Table Manners

In which the idea of manners is questioned, contorted, disturbed and distilled, but remains intact.

It is not my intention that you should execute a meal meant to advance a campaign of courtship just to screw it all up the moment you sit down to eat. If you have wonderful table manners, and wonderful manners universally, you will also be able to take much better advantage of courtship opportunities when others are slaving away in the kitchen. Good food is good food, and while there is a certain amount of benefit to having been the one who cooked, there is plenty as well in being a good co-guest.

Why you? Because it has to be someone. Manners of any kind are all about being considerate of others and making social interaction as smooth and effortless as possible so you can attend to other things. The fewer manners others possess and display, the more important it is that you be well-mannered. Otherwise you will end up in a downward spiral towards the compost heap of cultural conversation.

Besides, why not you? It isn’t terribly hard to be well-mannered and it in no way precludes being imaginative and doing pretty much exactly what you want to do. Emily Post and others might think there are a bunch of rules to memorize and follow,1 but there is only one: Do the right thing on the right occasion. The “right thing” being that which is at once most considerate of others and not inconsiderate of yourself.2

You choose. Either you can memorize a bunch of rules and act according to the letter of the law,3 or you can learn and comprehend what is always a very small number of laws, and then derive all decisions and action from that foundation. Walk and invariably stumble on the concrete, or revel in the freedom of the abstract.4

Back at the dinner table you will be able to listen to debates about this sort of thing all you want, happily eating your salad with any fork which strikes your fancy because you will be eating in such a way that none of your companions could possibly take offense. If your manners are deeply rooted in the rich soil of your soul, you might even choose to eat your salad with your fingers and no one would think less of you for it. Conversely, a less good you might use the right fork but in such a scandalously disgusting manner, waving the it about, chewing loudly and with your mouth open while complaining about the amount of dressing on the lettuce, that no one will want you for a dinner guest or companion ever again.

table manners can be summed up as follows: Be attentive to and considerate of others. Add to that general principles of courtesy.

Which is to say, your hand does not have to remain in your lap throughout the meal, but neither should it flop about in the lap of your neighbor. Elbows might be adorable on the table, but they might just as easily be as awful as your mother said they were if they in any way obstruct another from enjoying their meal. And I’d wager that no one outside of the catering profession really knows whether one is served from the left or the right. One might guess you are served from the left because it is easier for a right-handed person to serve themselves from that side.5 But it would then be the height of courtesy and consideration, according to me, to serve your left-handed guests from the right. People more concerned with the display of propriety than with its purpose would of course vehemently disagree.

You see, it is at once so endlessly complex and unspeakably simple. How could I possibly list the details by which one behaves well at table? How could I list the ways in which one might behave inconsiderately and with what one might call, “Bad Manners?” The workings of the incomprehensibly vast physical universe can be derived from the simple equation, E=mc2. How much more vast this non-corporeal universe of perception? Encompassing all, how much more simple the defining law? Don’t make me tell you which fork to use. In the scheme of things what does it matter? It is but a delusion, a desired illusion that there is any difference at all between forks, or even between you and me. Use whatever you like, but use it in such a way that your companions do not notice and are not in anyway disturbed by this necessity of mortal existence. Eat and enjoy the food and all that surrounds it, and then be done with it. Other things await your attention.

And yet...

Aren’t there just a few specific elements of tableside behavior that might well be discussed? Aren’t there a small number of places where one can really mess up, and in the spirit of learning, would it not perhaps be a good idea to explore them? We could see how things work in the specific, see how they follow from the general, and therefore be better at the whole process when sent out on our own with those vague and elusive axioms of Manner.

For your benefit, I asked around to find out what might be some of the big pot holes you could fall into. This is what emerged:

Don’t chew with your mouth open. No one will tell you you do this, and it will ruin your chances for any success in any courtship, romantic or not. A corollary: Don’t make a bunch of noise when you are eating. Not slurping, not crunching, not chewing loudly. Even physiological things like a jaw that cracks when you chew will not be forgiven. Get it fixed, or apologize to your dining companion so they do not sit there wondering if it will stop or if they should say something. In a similar vein, try not to have food in your teeth nor on your face for any length of time. Use your napkin frequently and visit the washroom when you are done eating if you are not comfortable asking your companion for an inspection.

