Let’s talk about table manners, shall we?
Now, a lot of etiquette has a useful purpose. I don’t have any problem with those kinds of rules. They exist for a reason, they make things easier for all involved, and generally are pretty cool. Things like standing on one side of an escalator and walking on the other so nobody gets stuck behind a standing couple.
Some of it has to do with “ick factor” : if someone is likely to be put off their meal by something you’re doing, you shouldn’t do it. That’s highly subjective to cultural values, but also pretty much common sense anyway. Things like belching — in some cultures it’s considered offputting, but in others it’s considered respectful. This kind of thing can get silly, and even cause unexpected issues (no baring breasts at the table causes issues with breastfeeding moms), but most of it’s relatively harmless.
Then there’s the third category. The category I hate. The rules that exist solely so the people who know them can look down on the people who don’t. The rules that exist so that charm schools could make money. The stupid rules.
It’s like a little game, and it can make you feel more confident and empowered
Until you’re the one who doesn’t know what’s going on and everyone’s snickering at you behind your back and you feel like shit.
That said, let’s go through A Cup Of Jo’s Dinner etiquette guide, shall we?
- If you’re a guest at a dinner party (pictured above), wait to start eating until the host or hostess takes his or her first bite (unless they absolutely insist that you start). This one falls under category two. Watching someone eat when there’s no food in front of you often makes you hungrier and grumpier, and if there’s a lot of people to feed, it might be a while before the food gets down to you. If the guests all wait for the host, and the host serves himself last, then everyone starts at the same time. Practical, based on social norms, generally harmless.
- A funny tip that my grandparents used to tell us: The way to sit in your chair is to pretend a cat is in front of you, a mouse is behind.
What is the point of that? I absolutely hate guides that try to tell me how to sit. I’ll sit however the hell I please, thanks. My comfort is more important than your idea of “proper behavior”. The one concession I’ll make is to sit so that my lady parts aren’t showing because that’s considered impolite in our society. I’ve been yelled at before for sitting without my legs crossed while wearing jeans — I’m a large-thighed woman, crossing my legs is not and has never been comfortable. If I’m wearing a skirt, I’ll cross my ankles so my thighs are pressed together. That’s it. That’s the only concession you get.
Incidentally, I’ve read that I sit “like a man” — women are supposedly socialized to take up as little space as possible, so they won’t be any trouble or in any way be aggressive or threatening. I sit with my legs apart, the way “men” supposedly do, owning my physical space and therefore putting out a tacit challenge to anyone to go ahead and try ignoring me, see what happens.
- Your wine and water glasses are to the RIGHT of your plate. Your bread plate is to the LEFT of your plate.
This makes sense, falling under category number one. The sides chosen are fairly arbitrary, but they’re always going to be; all that matters is that there’s a standard so that everyone knows which one is theirs. Personally I prefer to set a table so that the auxiliary dishes are closer to one place setting than another, so it’s obvious at a glance, but not all table spreads can do that.
- Surprisingly, salt and pepper should be passed together, even if someone asks only for one. They’re considered “married!” Salt and pepper are only a pair because of cultural reasons; salt is one seasoning and pepper is another and there’s no real reason we chose those two seasonings and no others to be placed on a table. There are many situations where you want one but not the other, or both or neither. There’s just no sense here.
- Never intercept a pass. For example, don’t snag a roll out of the bread basket when it’s on the way to someone else. (You’ll just have to ask them to pass the basket right back!)
On the one hand, I can see this one. This avoids a situation where by the time the basket gets to the person who asked for it, it’s empty. On the other hand, passing things back and forth like that gets tiring and silly and interrupts everyone in-between’s ability to actually eat their food since they’re busy playing Basket Pong.
- Scoop your soup with your spoon tilted *away* from you. And surprise! It’s fine to tilt the bowl slightly away from you to get the last drop of soup. But never blow on your soup or food. Even if it’s piping hot!
Okay. This is stupid. The rule should be, “Don’t spill soup on yourself. It’s hot and messy.” That’s it. That’s the extent of the rule. Tilting the spoon away from you while scooping is more difficult and awkward to maneuver. Tilting the bowl away makes it less likely to spill on you, so that’s okay-ish, but honestly, what’s the purpose behind not blowing on food? You don’t usually blow hard enough to push it back off the spoon. It’s just one of those stupid rules to make people who are practical look uncultured.
- Always taste your food before putting on salt and pepper. It’s considered rude to assume the food is under-seasoned before tasting it.
Now this one I like. I’ve pretty much always gone with that one. You don’t want to accidentally ruin your food by over-seasoning it before you tasted it, and you don’t want the cook to feel like you don’t trust their food to be properly seasoned given that seasoning food is half of cooking.
- Once you’ve picked up a utensil, it should never touch the table again. You want your utensils to rest fully on the edge of your plate. (“No oars!” gasp the experts.)
I suppose this is about not mussing the tablecloth, but frankly, I’d rather have washable tablecloths and let people do whatever the heck they want with their utensils. And what the hell does “no oars” mean? I’m assuming it means the handle can’t rest on the tablecloth, but the handle of the utensil isn’t messy! There’s literally no reason for that particular portion of the rule.
- When you are finished with your meal, your knife and fork should be placed on your plate diagonally from upper left to lower right (11 to 5 if you imagine your plate as a clock face). This is a secret code to the waiter (or host) that you’re finished.
Now this is another useful one. This is meant to signal that it’s okay to clear your place, you haven’t just stepped out for a mid-meal smoke or bathroom break. However, I’ve seen about four variations on this rule, making it less useful. The one I usually see is an X over the plate (for do not clear) and utensils placed across the top of the plate when finished.
- If you have to go to the bathroom—or if you’re getting up at the end of the meal—just put your napkin to the left of your plate, loosely folded.
I understand a rule for “what do I do with the napkin when I’m done”. But why the left? Why loosely folded? I don’t understand the point of that.
There’s more of this thing at STFU Etiquette blogs, or feel free to send me an article you want me to review.