As a child I’d often ask my mother, “But why?” Why did we always have to put on shoes on and comb our hair to go to to the little row of shops down by the pond when Mrs So-and-So always went in her slippers/curlers? And when it came to the dining table, why did the knives and forks have to be this way round on the table, or the glass set to the right? And whilst I would sometimes get ‘the talk’ about good manners, more often her exasperated response would be, “Because we do.” As an ex-army officer, my mother had very firm ideas about what was acceptable in terms of manners, and was always conscious of what people might think (particularly so as I got older and more independent). I was a rather rebellious teenager (Heavens, I was the girl who got married in a green dress with matching nail polish!), and argued that many of these things were ridiculous! I was a disappointment at times.
Of course when my own children came along the concept of good manners came into its own and although I wasn’t as strict in other areas as my mother had been, they were still expected to adhere to the socially accepted conformities of politeness, writing thank you letters, holding doors open etc. etc., and when it came to table manners I found myself doing exactly as my mother had. They asked to leave the table at the end of their meal, didn’t talk whilst they were eating, and used their cutlery correctly. I confess here that it didn’t occur to me to make concession to the fact that two of my children are left handed and it is thus more natural for them to hold their knife and fork in the opposite way to us right-handers. They learned easily enough but I certainly didn’t appreciate the difficulty of doing what doesn’t come naturally.
Some time my granddaughter, then aged about twelve years old was slouching at the table when I told her to sit up straight and I mentioned the word ‘manners’. Who invented manners she asked me. I told her it’s all to do with accepted standards of behaviour. She then wanted to know who decided what was acceptable. She understood that well enough about respecting others but when she asked me how it was disrespectful to someone else to lay a table up differently, it was a hard one to answer. We talked for a while and then she said, ‘So actually, it’s about judging people’.
And I’m afraid she’s right – we do judge. It’s often unconscious, and what we see as acceptable is the result of our own cultural conventions, but something I read the other day reminded me of our conversation: A small child was berated by nursery staff for not using his lunchtime cutlery but eating with his hands. No account was taken of the fact that “Table manners can vary widely between different cultures and countries. Different cultures have different cultural customs [and] different cultural customs have different table manners.” (Zhang 2013). How confusing for a small child to be told that he is wrong to do something at nursery which is the expected norm at home. All it needed was for the nursery staff to gently explain that different actions suit different situations.
Our own use of cutlery wasn’t always our norm. Indeed, the 14th Century elegant meat-tearing prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales let no morsel fall as she wet her fingers in the deep sauce! “Well could she carry a morsel and well keep that no droppe ne fell upon her breast.” And before that we were gnawing bones! Of course, things did change and although there had been crude versions of knives (for preparation of meat rather than for use when eating) and a kind of handleless spoon for scooping up food, by the late 16th Century, cutlery as we know it today was being produced for the masses and in the more affluent homes, whole rooms were being set aside for the purpose of dining.
Mrs Beeton, a 19th Century journalist and writer, who produced the celebrated Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, includes in the book a complex set of dining rules which are rarely adhered to nowadays, except at formal state dinners and in the confines of the most elite establishments. Even high class restaurants have dropped the strict hierarchical set of procedures in favour of something a little more relaxed, though (and I wouldn’t wish to imply that these were my usual habitat) I was once faced with a horrified waiter who informed me, “But Madame, zis is two fishes you order). Apparently this was not the done thing!
But we only have to look at the abundance of TV adverts for furniture stores to see that dining suites with straight backed chairs, matching sets of chinaware and traditionally laid tables are still highly desirable despite our UK propensity for casually eaten take-away international cuisine in front of the TV and grabbing a sandwich ‘on the go’, we still see stylised dining and the associated table manners as ‘doing it properly’. Excuse the Christmas table picture – Needless to say I don’t lay up like that every evening but I didn’t have another suitable one!
NB: I can’t remember the last time we had a take away of any description (save for Fish & Chips in Devon); it’s just not something we do.