Don’t scratch yourself at the table. Or in public for that matter. It is immaterial what you think. Others find it repulsive, will reject you out of hand, and there is nothing you can say to dispute them.6

If you are asked to serve yourself, do not take more than one-half X of any particular dish, where X is the number of people eating.7 Or, if you have adopted the clever device of general awareness, sensitivity to others and social consideration, take as much as you think is appropriate. In any case, do not be the subject of conversation the next day when the host recounts to a rapt audience how they managed to save the evening after one guest helped themselves to almost half of the main entree.8

Don’t interrupt. Not exactly a table manner, per se, but since it is so often at a table that one finds oneself in conversation, it is worth mentioning. Interrupting people gives them the impression you either are not listening to them or are uninterested in what they have to say. Neither impression will get you very far into their hearts.9

Use your napkin. For all sorts of things. Wiping your mouth is one thing to do with it. If you have the unfortunate occasion to remove food from your mouth, use your napkin.10 If you are in a restaurant, ask for a new napkin. If you are in a private home and cannot discreetly ask for a new napkin, or just don’t want to bother the host with your little issue, excuse yourself, taking the napkin with you, do what you have to do, and come back to the table with or without a napkin. Or lay low. Mind, we are not talking about fish bones and fruit pits and other things one expects to have to remove from one’s mouth and which are expected to show up on the plate in some discreet manner.

Do not reach over others or across the table. Ask for things to be passed to you and then say thank you to whomever hands the desired dish to you.11

Don’t salt your food before you have tasted it. Besides being an insult to the cook, you show yourself to be the sort of person who prejudges. Very bad courtship strategy. Rumor has it there are corporations who use this as evidence of the sort of unthinking person they are loathe to hire.

If you are the cook, be sure to have an opportunity to display your excellent table manners. Which means do not serve dinners so labor intensive you never sit down to eat with your guests. Join your guests for more than five minutes and feign you are relaxed and in sufficient control of the meal to enjoy it.

If you are the cook, do not fish for compliments. Beyond, “Is everything all right,” you should not mention the food at all.12

In the united states and its provinces, take corporal expressions outside.

Help clear the table, unless there are three people who have beat you to it.13 In which case you lose and have to offer to do the dishes. In either case it is part of the continuous exchange of gifts between friends. Certainly there are occasions when you can sit back and receive at length. Those are wonderful moments to have earned. I have done it once or twice. But in general your eye should be out for the occasion to give in return. The trick is to not simply parrot someone else’s gift. If there are already enough people clearing the table, you are not giving anything by helping. Find another way to be useful or do nothing at all for the moment. I do not know why this is such a difficult thing. There is almost always plenty to do, and if not, there will be something that needs to be done shortly. No shortage of places to contribute. Leap into the fray right after you ask yourself, “Will this be of real assistance?”

A Meal

You arrive at the table or whatever is serving as a table. If there are name tags, you should sit at your designated place setting. In general, there aren’t. Please sit down anyway, serving yourself from a buffet if that is the style of the meal. Jump right in and be the first to go through if the rest of the party is reluctant. Someone has to and it might as well be you. Alternatively, if the rest of the party is ravenously approaching the buffet, wait your turn, allowing others to go ahead of you. Serve yourself discreetly and do not make anything but positive comments about the food. Sitting down, put your napkin on your lap. Make sure you have not taken someone else’s seat. Observe who is sitting near you and note whether or not they are comfortable. If there is something you can do to help someone, do. Pour wine and water for others and then for yourself if no one else is taking the initiative. Say thank you if they have. When food is in front of you, whether placed there by you or by someone else, notice it. I don’t care whether you like it or not.14 Some small expression of appreciation at this point, even if it is under your breath, is in very good taste and will be heard or felt. No expression of discontent or disappointment, regardless of the reason, is in order. If something is wrong, fix it yourself, or address your host with discretion.15

Eat. Use your utensils and your fingers gracefully. Use your napkin regularly. Listen to conversation. Follow the rules of conversation as taught to you by your mother: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Don’t interrupt. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Don’t talk about work or money.16 That should get you pretty far. Once your host is seated, if they need something get it for them. Especially if you are courting the host. The smallest gesture can count disproportionately at this point when a cook might feel misused and disoriented, or perhaps just spent. Wait until everyone has finished their meal, and then be the first or second person to start clearing the table.17 Return to the table and continue enjoying your wine or whatever. Let the host continue doing what they need to do. If you have been effortlessly helpful, the host will feel comfortable asking you to do something if need be. Let others come to you. People are not so unlike animals, if they are unlike them at all. Be or don’t be the last person to leave. It depends upon so many things. When you do leave, thank your host sincerely for a wonderful evening or whatever it was. The next day, send a short note saying the same thing in ink. Or if you are something like friends with the person who entertained you, call and tell them what a fabulous time you had. An underrated and frequently neglected bit of mannered behavior, so very important as the next day can be anticlimactic for whomever threw the party. Note as well that it gives you a chance to get any good gossip you might have missed the night before.

By the way, all this applies to the most intimate dinner for two as well as to the most formal dinner for fifty or the most raucous festival for hundreds. Manners, since they all derive from the same principle of consideration for others and for self, do not change from place to place. Your demeanor might, the specific language you employ or the tone of voice might, but the manners themselves do not change. You should be as considerate of your oldest love as you are of your newest and most honored acquaintance.

We are not, of course. But we should be.


1 I doubt it though. I’ll bet they are all very aware of how simple it is to be well-mannered and just made up all those rules to fill books and to give people who are too lazy to digest the big issues something to chew on and harp about.

