!” to both questions. Remembering his feelings of inadequacy at a dinner at the home of his mission president, he wanted to give his quorum the opportunity to learn, discuss, and practice some of the more universal aspects of etiquette.

“It was New Year’s Day and I was serving as a missionary in the Central Atlantic States Mission,” he recalled. “The mission president and his wife had invited some of us over for dinner. It was delicious, but my enjoyment of it was hampered some when I realized I lacked knowledge of formal etiquette. For example, I wasn’t sure when I was supposed to stand or even when it was appropriate to take my napkin. It’s not that the procedures were difficult, they were just unfamiliar to me.”

Brother Stewart’s desire to help his priests avoid similar situations was greeted enthusiastically by the quorum. His approach included a quiz on the young men’s existing knowledge of etiquette, with a discussion afterward, and a formal dinner for the priests and Laurels. The class exercise was well received, and the dinner turned out to be one of the best-attended activities of the year. “I thought the dinner would be fun but that I wouldn’t really learn anything new,” admitted Buster Child, first assistant to the president of the priests quorum. “But I was wrong. I really have learned a lot.”

Printed invitations were sent to each of the priests and Laurels in the ward, and the priests were assigned to escort the Laurels. As a result, shortly before 7:30 on a calm, clear, spring night, the Stewart sidewalk began filling up with beautiful young women in long, colorful dresses and handsome priests in coats and ties. Inside, several tables had been covered with fine cloths and set with china, silver, and goblets. Placecards indicated where each guest was to sit, and the tantalizing aroma of baked ham and scalloped potatoes floated into the dining room from the adjoining kitchen.

The young people spent the first part of the evening mingling, talking, and eating hors d’oeuvres of sausage-filled mushrooms and chips with dips. Such whispered comments as “I ate before I came so I wouldn’t stuff myself when I got here” and “Is it all right to pick up a mushroom with my fingers?” could be heard amidst talk of school, ward activities, and the approaching summer vacation.

Soon, however, it was time for dinner to begin. After a short welcome and a blessing on the food, Brother Stewart encouraged his guests to feel comfortable and to ask as many questions as they wanted. And they did. Throughout the evening the room buzzed with questions. “How do I butter my roll?” asked one, and from someone else, “Do I pass the food to my left or to my right?” Brother Stewart also brought up some points for discussion. Some of the answers were obvious: “Should you leave some food on your spoon or fork to be waved about during conversation?” brought spontaneous laughter from the group. But the answer to another question, “Is it considered proper to butter a whole ear of corn at once?” (the answer is no; butter and eat only a few rows at a time) was greeted with disbelief, and the consensus was that perhaps this is one area that should be left up to personal taste.

When the evening was over, however, the group generally agreed that understanding etiquette and practicing good manners are just as important today as ever before. “Once you learn the basics, you can relax and enjoy yourself without wondering if you are going to make a big mistake,” said Mike Bonnelli. And Sharon Matsen added, “It’s being courteous, but it’s more than that, too. It’s a way of showing others you want them to feel comfortable. For example, I really like my date to open the car door for me. Even though it might be considered a little thing, it makes me feel that he thinks I’m someone special.”

And that’s what etiquette is really all about—showing our friends, family members, and associates that they are special to us and that we want to treat them in the very best way possible. As well as passing the beans in the right direction and not blowing your nose at the dinner table, good manners mean returning everything you borrow and following through on everything you say you will do. It is being patient when the clerk at the grocery store charges you too much, cheerful when you have to do the dishes twice in a row because your sister is sick, and appreciative when your father takes your paper route so you can go to Scout camp. It is helping a stranger who has slipped on the ice and offering the last piece of pie to your Uncle Harvey when you really wanted to eat it yourself. The following quiz includes true-false questions covering a variety of different situations. See how many you can get right:


1. If there are more than eight persons seated at one table, it is all right to begin eating as soon as you are served.

True. Otherwise the hot food could begin to get cold and the cold food could begin to get warm.

2. Used silverware should be left on the table with the tips resting on the side of the dinner plate.

False. Only unused silverware should be left on the table. Lay your used utensils crosswise across the plate so that when it is removed, the silverware won’t fall off.

3. At a formal dinner party you should take your napkin as soon as you are seated.

False. Take your napkin when your hostess takes hers.

4. If you always add salt to your food, it is all right to salt and pepper it before you taste it.

False. Wait until you taste it to avoid offending the cook—or ruining the flavor!

5. When you are passed the butter plate, you should take however much you need and place it on your plate rather than directly onto your roll, corn, potato, etc.

True. This keeps the butter moving around the table and also keeps the butter knife from touching any food.

6. If you take a bite of a piece of gristle or something else that you do nor want to eat, you should swallow it anyway.

False. Roll it with your tongue onto your fork or spoon and place it back onto your plate.

7. If you feel a sneeze coming and haven’t time to reach for a handkerchief, you should pinch your nose with your fingers and turn your head away from the table.

False. Cover your nose and mouth with your napkin instead.

8. The most correct way to eat spaghetti is to wind it around your fork.

True. Many chefs do not like their guests to cut the pasta!

9. If someone burps at the table, spills his water glass, or does something equally unacceptable, you should stop talking and stare at him so he will know he blew it.

False. One of the most important rules of etiquette is to keep from adding to the embarrassment of others.


1. It is best to keep your date waiting at least five minutes but not more than ten.

False. There may be times when you are unavoidably delayed, but these should always be exceptions.

2. It is still important for a boy to help a girl with her coat, open doors for her, guide her down dark theater aisles, or do any other such things.

True. Such respectful attention will never be out-of-date. It makes both the boy and the girl feel good about themselves and each other.

3. If your date wants to see an R-rated or other unacceptable movie, you should accept his suggestion, especially if he is paying.

False. He wants you to have an enjoyable time, too, and you won’t if you are doing something you know you shouldn’t. Pleasantly say that you would prefer not to see that particular show and suggest an alternate plan. Good manners don’t include going along with everything your friends may want to do.

4. A proper way to ask a girl for a date is to say, “What are you doing Saturday night?”

False. Instead describe what you have planned and ask her if she would like to go with you.


1. If you are invited to a party and cannot attend, there is no need to respond. They’ll know you can’t make it when you don’t show up.

False. It is very difficult for a hostess to plan refreshments and entertainment when she doesn’t know how many will be attending.

2. After dialing a wrong number on the telephone, it is all right to ask, “What number is this?”

False. Instead say something like, “Is this 333-3333?” If it is not, you will know you have simply misdialed and can try again.

3. Even if you thank someone verbally, you should still send a written thank-you note for a gift.

True. It shows you appreciate the time they took to remember you and that you are willing to do the same.

4. It is all right to leave a meeting just before the closing prayer.

False. President David O. McKay once said, “It is the height of rudeness, excepting in an emergency, to leave a worshiping assembly before dismissal.”

5. If you call someone on the phone and don’t recognize the voice that answers, you should say, “Who is this, please?”

False. Since you have invited yourself into their home by calling them, you should identify yourself to whomever answers the phone, and ask to speak to the person you wanted to talk to.

6. If someone cuts in front of you in line, you are justified in glaring at them.

False. Why be rude just because someone else is rude?

7. When speaking to children or those younger than ourselves, there is no real need to say “please” when asking them to hand us something, bring in the mail, or help in other ways.

False. What better way to develop good feelings between all ages and create harmony in your home than by treating everyone, equally, with respect?

Well, how did you do? Did you learn anything? We hope so. And by the way, if you are still wondering which way the vegetables should be passed, they should usually be passed to the right. Have fun.

Illustrated by Paul Mann