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Dear Miss(ing) Manners:

August 14, 2011

Ever since I was little, I have practiced proper ‘etiquette’ at the dining table.  I don’t recall my parents actually teaching me these skills – I suppose I learned them partly through observation and partly with gentle nudges along the way when I did something inappropriate.  The basics are pretty simple, and are things I have always expected my own boys to practice (again, I don’t remember consciously ‘teaching’ them these skills – perhaps it was more guidance than direction over the years – but I have noticed that they still use them):

  • Correct Way to Hold Knife and Forkpull your chair in close to the table and sit up straight
  • keep your elbows off the table
  • use the appropriate utensils for the appropriate foods
  • hold your fork between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand
  • hold your knife between the thumb and forefinger of your right hand
  • don’t ‘saw’ your meat aggressively
  • ‘spear’ only a small amount of food on your fork at one time
  • don’t ‘shovel’ food into your mouth
  • Don't Slurp Soupdon’t ‘play’ with your food
  • don’t talk with your mouth full
  • don’t eat with your mouth open
  • don’t slurp liquids (like soup)
  • say please when you want something
  • say thank you when something is given to you
  • ask to be excused when you are done (and wait until you are excused before leaving the table

When eating out (at someone else’s house, or in a restaurant), it was a ‘you understood’ that the boys would always remove their hats, and that no one would begin eating until everyone at the table had been served.  When we ate outdoors (which we did a lot in the summer), you didn’t come to the table without a shirt on (e.g., over a bathing suit).  I never saw any of these ‘rules’ as restrictive or harsh – they simply represented a cultured approach to sharing a meal with others.

Over the years, however, I’ve begun to notice more and more people ignoring these basic tenets of polite society – or, perhaps, demonstrating the fact that they’ve never learned them (I’m not sure which explanation is the more alarming!)

Ham Fisted Approach to EatingAt first it was just a few boys here and there – friends or classmates of my sons who would come to the house for a meal or a birthday party – who didn’t seem to understand that chewing with their mouths open, talking while eating, picking food up with their fingers (i.e., NOT ‘finger foods’) or taking a ‘ham fisted’ approach to holding utensils and shovelling food into their mouths was off-putting to others.  Then I began to notice similar behaviour being exhibited by (so-called) adults.  And not only do many practice boorish eating behaviour, but it’s become quite common to see people wearing what would (twenty years ago) have been considered unsuitable clothing (baseball/trucker hats, tank tops, bathing suits) in just about every sort of restaurant (fast food, pub/roadhouse, upscale). Just yesterday, for example, I stopped at a local ‘burger joint’ for lunch and had to endure the sight of a particularly hirsute man in a tank top chowing down on his lunch at the table in front of mine – the site of all that chest, back, and armpit hair certainly diminished my appetite! I’ve also seen my share of bellies, bosoms, and backsides hanging out of skimpy clothing as well (i.e., some women have no more ‘fashion sense’ when it comes to eating in public than men do).  Where’s the sense of common decency that used to prevail in our society?  (And don’t get me started on people who use their cell phones at the table [at home or in a restaurant] – there is absolutely nothing as rude as ignoring the people you are with so you can play with your tiny little insignificant electronic devices!)

Family MealIt’s not surprising that basic etiquette courses have experienced a resurgence in many towns and cities, and that parents are signing their children up for them.  There are tens of thousands of web sites dedicated to ‘table manners’, and a raft of videos on YouTube; of course, for the ultimate in table manners, you can’t beat Emily Post (the ‘queen’ of Etiquette for almost 100 years).

Business Dining EtiquetteQuite a few businesses now hire ‘experts’ to teach these skills to their employees as well – because they recognize that how you present yourself in public can have a significant impact on your future (if part of your job requires you to attend functions and/or share meals with people you need to impress, you better know how to dress, eat, and conduct yourself properly).  I knew a young man a few years ago who had exceptional business skills but who kept getting passed over for promotions because he was seriously lacking in basic social skills; his employers knew he would embarrass himself and, in turn, the firm, if he had to share a meal with a client (which would have been part of his responsibilities); he refused to acknowledge his deficiencies – even when told specifically by the Human Resources Department about his shortcomings – and ended up quitting that firm and moving to another company where he hoped his lack of table manners would be overlooked.  Personally, I doubt he’s been any more successful at moving up the corporate ladder there either.

I suppose some people might think I’m just ‘old fashioned’ in my belief that table manners are important, but I truly believe that how you present yourself when dining says a lot about the type of person you are – and how much you value and respect those who ‘break bread’ with you.  There are just some things we (as a society) cannot afford to lose – and basic table manners are certainly one of them.  And – trust me – they don’t just pertain to those of us on … the other side of 55.

