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What the butler knows: tips for modern-day hosting

Charles MacPherson is the author of The Butler Speaks: A Guide to Stylish Entertaining, Etiquette and the Art of Good Housekeeping.

Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail

Charles MacPherson knows a thing or two about good manners. He's the founder of the only registered school for household managers and butlers in North America (having spent more than 20 years in the biz himself) and has just penned the handbook The Butler Speaks: A Guide to Stylish Entertaining, Etiquette and the Art of Good Housekeeping. We asked MacPherson to answer Globe readers' questions on modern-day civility, and in true gentlemanly fashion, he obliged.

Question: If we bring a very good bottle of wine to a dinner party at someone's house and explain to the host that it is ready to drink, is it okay for the host to put it in his cellar? Never to resurface again! And is it then acceptable that the host proceeds to skimp on the wine, offering only two bottles during a dinner for seven people? We thought it was bad form but perhaps we expect too much?

Brenda, Vancouver

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Answer: When you bring a hostess gift to someone's home, it is just that, a gift. It is never reasonable or appropriate to expect the host to display and/or use the item that very evening. In fact, many hosts would have prepared their evening with flowers, wine, food, etc., and your item may not go with what is being served.

However, if the host has asked you to bring something for the dinner (i.e. a simple potluck of some kind), then it is understood that what you bring will be served that evening.

It is always the decision of the host/hostess as to what they choose to serve and drink and whether you agree or disagree, it is never a reflection on you.

Question: How does one politely eat a muffin?

Kim, Toronto

Answer: A muffin is actually eaten with your hands and on a plate, but not with a knife or fork! First, remove the paper at the bottom fully, then either slice the muffin down the centre or horizontally. This is dependent on if you just want to eat the muffin (down the centre) or if you have a preference for eating the muffin top or bottom. Remember, you are not really supposed to bite into the muffin, so taking small pieces off that will fit into your mouth easily is most appropriate.

Question: What is the ideal routine for a stay-at-home mom that ensures all chores get done, including serving up healthy meals for the family? Can you suggest a "day in the life" schedule?

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Stephanie, London

Answer: I would think mornings devoted to housekeeping and laundry with afternoons devoted to errands and cooking. This way, by the time children get home you can focus on them for after-school activities and homework. More importantly, having a routine where kids help you set the table or clear the dirty dishes and/or make their bed might be a great way to get them into a habit while helping you along the way!

Question: Do I always need to have assigned seating for special family dinners (Easter, Christmas, etc.)? I always tell my family to sit wherever they'd like, but I've been told that's a faux pas.

Sandra, Stratford

Answer: As the hostess, you have the choice if you would like to assign seating or if you would like your guests to sit where they are, so this is not a "social faux pas" the way your family says. However, guests often don't like to have open seating, as it is stressful. Where am I going to sit? Who will be beside me? What if I don't get a good seat?

So if you do a seating plan, you both help guests out and you also control the table and mix couples and people to allow for the conversation at all ends of your dinner table to flow. Casual seating is for a barbeque; otherwise spend a few minutes and it will pay off in the end!

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Charles MacPherson will be interviewed by The Globe's Carley Fortune at a subscriber-only Globe Recognition event in Toronto on June 2. For details and tickets, visit globerecognition.com.

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