On Table Manners

When I was a child we were taught to chew with our mouths shut, to keep our elbows off the table and to ask permission before getting down from our chairs. There were probably more rules but those are the ones that were drummed into me.

Nowadays I often put my elbows on the table, but I will still excuse myself if I have to leave the table and I certainly wouldn’t talk with my mouth full. Seeing someone else’s half-masticated food is guaranteed to put anyone off their dinner.

It was also considered polite when eating a bread roll to put a dab on butter on your side plate and tear off small pieces of bread as you consumed them, buttering each one as you went along. I’ve never really understood this. I suspect it is the preserve of those who still insist on calling mirrors looking glasses and cringe if someone calls the loo a toilet instead of a lavatory. Frankly, if I want to butter the entire (halved) roll and eat bites out of it, I see no reason not to do so. If you want to judge me for this we should probably agree not to dine together.

I’m not fond of people who put buttery knives into marmalade jars but apart from that, and the inviolable rule that you don’t sit in my particular chair, I am fairly relaxed about what you do in my kitchen as long as you don’t mind me re-arranging the mugs and plates to conform with my somewhat OCD shelving requirements after you’ve kindly tidied them away.

When eating out my pet hates include people who are rude to waiters, those who don’t turn up at restaurants after making a booking (the infamous ‘no-shows’) and those who salt their food before tasting it. I do object, though, to chefs who won’t allow salt cellars on the table. But that’s another issue and I’m getting away from table manners.

There are modern conundrums that never reared their heads in my parents’ generation and they all revolve around mobile ‘phones. Is it acceptable to use them in a restaurant?

One restaurant I ate at recently asked diners to switch off all mobile devices. Having once endured dinner in a cramped but upmarket restaurant where the woman on the next table spent the entire night taking ‘phone calls from a child who apparently resented being left with the babysitter, I can sympathise with that. I wanted to slaughter the entire family, but being English, of course said nothing. I should say this was a good few years ago and I’d probably be a good deal more vocal now. If you are expecting an important call in a restaurant, by all means keep your ‘phone switched on (on vibrate, please), but go outside to take the call.

If I was eating alone though, and especially if I was taking a break during a working day, I might want to check my emails and otherwise do some quiet work on my ‘phone. I can’t see that that’s any different to taking a book or newspaper with you to read.

I have an unspoken agreement with one close friend that when eating out together we will keep our ‘phones firmly in our handbags until one of us needs to visit the loo. At this point it is acceptable to whip out your mobile and check your messages, providing it goes back in the bag on the friend’s return.

Then there’s the Instagram issue. The sight of people contorting themselves into strange positions to take a ‘photo of their food, or in a dimly-lit restaurant asking their friends to shine their ‘phone torches onto it so they can take said snapshot, is one many people find irritating. Mea culpa. Show me a table full of people taking pictures and I will show you a table full of food writers (or possibly just people under 30).

I think, on the whole, it depends on the venue. Eating at a very hushed and upscale restaurant full of somewhat elderly people recently, I didn’t take any photos. Usually I will, although often in an embarrassed and furtive fashion, unless my fellow diners start tutting. Restaurateurs themselves generally seem to approve, possibly because they like to see that someone has appreciated their carefully cooked and plated food enough to Instagram it, though perhaps also because they like the free publicity. Yes, of course you can regram it, chef.

I’d love to know what you think. Please feel free to join in the conversation. Just put your ‘phone on vibrate first.

34 thoughts on “On Table Manners

  1. Im afraid I *am* one of those ‘break your bread into bits’ people but I don’t take issue with the biters. Well, except for the fact that the buggers end up scoffing more of the bread than me.

    My pet peeve? People not using their cutlery properly; knife clutched like a spear in their right hand as their fork shovels in the grub. Torture. Hold the fork in your right hand if you need to scoop and lose the knife; I can tolerate that. Sometimes even I do it. With my elbows on the table. I know, right?

