15 Apr 2024

Are Table Manners Old-Fashioned?

Recent research into table manners has caused something of a storm. Findings seem to indicate that 60 per cent of Generation Z (12–27-year-olds) believe ‘traditional’ table manners are no longer relevant; other age groups are not far behind, with 54 per cent believing manners are outdated.

High-ranking irritants include chewing loudly, using the phone at the table, taking food off other people’s plates and including pets at the dining table, yet many of those polled admitted that they answered calls and texts at dinner. ‘Old-fashioned’ pleas to keep elbows off the table or wait until everyone is served before starting to eat, were seen as increasingly pointless. Respondents felt that good food and good conversation were the main priority.

Traditional Manners

The etiquette of the dinner-table should be mastered by all who aspire to the entrée of good society. Ease, savoir-faire, and good breeding are nowhere more indispensable than at the dinner-table, and the absence of them is nowhere more apparent. How to eat soup and what to do with a cherry-stone are weighty considerations when taken as the index of social status; and it is not too much to say, that a young woman who elected to take claret with her fish or eat peas with her knife would justly risk the punishment of being banished from good society.”

Dunbar’s Complete Handbook of Etiquette, 1884

The unwavering Victorian supposition that a guest who is lacking the myriad refinements of table manners considered to be indispensable is therefore unworthy of “good society” and hence seen as something of a social outcast now sounds irredeemably old-fashioned. The ideal of impeccable table manners has gradually evaporated over the intervening century and table manners today are very much a reflection of a more relaxed and democratic society.

It is certainly no longer a guarantee of social death to use the wrong fork, tilt the plate in the wrong direction or hold a wine glass by the bowl. It would be wrong to conclude, however, that table manners have effectively disappeared – they are still important.

Contemporary Manners

Our manners are to some extent being moulded by a change in our diet. The Victorians did not have to contend with the vast range of foods that we now consume; pizzas, bowls of ramen, sushi, and so on all present different dining challenges. Many of us are adept users of chopsticks and use our fingers to eat pizza or mop up curry sauce with naan bread.  We use upturned forks on their own to eat rice dishes. We have adopted dining manners from different cuisines, and in many cases, it is a practical option to do so.

It was notable, even in a survey that highlighted a growing disregard for table manners, that certain behaviour was still considered irritating, and a half of the Gen Z respondents admitted that they had recently been ‘unsatisfied’ with fellow-diners’ etiquette. Bad table manners apparently still have the power to offend.

While it would certainly be rare today for a child to be schooled in the various functions of different cutlery, accepted practices for napkin-wielding, cruet-usage and finger-bowl deployment, basic table manners (see below) are certainly still a social skill that should be taught to young children and will stand them in good stead in adulthood.

The aim of good table manners is not to cause offence to your fellow diners. You should appear to be someone who is enjoying the meal as a social, as well as a gastronomic occasion, so you should do your best not to appear greedy or voracious.  If your table manners are noticeable, it is generally a bad sign (unless, of course, your etiquette is outstandingly impeccable).

Basic Table Manners

So, the focus should be on the following:

•Put your phone away and mute it.

Don’t look at it until the meal is finished. Try and accept that a shared meal is about face-to-face socialising, which must be prioritised, and curb any compulsion to keep checking your phone.

•Try and sit up straight and try and keep your elbows off the table when you’re eating

Many respondents to the survey felt that this advice was increasingly irrelevant, but it is simply positive body language to look alert and upright when you’re eating, rather than slouching and sprawling across the table, which looks like you can’t be bothered.

•Look after other people before you help yourself

This means passing serving dishes, condiments, butter, water, and so on. Never stretch across other people to reach a plate, always politely ask for it to be passed to you. If you follow this advice, you will never look greedy or self-obsessed.

•Wait for other diners

As a general rule, do not start before everyone has been served, so look around and take a lead from others. An exception may be if it is a large party and the host asks people to start, as the food may get cold. Or you may find that service is staggered in a restaurant; just ask “do you mind if I start?”.

•Never eat with your mouth open or talk with your mouth full

It is fine to carry on eating during a conversation – if you’ve just taken a mouthful when someone asks you a question, you can just nod, indicate your mouth is full and wait a few moments before speaking.

•Never eat audibly

Try to avoid making noises of any kind while eating, either with implements against the plate or teeth, or with the actual ingestion of the food, such as slurping soup. Avoid washing mouthfuls of food down with noisy gulps of water.

•Pace yourself

Try not to bolt your food, which looks greedy and unappreciative, and match your pace with fellow-diners.

•Don’t double-dip

There are dishes where dipping is part of the way of eating the food, such as satay or crudités. Never bite the vegetable and then re-dip – many people will see double-dipping as unhygienic.

•Polite refusals

If you’re offered an unwanted second helping a simple “no thank you” covers most situations. There’s no need to say “I’m full” – if you want to soften your refusal a compliment such as “that was delicious” will go a long way.

Top: Dinner at Haddo House, 1884, by Alfred Edward Emslie (d. 1918)


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