With new research revealing younger generations think dining etiquette is a thing of the past, Katy McGuinness looks at why our standards have slipped
‘Mabel, Mabel, strong and able, keep your elbows off the table, this is not a horse’s stable, but a first-class dining table.’ If you know the rhyme, chances are you grew up in a household where table manners were non-negotiable.
You were brought up not to start eating until everyone else had been served, never to speak with your mouth full and to be sure to push your spoon away from you while you were eating (never drinking) your soup.
You learned not to brandish your knife in the vicinity of another’s face and to hold your knife and fork in your right and left hands respectively, with your index fingers extended along the top and the blade, tines facing down.
You definitely did not grip your knife or fork as if it were a pencil. You kept your napkin on your lap and made sure to use your indoor voice and, when everyone was finished, you asked to be excused from the table before standing up.
If these are still the rules you abide by, then the bad news is that three-quarters of 18 to 40-year-olds believe dinner table etiquette is a thing of the past and they probably think you’re a dinosaur.
To mark National Kebab Day, plant-based food company Vivera recently published research into modern table manners, surveying 1,500 respondents. Most of them seem not to give a flying fig about the rules our parents and grandparents tried their best to drum into us.
Fifty per cent of respondents feel speaking with your mouth full is acceptable, while 45pc say sitting around a table is a thing of the past — they eat in front of the TV or on the go.
A similar number see nothing wrong with starting to eat before everyone else is served. A fifth of those surveyed feel getting messy while eating is no longer a taboo, another fifth feel it is part of the fun.
Does this mean we can now abandon the manners we learned as children and tuck in with abandon, throwing caution and our napkins to the wind?
As one might expect, Therese McCullagh-Melia of The Etiquette Academy of Ireland, which delivers instruction in dining etiquette to TY groups all over Ireland, doesn’t think so.
“Nothing has changed, other than the American style ‘cut and switch’ use of cutlery [using the knife in the right hand to cut the food and then switching the fork from left to right to eat] is no longer frowned upon to the extent that it once was. It’s still not correct though,” she says.
McCullagh-Melia reckons the decline in shared family meals is responsible for the fact that children no longer learn table manners at home.
“It’s not anyone’s fault if they grow up in a house where good table manners are not practised,” she says. “But that’s why schools get me in to talk to the TY students, so when they go out on work experience and to formal events, they will know what to do.”
McCullagh-Melia says it’s not just in Ireland that table manners have gone to the floor. “I was on holiday in Greece recently, and the only ones who had good table etiquette were the French,” she says.
“With other nationalities, it was a free for all. Some of what I saw was quite disgusting. The number of people putting knives in their mouths was shocking.”
Interestingly, McCullagh-Melia isn’t quite as hard line as one might think. Eating pizza with your hands rather than a knife and fork is acceptable, as is holding a chicken bone or small chop while you chew the meat.
And if you’re dining in a large group in a casual setting, once half the people have been served, she thinks it’s OK to start eating.
As well as consigning some manners to the bin, the research lists some new table manners that are replacing traditional ones. Sixty per cent of respondents feel vaping at the table is unacceptable, while 54pc feel the same about telephone use.
“Vaping is just the same as smoking,” says McCullagh-Melia. “It belongs outside, and the only reason to have your phone on the table is if you are expecting an important call and you let the people you are eating with know you will be stepping away from the table when it comes.”
With Covid still very much a feature of life in 2022, it’s not surprising that new rules of etiquette around sharing food have emerged. If you’re eating with a group of people, either in someone’s home or in a restaurant, it’s a good idea for everyone to take an antigen test before meeting up.
Individual plated servings are ideal, but McCullagh-Melia says if communal dishes are to be used, then an implement rather than hands should be employed to take a piece of bread or other food and, certainly, there should be no double dipping of hands into bowls of nuts or crisps.
She says that while napkins are meant only for dabbing your mouth and not to wipe your nose or mop your forehead, if you feel a sneeze coming on and you don’t have time to reach for a tissue or handkerchief, then you can use your napkin.
While some of the old rules can seem stuffy and over-formal, most are rooted in practicality and intended to prevent the table from descending into chaos. Many of the rules to do with the correct use of cutlery, for instance, originated through a fear of violence in eras when the person sitting next to us with a knife could be a potential assassin.
In China, there are no knives at the table and bite-sized pieces of food are eaten with chopsticks. In the west, the table knife is deliberately blunt and should never be used to cut bread, which should be torn (a French rule), or potatoes, which should always be broken up with a fork instead (a German rule). Most obviously, knives are never to be pointed at someone’s face.
“Maybe you think that table manners are something for other people,” writes Bee Wilson in her introduction to the 2017 edition of Margaret Visser’s book, The Rituals Of Dinner.
“Faraway people. Not for us, those stodgy Downton Abbey rules about fish knives and how to fold a napkin. [But] while we may eat fork food with a spoon and fast food with no cutlery at all, we are deluding ourselves if we think that we eat without ritual. It is just that our rituals constantly change.”
Throughout history, Visser explains, many of the more impenetrable rules of table etiquette — for example: take olives with a spoon but never a fork; take walnuts with fingers; serve cheese with a knife; always take milk products with a spoon even if they are firm enough for a fork; use a spoon to eat curry — were devised by the aristocracy as a means of distinguishing themselves from the bourgeois class of arrivistes that was becoming ever richer, more competent and more powerful.
“Manners of a kind deemed exquisite require education from childhood,” she writes. “It was essential that those outside the pale should not be able simply to learn the social skills required, to be accepted. It could not be that for the steadily decreasing price of a book on manners, you could make your way into the best circles.”
Thankfully, the more ridiculous table manners of the past have been consigned to a classist bin, but even if you’re relaxed about mopping your plate to get the last of that delicious sauce when you’re eating with friends, many job interviews still include a pre-hiring meal so employers can reassure themselves that anyone they employ can be trusted not to put their knife in their mouth while entertaining clients.
Nowadays, anyone feeling unsure and who wants to double check how to hold their cutlery prior to such a test need only look up a YouTube video, and can be fairly confident no one else at the table will know about the olive rule either.
And finally, what about taking photos of our food in restaurants? McCullagh-Melia has no truck with those who say it’s rude to start eating before the wannabe influencers have a chance to set up their shot. “It’s trivial,” she says. “They are the ones who are being rude.”
Maybe the old rhyme needs a revamp. ‘Mabel, Mabel, strong and able, keep your iPhone off the table…’