    • Lol, I have no objection to bread breakers as long as they don’t judge me for not following suit. And yes, I will eat ALL the bread while you’re nibbling daintily. 🙂 It’s interesting, what you say about knives and forks. I was always taught never to hold the fork in the right hand and never to scoop (although I do, and somewhere there’s a very funny historical piece about missing out on the season’s first fresh peas because most of the guests, unlike their host, were too polite to scoop and persisted in pronging them one at a time on their fork). I’ve always thought of right-hand-fork-eating as peculiarly American but clearly I am wrong. Huh. Who’d have thought it? Elbows – yeah. It could be an interesting meal if you come over for those fish fingers. 😀

  2. I’m with you on most of these, especially people who are rude to waiting staff. Salting food before tasting it also really annoys me, it’s a small thing but I just don’t like it.

    When it comes to phones I’m a bit of a hypocrite in that I’ll happily whip my phone out to take pictures of my food – only if I’m planning on blogging about it though – but I always put it away between courses and never leave it on the table which I think is just exceptionally rude. I used to sit and scroll and answer emails on my lunch break if I went out on my own but I’m trying to break that habit, more out of a need to get away from work than manners though!

    • Yes, that’s the trouble with cell ‘phones, you never get away from work. We went to stay with friends in Ireland a while back and they had NO WIFI SIGNAL! I hadn’t realised quite how addicted I was until I went into withdrawal. I keep meaning to do a digital detox but I just don’t have the willpower. I admire yours. 🙂

  3. Well, yes, here in America, we definitely hold the fork in our right hand, if we are right-handed. I’ve never thought of doing it another way. It is a bit of juggling, though, when a knife is needed to cut the meat. Then it’s fork to the left hand, knife in the right, cut off a bite sized portion (if you’re over 5-years-old you may not cut the whole piece into bite-sized at once…unless you happen to live alone, as I do, and can remember the proper way when there are guests or when eating out), put the knife down onto the edge of the plate, put the fork back into the right hand, and spear the freshly cut piece to eat it. How much easier it would be, to just leave the fork in the left hand! I have a feeling that’s one of those things that would have caused my mother to say, “we are not savages, here!” She trained us in each of the rules you mention. “May I be excused from the table?” preceded every exit in our home. Great thoughtful post, Linda. I have opinions on cell phones, too, but have wasted too much space already on this amazing fork revelation!

    • Maybe it’s a way of slowing down children’s eating! I still eat far too quickly, though I hope politely. Maybe I should adopt the fork/knife/fork routine. 🙂 And I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on mobile ‘phones, Cindy, chat away!

  4. Eating with a fork in our right hand would have been considered very bad manners – although not as bad as putting your knife in your mouth! The only time I put a fork in my right hand now is to twirl spaghetti.
    Talking with your mouth full is dreadful – I remember how I loved watching Sex in the City but the women (especially Miranda) always talked with their mouths full of food and it used to drive me mad.
    Pet peeve – crumbs in the butter dish.

    • Oh, licking your knife! Yes, that was a big no-no. Crumbs in the butter dish – yes, especially when they’re brown toast crumbs. Talking with your mouthful should be a capital offence. 🙂

  5. Good morning and Happy Easter Monday as they call it down here and perhaps over there.

    I thought only old people took and shared pictures of their food. That was a revelation and I cannot imagine anyone not liking it. A lot of what you mentioned seems like people not minding their own business which is a greater sin than salting your food before eating it. An odd practice that but none of my business. It’s not the opinion but the comment that is offensive.

    A polite though audible ‘Shhh” seems appropriate to a too loud cell phone user as they have made it my business. Frankly, I can receive a shush once in a while (never in a restaurant) and appreciate it.

    Over the past couple of years, I have stopped bringing my phone when I am a dinner guest in someone’s home. I was amazed at how much the host appreciates it. It’s a bit of pain when you want to note someone’s favorite new book or something though a phone call the next day can get the same information. And someone always has theirs to settle the answer to the great debates or forgotten television show from the 50’s!!

