Etiquette. Manners. Remember when such things mattered? Well, they still do.
Once upon a time, children were taught proper behavior from an early age. It was as essential a part of their education as reading, writing, and arithmetic. But that practice went by the wayside in the “relevant” 1960s when the “peace and love” generation, of which I am a part, by the way, railed against “the establishment” and the “social order.” In so doing, the proponents of “do your own thing” successfully tore down the world of their “grey flannel suit” forbearers, leaving nothing in its place. Common courtesy, manners, consideration, and etiquette were all casualties of the “social revolution.”
There are still mannerly people out there. Unfortunately, well-mannered people consider it a breach of etiquette to point out somebody else’s faults and faux pas, and so these things frequently go uncorrected, thus perpetuating the error.
The larger problem, though, is that many people consider good manners to be outdated and a waste of their valuable time and effort. And it does require an investment of time and effort to be well-mannered. Even though basic etiquette may not be taught from birth as it once was, it is never out of date.
This is particularly true of dining etiquette. The fastest way to show oneself to be a boor is to come to the table and behave like you were born and raised among the animals in the barn. So, in order to help separate homo sapiens from sus domestica, I offer a few thoughts and common tips on dining etiquette. These things should apply whether you are dining with family and friends or at a business or formal affair. Good manners are never out of place.
We’ve progressed somewhat from medieval days when the first rules of dining etiquette included don’t spit across the table and don’t use your knife to pick your teeth. But have we really come that far?
A visit to a family-style restaurant these days is a frightening thing. The architects of social anarchy can be particularly proud of their accomplishments here, where food is shoveled into mouths that then remain open during the chewing process, affording one and all splendid views of partially masticated foodstuffs rolling about on tongues that are trying to engage in conversation at the same time they are attempting to assist in swallowing. In modern terms, I suppose this could be considered multi-tasking, and, therefore, extremely efficient, but it is still disgusting. The two-fold prime rule of dining etiquette: chew with your mouth closed and don’t talk with your mouth full.
The next point may not place as high on the lists of Emily Post or Miss Manners, but it is my second rule of dining etiquette: muzzle your children and keep them on a leash. Maybe it should be my first rule because there is nothing, not bad food, not bad service, not even dining companions who gobble their swill, nothing that will ruin a dining experience for me like hordes of bratty children running around a restaurant, screaming and carrying on like they were in their own discipline-impaired homes while their benignly ignorant parents continue to sip their coffee, blissfully unaware of the chaos and indigestion their rampant offspring are causing. I have been known to stand and applaud when management comes and removes these banes on polite society from the premises. I used to be tickled pink when diners would stop by my table and comment on how well-behaved my two young boys were, and I have visited this courtesy upon others from time to time, as such occurrences are so unfortunately rare anymore.
Now, having thoroughly established myself as a curmudgeon let me continue with some other common dining courtesies, in no particular order.
I was recently exposed to someone who said, “I ain’t gonna go to noplace where I got to make reservations.” To which I say, “Good! Because that means you probably won’t be dining with ME!” But, on the topic of reservations, if you make them, keep them. Like an appointment, a reservation is a commitment. If you see that you can’t keep it, or even if you’ll be running late, the courteous thing to do is to call the restaurant and inform them. And, by the way, it is customary to arrive ten minutes before your reservation time. However, the concept of “fashionably late” does not apply.
It is also important to dress for the occasion. For example, most cruise lines schedule a formal night or Captain’s dinner where appropriate attire is expected. Although suits and dresses are acceptable, this usually means tuxedos and evening gowns. Most cruise ships even offer the option of renting such attire. And yet, sure enough, some moron will turn up at dinner in his cutoff shorts, his “Life’s a Beach” t-shirt, and his flip-flops, flagrantly exhibiting his contempt for convention. The dining room is not the place to make a statement. If you’re going to Waffle House or Burger King, sloppy dress is fine. But if you’re going to be dining at a four-star restaurant, the very least that is acceptable is coat and tie for gentlemen and a nice dress or suit for ladies. Even at places like Red Lobster or Applebee’s a dress shirt or blouse and dress pants or slacks are considered appropriate, especially at dinner. I suppose the ubiquitous jeans are okay, but they should be clean and not torn, frayed or otherwise looking like they just came out on the losing end of a rodeo ride. And for goodness’ sake, men, take off your hat! In the good old days, before people had to worry about having their stuff stolen out from under their noses, restaurants used to provide hat and coat racks. Not so anymore, so just take that precious John Deere cap off and set it on the seat beside you. You will survive for half an hour or so without it, I promise.
