Table Manners

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. 

Table 2019Some 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.  

 

 
 

8 comments

  1. I learnt manners from my grandmother when lived with her for five years. My father, her eldest, had the manners of a perfect gentleman. But – he gambled every cent he had, and my mum and sisters were destitute. The rest of us at Nanna’s, had perfect manners and that extended to how we treated each other. I am incredibly grateful to my grandmother for teaching me such a gracious and happy way of life. I mentioned my father to show that manners do not always maketh a man.

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    • I’m so sorry to hear how hard it must have been for your mother and the family but you’re right, manners extend to how we treat people and that includes our family.

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  2. Oh, I loved this, Eloise, and no, we don’t have takeaways, either. I can’t imagine spending oodles of money on what is, generally speaking, sub-standard food (we did have some donkey’s years ago when our children were teenagers – they are now 51 and 47 so it is a very long time ago!) I don’t see the point of takeaways, and now I’ve heard some people doing fakeaways because of lockdown and that they are missing their weekly fix of the stuff!
    I’m all for teaching children table manners simply because to see someone eating badly – shovelling food in, talking with their mouth open, waving their knife and fork around while they speak, slurping soup (and we ‘eat’ soup by the way, even though it’s a liquid) – is gross and can put us off our own meal.
    We lay the table in the UK in a certain way to make using the flatware and knives easy to use, i.e. working from the outside in. The glass is on the right as most people are right-handed. Many things we do have a reason. But we have to be flexible where other cultures do things differently. I still lay a table as nicely as I can because I think it enhances the food, even simple fare. And that was interesting about the history to our currently flatware and knives, Eloise.

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    • Glad you enjoyed it, Margaret. We have had takeaways but the last one I recall is in 2014 when I was awarded a cash scholarship of £1,000 from university. Knowing that all the children and grandchildren are partial to a takeaway, I treated them all to one. We always enjoy takeaway fish & chips on holiday but I can’t remember the last time we had them at home. We’re happier with a restaurant meal out or home cooked food. I think teaching children manners of any kind, from the most basic ‘please and thank you’ are important because, whether we think we think it fair or not, we are judged on such things.

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  3. Yes, table manners vary from culture to culture, don’t they? Traditionally, Sri Lankan food, like Indian food, is eaten with our fingers and when my daughter went to the childcare center as a toddler, I explained to the caregivers that, in our culture, it is traditional for us to eat with our hands and told them not to reprimand my daughter if she ate with her fingers. She was not quite 18 months old, at the time, and did know how to use a spoon to feed herself, but, knew it was culturally acceptable to eat with ones fingers, too.

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    • Much the best thing to explain beforehand, Bless. If we eat curry with naan bread we tend to mix cultural tradition, using a fork but also scooping up the curry using the naan. I think it is important for children to understand that cultures differ.

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  4. We were quite poor and didn’t really set the table. We younger ones would eat lunchtime with mum at the kitchen table. Mum had her rules but it was laid back,. I spent a lot of time at my friends and it was our job to lay the table for tea. I liked that so thats probably how I did things when I had my family. Then Indian friends lived with me for a while. They ate with their hands and sat on the floor with the food in saucepans. So when we ate their food thats what I did. When I cooked a meal we sat at the table with cutlery. I learned a lot of things have no right or wrong way. I think your granddaughter sounds very sensible.

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    • That is so interesting. Thank you. I think it’s absolutely right to be flexible when eating with people of different cultures, and what a lovely learning experience for children. Many of the ‘rules’ by which we live are simply the habits of our own cultures and it’s important to recognise that because something is different, it doesn’t make it wrong. I have a similar discussion in terms of regional accents and colloquialisms often too.

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