You Eat Like A Human

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14 Comments
  1. August 26, 2011 12:26 pm

    How very true Margo – and it seems this lack of manners and etiquette has slithered unchecked into all areas of life. I live in London and I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen young men and women totally ignore an elderly person standing nearby – there is no such thing today as offering a seat. I also notice how many youngsters of today push rudely by regardless. It seems a real shame that basic manners and etiquette are no longer regarded as necessary and it’s become a me, me, me world. I think TV soaps have a lot to blame – if you watch them you will notice how very aggressive people are on those programmes. I can’t bear them personally but at the odd times I inadvertently do see snippets, the attitudes and aggression are appalling to me. I think a lot of this is also due to the lack of discipline that is now the norm in most households. Hence the popularity of ‘Nanny’ programmes where folks are taught how to manage their children. We have gotten far too soft. bring back good old fashioned discipline. Regardless of what people say, it is necessary for a civilised world – and I am not talking ‘corporal punishment’ but more simply just insisting on good manners and respect for oneself and other people, across all walks of life. Interesting post, thanks.
    Cindy @notjustagranny

    • August 26, 2011 6:25 pm

      I agree 100% on all counts. “We” (as a society) have gotten lax on things that should be taught and demonstrated daily (common courtesy, manners, politeness) and television (and other forms of media) influence our children far too much (and rarely in a good way). We’ve ‘gone soft’ and it’s having a very negative impact.

      Margo

  2. August 16, 2011 9:08 pm

    I’ve spent the past month with 4 grade school grand children, and managed to introduce them to a method for monitoring each other for the dreaded ‘talking with food in their mouths’. I taught them to simply shoot the offender with their pointer finger. It has been remarkably effective. Now and then they even caught their parents and shot them. Their parents weren’t all that amused for some reason. It might be some time before I am asked to watch the kids again…

    • August 17, 2011 10:31 am

      At least someone is teaching them about manners! I’m sure (when the time comes), I’ll do exactly the same with my own grandkids – because even though I KNOW I taught my kids how to behave, I’m willing to bet the more lackadaisical attitude of this ‘younger generation’ will have a negative impact on the one that follows. Good for you, though, for trying (and succeeding).

      Margo

  3. August 16, 2011 1:15 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more! I am appalled to the point of losing my appetite at times just by watching others eat. I’m 45 and I often wondered if it was ‘old-fashioned’ of me to think this way too. My Italian mother-in-law constantly reaches in front of me at the dinner table and it irritates me to no end. She is in her late 60’s and I hate going to a restaurant with her. I am embarrassed by her behavior and don’t enjoy my meal at all. Whatever happened to “could you please pass the salt?” I also always send thank you cards to those who have invited me into their homes for a dinner, stay over etc. And I always bring flowers or wine. I just went to a funeral and wake last month and I was the only one wearing something conservative and black. Most of the family members were wearing sandals and jeans! I felt so awkward because I stood out like a sore thumb. Even the older women were wearing trousers and sun dresses! Personally, I liked things when they were more formal…it is a sign of respect.

    • August 16, 2011 3:07 pm

      Shockingly, ‘other people’ seem to think that their behaviour shouldn’t affect those of us who are near them – but it does! And you are right – manners (in eating, dress, acknowlegements) are a sign of respect. At least some of us are still practicing them.

      Margo

  4. August 16, 2011 9:09 am

    I’m a bit of a curmudgeon myself and always insisted that my own kids learn etiquette with regard to meals, despite their apparent lack of manners at the table – probably done deliberately to test my patience. And then all of a sudden they started dating – remarkable how they seemed to “re-learn” those skills. Whew, what a relief!

    • August 16, 2011 9:39 am

      Curmudgeon – I love that word!!!!! I often think kids figure there are different ‘rules’ for ‘at home’ vs. ‘in public’. I suppose, if given a choice, I’d rather they demonstrate the lesser skills at home and ‘shine’ in public. And at least they realized how important these things once they enter the dating game.

      Margo

  5. August 15, 2011 10:10 pm

    Great post…I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one bothered by this trend. But it’s not surprising…everything is undergoing a change: blue jeans and flip-flops worn to church; many people don’t even wear underwear anymore; exposed bra straps being a fashion statement. It appears to fashionable not to have any class or style or manners.

    • August 16, 2011 9:37 am

      I want to blame so-called ‘celebrities’ and TV shows … they seem to glorify the idea that being slovenly is okay. But then there are also the parents who allow their kids to go out in their pjs and other inappropriate clothing (eight year olds do NOT need to be emulating Lady Gaga!!!!!) and/or who attend ‘formal’ functions in tee-shirts and jeans (I recall making my then 7-year old son wear a button down shirt and dress pants to attend a theatrical production of ‘Cats’ years ago and being horrified when a couple sitting just down from us showed up in cut offs and tank tops – why would anyone pay $75 a seat for a Broadway-style show and turn up dressed like that?!?!?!?) It’s a sad, sad statement on our world when you see this sort of behaviour and dress, isn’t it?

      Margo

  6. August 15, 2011 4:30 pm

    I also remember “Do not harpoon your bread!” Although I believe in parents and kids’ own responsibility to learn proper manners,I just can’t help blaming the fast-food culture that prevails in the minds of a younger generation.

    • August 15, 2011 4:43 pm

      What is truly sad is that so many of the ‘younger generation’ doesn’t think they NEED to learn manners.

      Margo

  7. August 15, 2011 11:13 am

    We must have been taught table manners at some point – we just don’t remember. Just last night I actually commented on my 23 year old Grandson’s table manners – or rather lack thereof. He was shoveling his food in his face like it was his last meal. I almost called up his mother and asked her if she ever taught him any (manners) because I know I taught her!! 🙂

    • August 15, 2011 4:03 pm

      I find it sad that I am often ‘surprised’ when young people demonstrate GOOD behaviour – because it’s so rare these days. Maybe we’re undergoing some kind of reverse evolution (back to neanderthals).

      Margo

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