When it comes time to be seated, ladies should be seated first and, if the host or waiter does not do so, it is still quite appropriate for a gentleman to pull out a lady’s chair. A gentleman stands if a lady leaves the table and again when she returns. This rule can be bent at business functions where such actions may cause undue distraction.
As you are seating yourself, if the host or waiter takes your napkin from beside your plate, he is not trying to steal it. Allow him to unfold it and spread it on your lap. If he does not offer to do so, do it yourself immediately upon sitting down. If you have to leave the table, you should loosely fold your napkin and place it to the side of your plate. Be aware, however, that this is often seen as a signal that you are finished eating and you may find your plate missing when you return. Alternately, when leaving the table, you may place your folded napkin in the seat of your chair. Some etiquette experts disagree with ever putting your napkin in your chair seat, opining that you don’t really want to wipe your mouth with something that’s been in your seat. They say that when you leave the table, you should hang your napkin over the back of your chair. In any case, always fold your napkin when you are finished with it. It is not acceptable to crumple, wad, twist, or otherwise mutilate it. As mentioned, when you are finished eating, leave the semi-folded napkin at the left side of your plate. Oh, and I should mention that napkins are to be used to facilitate removal of liquids and food particles from your fingers and lips. They are not to be employed as aids to brushing your teeth, blowing your nose, cleaning your ears, etc. These things should not be done at the table anyway. The exception would be covering a cough; if you have to cough, by all means cover it with your napkin. If, however, the coughing becomes prolonged, excuse yourself from the table.
Speaking of things that should not be done at the table, in the modern age, cell phone use has become epidemic. That’s fine. I carry mine with me everywhere I go. But it’s on “vibrate” when I enter a nice restaurant. And if I get a call, and that call is more involved than a word or two, I excuse myself from the table and go someplace where I can talk without disturbing others. See, I feel that most diners are like me; they don’t want to know the details of my love life, my financial affairs, my medical afflictions, etc. “I’ve almost got Billy potty trained, but he still messes his pants and wets the bed,” is just something I don’t want to hear about over soup and a sandwich. Especially not at the top of your lungs as you attempt to overcome either a bad signal or ambient noise. The things I really like to hear you say are, “I’m at dinner. I’ll call you back,” or “Let me step outside.”
Okay, you’re seated and the waiter brings your food to the table. You immediately begin cutting and stuffing food into your mouth, right? Wrong! If you’re alone, wait until the waiter has finished serving you. If you’re with others, wait until everyone has been served. And it should be noted that dining is not a competitive sport. There are no prizes given to the first diner finished. Take your time. Enjoy your meal. Food is meant to be savored.
Fortunately, the unhealthy practice of setting fire to noxious weeds rolled up in paper, drawing the resultant smoke into your lungs, and then blowing it all over the faces and places of your companions is rapidly going out of vogue. Most sensible restaurants do not allow the procedure anymore. It is forbidden by law in many establishments. Regardless of policy or legality, however, it is never polite to smoke at the table. Period.
Now, what exactly are all these knives, forks, and spoons doing here? Without going into all the arcane and convoluted details, here’s the general rule; just start with the silverware farthest from your plate and work your way in, using one utensil for each course. You’ll find the salad fork farthest to your left with your dinner fork usually the closest to your plate. Your soup spoon will be farthest to your right, followed by a salad or fish knife and dinner knife. Your dessert spoon and fork are above your plate or brought out with dessert. But, since place settings can vary according to the occasion, just stick with the rule of thumb: always work from the outside in.
While we’re on the subject of utensils, perhaps a couple of brief notes are in order on their proper use. Yes, that’s right. More rules. And you thought you just grabbed a knife and fork and started to chow down! Hold your knife with your right hand and use your fork in your left hand to hold your food in place. Then cut your food into bite-sized pieces and place the knife on the edge of your plate with the blade facing in. Eat your food by switching your fork to your right hand (unless, of course, you are left handed). They don’t do it this way in Europe, but they do a lot of things differently in Europe.
