Tabled Manners
An etiquette expert says the decline of the family dinner means kids are no longer learning to eat properly
by Pam Adams of the Journal Star

Nov 24, 2008
Oh, how table manners have evolved since the invention of the fork.

"They would rather touch their mouths with their little forked instruments than with their fingers," a 15th century English author wrote sarcastically of a French king and his companions.

Many a modern-day mom moans for opposite reasons. The kids can download, upload, text and program, but they may as well eat with a trowel, the way they shovel food into their mouths. They don't know the proper way to use a fork, a knife or a napkin. They don't know table manners at all.

And why should they?

Local etiquette expert Robin Thompson, like many manners mavens before her, traces the decline of table manners to the decline of family dinners.

"How often do people sit down to evening meals with plates, silverware, napkins and no television?" she asks.

"That evening meal teaches so much more in one hour than we imagine - cooking, social skills, responsibility, etiquette. That's why people don't know their manners; they've never learned them."

Suddenly, the holidays roll around, several generations gather at the in-laws for a sit-down supper, and the lack of proper manners is on full display. It's as if the children are inadvertently divulging a family secret about what does, or does not, happen at home. Great-aunt Sally's raised eyebrows signal a tsk-tsk in Mother's direction.

The rituals of dinner

But getting the entire family to use proper manners is not an impossible task. Thompson does etiquette seminars for individuals and groups ranging from high school students to corporations. "People want the poise," she says, "they want to know the dining etiquette and social skills."

It might help to know Europe and the United States took eight centuries to fully accept the fork as a replacement for eating with fingers or from a knife blade. In her 1991 book, "The Rituals of Dinner," Margaret Visser explores, as the subtitle says, the origins, evolution, eccentricities and meaning of table manners - including the rise of the fork.

"Table manners," she writes, "are social agreements. They are devised because violence could so easily erupt at dinner ... and the implements required for it could quickly become weapons."

Speaking of holiday gatherings, Thompson says conversational skills are as much a part of etiquette as dining skills. (See sidebar.) Whether eating or talking, whether dinner is formal or informal, the point of table manners is not to offend others at the table.

Obviously, that means: no burping, belching, stuffing food into your mouth, chewing with your mouth open or talking with your mouth full. No grabbing for serving dishes, always passing to the right, always saying "please" and "thank you."

Those are among the cardinal rules Thompson says apply even to the most casual dining affairs. Other rules, such as which fork to use when, are not meant to humiliate the uninitiated. The basic guideline is simple - use flatware in the order it is placed from outside to inside. For example, if salad is served first, the salad fork would be the one farthest from the plate.

"Think of how delicately and gently a surgeon uses a scalpel," Thompson says. "That's how you should use flatware. Don't stab and saw; everything should be discreet."

Children learn by watching adults, including fathers, she says.

Typically, mothers have better table manners than fathers, which means mothers usually end up doing the training.

"That's not right; it should be equal. Poor Mom, Dad should give her a break."

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