Dear Helena,

I went to a dinner party last weekend, where the dessert was chocolate cake. The woman sitting next to me declined. “I’ll just have a bite of his,” she said. Turning to me, she asked: “Is that OK?” Then, without waiting for an answer, she grabbed my fork and stuffed some in her mouth. I thought it would be rude to ask for a clean fork, so I ate the cake (but did not enjoy it). If someone uses your fork, or drinks from your glass, is it wrong to get a new one? And is there a polite way to stop him or her from snatching your cutlery in the first place? —Fastidious

Dear Fastidious,

You are wise to be protective of your cutlery. Someone else’s saliva could give you a cold, or even a stomach bug. “There are over a million bacteria in every milliliter of saliva,” says Dr. Max Goodson, director of clinical research at the Forsyth Institute, a research group specializing in oral health. According to him, no one has written a paper on whether a shared fork could be a disease vector. Nonetheless, not sharing cutlery is “common sense and good hygiene.” In fact, he warns: “In this day and age, you can’t be too careful. E. coli has been found in the oral cavity.”

When someone else uses your cutlery or sips from your glass, it’s like kissing you without permission.

Fortunately, it’s quite easy to protect your utensils and your wineglass. Simply say you’re coming down with a cold. Don’t say you have a cold, because then people might wonder why you have such a hearty appetite.

And what if someone uses your cutlery or swigs from your glass without your consent? Then you cannot ask for a new fork or glass, any more than you could ask for an alcohol wipe after shaking hands with somebody. It is rude to imply that he or she is swarming with germs (however true this may be).

If it’s your wineglass that’s been used, observe where he or she put his or her lips and find a clean place on the rim to drink from. If it’s your cutlery that was borrowed, you have another option. Wait a moment after getting your tainted fork back, then knock it onto the ground, announcing: “Oops, I’ll have to get another one.” If you’re not up for this maneuver, you’ll have to use the only utensils no one else can borrow—your fingers.

Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. Read more Table Manners.

See more articles