Once you’ve picked up a knife, fork, or spoon, it should not make contact with the table again. Anytime you need to set a utensil down, it should rest on the side of your plate or in your bowl. Hold your knife in your palm with three fingers around it, the index finger on the top, and your thumb on the inside. Hold it gently and use pressure from your index finger and thumb to cut. Hold your fork like you would a pen, with the handle resting between your thumb and index finger and lightly secured between your index and middle fingers. When you’re finished eating, you should rest your knife and fork, tines down and blade in, on your plate. The handles should be at the five o’clock position with the tips pointing to ten o’clock on your plate. Some experts say nine and three. Maybe it depends on what time zone you’re in.
Why do you have a salad fork, anyway? When a salad is served as the main entrée, use your dinner fork or entrée fork. The same applies if your salad is served as a side dish on your main entrée plate. Otherwise, you eat your salad with – ta dah – your salad fork!
Your mama always said, “Don’t put your elbows on the table.” Your mama was right. In fact, unless you are cutting something that requires both hands, whichever hand you’re not using should be in your lap.
On the subject of foods, some food items are intended as finger food; some are not, and some, as in the case of French fries, reside in a gray area. When in doubt, use a utensil. You will get fewer disapproving looks while using a fork to eat your French fries than you will by using your fingers to eat your beans. Bread can properly be used as an eating implement. Use a small piece of bread, not your fingers, to chase errant peas, for example, onto a fork. Here are a few more specific food handling instances:
Bacon: If it’s crisp, use your fingers; if it’s fatty, use a knife and fork.
Chicken: With respectful apologies to the Colonel, it may be finger lickin’ good, but you need to use a knife and fork.
Berries: It’s tempting to just pick them up and pop them in your mouth, just like you would out in the wild. But unless the restaurant has an “out in the wild” theme, use a spoon.
Olives: Olives occupy the gray area; it’s acceptable to eat them with your fingers or you can use a small fork.
Sandwiches: Another gray area. If you’re dining in a fast food or burger joint, pick it up as it’s served and try not to get mustard and ketchup on your shirt. Otherwise, small sandwiches, such as tea sandwiches or canapés, may be picked up and eaten with your fingers. Large sandwiches should be cut in half before eating. A hot sandwich served with juice or gravy requires the use of a knife and fork.
Bread: Never butter a whole piece of bread at the table. Take some butter and place it on your bread plate. Use the butter knife if one is available. Then tear a bite-sized piece off of your bread and hold it on the corner of your bread plate while you use your table knife or dinner knife to butter the morsel. Break dinner rolls apart, don’t cut them, and don’t tear them in half or into little pieces. Tear and butter each bite as you consume it, working on or just above your bread plate.
Soup: Soup should be eaten by dipping your spoon into the soup, then moving your hand away from your body and raising the spoon to your lips in order to sip the liquid from the side of the spoon. Sip, don’t slurp. And don’t stick the whole spoon in your mouth. When you get down to the bottom of the bowl, it’s fine to tilt the bowl slightly in order to get the last couple of spoonfuls. It is not fine, however, to drink directly from the bowl. Unless your name is Fido.
Shellfish: Shellfish are in a class by themselves. Fried shrimp, for instance, is okay to eat with your fingers. Shrimp cocktail you eat with a fork. You can properly pick up crab legs and lobster claws with your fingers in order to break them open, but you have to eat the meat with a fork. Don’t slurp down the oysters. Hold the shell in one hand and use a fork with the other.
Pasta: Saving the best for last. Emily Post and others will tell you that it is good manners to use a combination of spoon and fork when eating pasta. Pick up a few strands of pasta with the tines of the fork, place them against the bowl of the spoon, held upright and at an angle, and twirl the pasta around the fork. Emily Post is not Italian. If you do this in an Italian restaurant — a real one, not some imitation chain place – you’ll be thought ill-mannered. And some experts say it’s acceptable to cut pasta with a knife and fork, but I must warn you: the screams pasta makes when treated in this manner can be heard by the chef and he may take serious offense. Better you should just practice the art of twirling pasta on a fork. It’s easier than dealing with irate Italians.
