Thursday, March 12, 2015

In Praise of Table Manners

Miss Manners was right all along.

But, you never doubted her, did you?

Now, Tamar Adler takes up the fight and reminds us of the importance of good table manners. Writing a manifesto in favor of table manners, she explains how they produce harmonious social relations. Not incidentally, they contribute mightily to good digestion.

Those who believe that any restriction on appetite-- be it alimentary or libidinal-- spells repression should notice that good table manners support and sustain the enjoyment of one’s meal.

Adler describes the manners she was taught as a child:

At my own table growing up, when we small savages a) failed to put our napkins in our laps; b) ate before everyone was served; c) served ourselves first; d) opened our mouths while chewing; e) moved our forks from the left to the right hand; f) ate with our hands; g) failed to say please, thank you or excuse me; h) put our elbows on the table; i) did not ask permission to stand; or j) failed to eat soup properly (a nearly impossible task, requiring always spooning away, sipping noiselessly while sitting bolt upright, obtaining any final spoonfuls by a discreet tip of the bowl), we were ordered to push back from the table and contemplate our philistinism for several monstrous minutes before we could return, rehabilitated, to try again.

One notes that in Adler’s family children who failed to practice good manners were momentarily shamed, not guilt-tripped.

The practice of good table manners is thousands of years old. It appears to be common to all types of human society. One recalls Claude Levi-Strauss’s book about the mythology surrounding it in primitive cultures. See his book: The Origin of Table Manners.

Good manners have been transmitted by religious and literary texts.

Adler explains:

Throughout history, there have also been good rules, important reminders of things we often forget. The very first book of manners, a papyrus by the Egyptian Ptahhotep around 2350 B.C., included the sound guidances to wait to be served by your host, and to resist staring. In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, there is “Eat as it becometh a man, those things which are set before thee; and devour not, lest thou be hated.” Erasmus says not to lick your fingers, but use a napkin, and to give up your seat to an elder. Brunetto Latini, whom Dante learned from and then satirized, wrote in his poem “Tesoretto” that good manners should always be there, even when no one else is.

Good manners are a primary way to practice virtuous behavior.

In Adler’s words:

Serving others first is plainly charitable. Filling companions’ glasses, waiting to eat, giving another the last of the stew, chewing with a closed mouth — each is a basic acknowledgment of togetherness. Perhaps the consequential lesson in the matter of holding your fork, etc., is that customs differ at different tables in different lands, and that there is a certain intelligence in doing as is done. In other words, whatever unites merits keeping, and what divides can be folded and stored away with the linen too old and ornamental to use.

Even the rule of face-saving works in the world of table manners. It is less about saving one’s own face and more about saving another person’s face. The rule is: never allow your guest to embarrass himself, especially when he does not know local manners:

…the lesson that best suited me for society may be how our father dressed for dinner. He resolutely donned a hideous pair of patchwork pants whenever we had guests, so that no guest would feel underdressed. Miss Manners recounts that Queen Victoria, at a state dinner, lifted up her finger bowl and drank from it: “She had to. Her guest of honor, the Shah of Persia, had done it first.” 

In principle, everyone uses the same table manners.

But, sometimes our guests are not entirely familiar with our local manners. In that case we help him to save face.

That does not, of course, mean that we should descend into the fever swamps of multiculturalism and turn social harmony into dinner table anarchy by encouraging everyone to use whatever manners he chooses. Practicing good manners means conforming to local custom, not expressing one's individuality.


Ares Olympus said...

re: Brunetto Latini, whom Dante learned from and then satirized, wrote in his poem “Tesoretto” that good manners should always be there, even when no one else is. ... Good manners are a primary way to practice virtuous behavior.

I've wondered about this idea. Is there always an observer, even when its only ourselves, although I was thinking more in terms of neatness than table manners. Like a cluttered house is comfortable, until you have to find something!

And it makes sense to me that the more chaotic the world, the more uncertainty you have to deal with on a daily basis, the more that ritualized behaviors can serve a sense of order and calm.

And when rituals are shared, and there's some "home field behavior", it shows the necessity of paying attention to see what behavior you're supposed to mimic.

The idea of guests eating first does sound troublesome at least, if a guest needs to wait to observe how the host acts to know how to follow, but I suppose you can also watch for a knowledgeable guest to lead, unless of course they're ignorant and oblivious, and then you'll at least be making them feel at home by copying them.

Anonymous said...

Shifting the fork to the right hand is actually used in America. It was brought here by British immigrants (I believe), now the Brits leave the fork in the left hand because it allows you to shovel it in more quickly without that pesky changing hands thing.

At least that is what I read on Wikipedia. My parents had impeccable table manners and insisted on it from all of us, as you so perfectly put it: 'little savages'. It has never been an embarrassment to me to have been so taught.

I particularly liked the story of Queen Victoria, what a clever lady! I would do the same for a valued guest.

Here here!