2 People are not impressed nor honored by the consideration of one who is posing as a lower life form. “Obsequious”, an ugly name for an ugly thing, is the word given to those who pander to others while appearing to denigrate themselves.

3 The law itself works in this convoluted way, and not surprisingly so since the principles of fairness and protection are directly contrary to the aims of most people who solicit benefit from them. Turns out you can’t derive most of our laws from the Constitution, let alone from any higher principles.

4 For example, when studying physics or geometry or calculus you might work very hard to memorize a page of formulas and a few applications. More fruitful would be to study and understand the ideas behind the particular science or art. Then it won’t matter what the particular application is. You will be able to derive from basic principles the appropriate formulas and see clearly how to apply them. Or similarly, in the realm of religion there are those who search their chosen document for rules and regulations to guide the daily form of their life, to tell them how to behave in each and every given situation; meanwhile, others digest a teaching or two from the philosopher of choice and base their actions on those principles. However, unlike in the more limited and incomplete arenas of science or math, neither approach to spirituality allows two people to come up with the same pattern of behavior. Which is why it is so very good to have tolerance be a daily directive as well as one of the founding principles of any life-guiding philosophy. Mathematicians and physicists, in contrast, are not well-served by striving toward tolerance of conflicting beliefs. Many religions fancy themselves positively scientific and fall into this same, limiting trap.

5 This formula might also be derived from the arbitrary notion of our culture that “forward” is from left to right. I don’t actually know what the rule is, and to prove to you how little I care, I am not going to bother finding out for you.

6 I’m sorry if this does not correspond to your political beliefs or to your view of the world. In case you forgot, we are discussing Courtship, which is as cruel and unforgiving an environment you are likely to encounter.

7 This is an extremely conservative estimate which would have you taking no more than one-tenth when there are five people eating. Surely you can be more liberal to yourself. Although taking one-fifth sounds appropriate, it is not. It does not leave room to flatter your host by asking for more. It assumes you are at least as hungry as everyone at the table. It eliminates the possibility of extra food for a late or surprise arrival. And it tells everyone you are always ready to help yourself to what you think is your share. In the case of dishes constructed such that you must take your full portion or none at all (for example five chicken kievs or five fish in parchment) Go ahead. The host is in complete control of the situation.

8 I am kind. This sort of brutish behavior will be the topic for conversation at parties—to which you will naturally not be invited—for years to come.

9 Interruption and how it is not a simple matter of stepping into conversation while another is speaking is discussed at length in Deborah Tannen’s book, You Just Don’t Understand. In short, she outlines how people have various conversational styles and will recognize different things as interruptive. My synopsis: If your companions seem to become more and more quiet over the course of the evening, if they make increasingly feeble efforts to offer or join conversation, you are probably interrupting them. Figure out how to stop.

10 A controversial point for some reason. Please side with me and do not, as others have suggested, take the morsel out of your mouth with your fork and try to return it to your plate. First of all, the whole table will be captivated by the suspense of watching you get it to the plate without dropping it. And then, who wants to look at for the rest of the meal?

11 This one is so easy and so obvious I find it remarkable I think to mention it. But you know why I do and it makes me sad. What is with these people? Do they not notice you are sitting right there and that with so little effort it is an insult not to request it, you could pass them the snow peas? Are they so loathe to speak to you that they would prefer to dip their shirt sleeve in several sauces rather than ask you to pass them the potatoes? Do they not understand that to refuse to ask a small favor of someone is the height of inconsideration? Certainly they pay for their boorishness instantly if unbeknownst to themselves, losing in a breath a myriad of opportunities for courtship. Nestled in every request for someone to pass the tamarind sauce are valuable opportunities for changing conversations, for bringing others into camaraderie, and for the most sublime and fleeting flirtations. Objects change hands, eyes meet and look away and meet again. Only a fool would sight what they want and reach directly for it, choosing instant gratification over intercourse and its infinite potential. For that they might have stayed home.

12 Unless, when you taste it it is horrible. Then you should say, “ Oh dear, this isn’t very good at all.” If you can fix it, good. If you can’t, offer something else. Anything will do. It’s good to have something on hand if you are trying a new recipe.

13 Unless you are a man and the three people are all women. Then you should get up and help just to make a point. What point, I’m not sure exactly. Or take care that you succeed in doing the dishes.

14 No one cares at all what you think. The subject is Table Manners, not Art.

15 Does everyone know what discretion is? It is that thing which restrains you from calling across the table to your partner that they should meet you in the bathroom for a quick fuck in about five minutes when a note or a glance would do. It is something a little to the side of modesty, but not utterly unrelated.

16 Sex, Religion, and Politics, on the other hand, are fine topics. Try Art or Gardening, Education or the Reality of Childcare in the USA for a change of pace. Unless, of course, any of these topics qualify as Work for you.

17 Don’t be the first person unless you are very confident of your sense of timing.

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