Continuing with random etiquette thoughts, the only time double dipping is acceptable is when you’re dining with someone with whom you are already swapping germs. Even then, the practice is questionable if you’re in the company of others. On the off chance that you may not know what “double dipping” refers to, picture this: you’ve been served an appetizer, say, fried mozzarella cheese sticks, with a bowl of dipping sauce. You pick up a cheese stick, dip it in the sauce, bite off a bit, and dip it again. Double dipping. Again, okay if you’re alone or doing it with somebody whose lips, teeth, tongue and digestive tract yours are already familiar with and accustomed to. But, if you thought about it, would you really stick your tongue into the mouth of every other person at your table? Hmmmm?
When passing a dish, food should be accepted from the left and passed to the right. Dishes should be served from the left and cleared away from the right.
Never reach for condiments or other items on the table. “Excuse my reach” doesn’t cover it. Ask the person nearest the item to please pass it to you.
And do I really have to mention “please” and “thank you?”
When asked to pass the salt, pass both the salt and the pepper together.
A constant problem I have with my left-handed wife relates to positioning of drinks and bread plates. Theoretically, proper etiquette requires your bread plate to be positioned on the upper left side of your place setting and your drink to be on the upper right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve inadvertently taken a big swig of whatever my wife is drinking because she always puts her glass where she can most naturally reach it. Since loudly reacting to the taste of something you weren’t expecting and then shouting, “Why the *#&! don’t you put your drink where it belongs” is not considered proper manners, just be careful when dining with lefties.
Dinner conversations are fine. Raucous contests to see who can talk the loudest are not.
If you are dining with a group, sharing and tasting are acceptable practices as long as everybody agrees to them. It is not acceptable, however, to stick your fork into somebody else’s food. If you plan to share, ask for small plates and clean utensils. Be prepared: you may sometimes be charged extra for sharing.
If something is too hot, allow it to cool. Don’t blow on it. And if it’s too late and you get a bite of something too hot, don’t make a big, screaming, fanning, sputtering production out of it. Discreetly drink something to cool the burn.
Similarly, if you spill something, clean it up quickly and quietly. Don’t draw unnecessary attention to your mistake by making it obvious. Apologize to anyone you may have inconvenienced, then excuse yourself to go to the restroom and finish cleaning up, if necessary.
Picking your teeth at the table is unmannered. And the old disguising what you’re doing by using the end of a straw doesn’t really hide or excuse it.
Don’t drink and chew at the same time. One or the other, please.
This one may surprise you; don’t gather up and stack your plates at the end of a meal. You may think you’re doing the server a favor, but it’s actually a breach of etiquette.
Finally, a few words on tipping etiquette. Tipping is a social custom and a necessary evil. Waiters and waitresses pay taxes on eight to ten percent of their total receipts, not on the actual amount of tips they earn. If you stiff them, they lose money because they are paying taxes based on the amount of your bill. That’s why some restaurants automatically add a fifteen to eighteen percent tip to the ticket on larger parties. As to the amount you should tip, used to be ten percent was sufficient. The current standard is fifteen percent. If you feel you were really well taken care of, twenty to twenty-five percent is customary. The only time it is acceptable to not leave a tip is if the server was exceptionally rude or otherwise provided unacceptable service. Don’t punish the server for poorly prepared food. If the place is overcrowded and understaffed, don’t hold the overworked server responsible for slow service. It would be nice to abolish tipping and see these people paid a living wage for their efforts, but upping wages means upping prices, and we already pay enough for our restaurant meals, so we just have to deal with the system as it is.
Etiquette. Manners. In any group they are the social rules that we live by in order to show respect for others and to ourselves. The conventions of etiquette are not intended as a punishment, hassle, or an annoyance to be endured, but rather they are in place as a means to make you feel comfortable in social situations. The underlying idea is that if there are rules and standards for everybody to follow, then you, as an individual, can have a greater degree of confidence in your ability to behave “properly.” Good manners take the guesswork out of appropriate public behavior. They remain both timeless and timely.
Thank you for your kind indulgence. Please excuse me while I go find something else to rant about.