    • HI Chip, how are you? Hmm, I wouldn’t overtly comment on someone salting food before they eat it although I might give them a heads-up if I’d cooked something a bit salty myself, like an overly salty bacon. I do think it’s rude to the chef though to season things s/he’s already seasoned without trying them first. After that it’s up to your personal tastes.
      It’s a funny thing about cell ‘phones that we often talk in a louder voice when using them (I also walk round in circles – not in restaurants – but that’s a personal idiosyncrasy we’d better not go into).
      Good idea to forego the mobile when dining at someone’s house – the temptation is thereby removed. Happy Easter! Lx

  6. I agree with everything you wrote. I still cringe at people who double dip, and eat over the serving bowl. I abhor people who are rude to wait staff. My mother is one of those, and my poor husband spends so much extra money running after our waiters and paying them extra in cash in order to apologize. It’s the most expensive part of visiting her. The whole phone thing is crazy to me. I obviously don’t get it. Now, I don’t work, so I know there’s nothing pressing being emailed to me, but unless it’s directly related to the lunch/dinner, it’s supposed to be a fun, social get together. One can look at her phone at home!

    • Ah, double dipping! So divisive! I usually get around it with actual dips by having one central bowl and then individual ones to deposit stuff into. Less easy when you have a big pot of dinner, one fastidious friend, and another who thinks it’s acceptable to eat straight from the serving dish. And I feel your pain re your mother. We used to have a dear friend, otherwise the nicest and kindest man alive, who was utterly obnoxious to wait staff. I cringed every time we went out with him. It’s so hard to apologise for someone else in those circumstances without being rude in the other direction.

      • Ah, my mother. We’re flying to see her this week to celebrate her 90th birthday, and of course we’ll be taking her out to restaurants. It’s the only time I don’t look forward to dining out!

      • Oh dear … still, at 90, I suppose she’s entitled to a few idiosyncrasies. Hope you have a good trip, restaurant manners notwithstanding. xxx

  7. Great post Linda. The English table manners of my childhood have been diluted by multicultualism here. It’s no holds barred with cutlery these days. One thing I really object to is diners not calculating a fair share when serving themselves then not waiting until everyone is served before beginning. It only came to my attention at my own table when I, the cook, last to be seated , almost went hungry. New family members, grrrrr! Our rule is no phones at the table full stop.

  8. Hi Linda, I am guessing that having a meal anywhere here in China would be the stuff of nightmares for you!
    Most meals, even in the most expensive and exclusive restaurants, are inevitably undertaken with every Chinese person firmly attached to their mobile phones. No food can be touched until every dish on the table has been photographed more than Kate Moss and the results distributed on WeChat.
    Conversations both on the telephone and face to face around the table take place with food being simultaneously shovellled into faces. Bones and other inedible items are popped immediately onto either the table or the floor. This is all considered to be quite normal and no-one bats an eye.
    As a cook I found myself in very, very deep water with my Chinese wife when I objected to guests in our home who wanted a traditional English Sunday lunch pouring chilli sauce all over the exceedingly expensive and difficult to obtain roast turkey without even tasting it.
    I have never been forgiven for objecting and never will be but I am often reminded!
    The most expensive restaurant in the city proudly has on the menu, as a starter, bread and butter which is a sweet bread roll served with a round of Irish butter inserted. The butter is proudly hailed as being 125g…..

    • Hi Malcs and thanks for stopping by to comment. Crikey! I hadn’t really thought about wider cultural issues when I wrote this from a very West-centric point of view. I suppose when in Rome etc but I’m with you on the chilli sauce and turkey thing, although having said that we have a much-loved niece who also likes to douse her food in the stuff and nobody bats an eye there either. The bread roll actually sounds rather good … 🙂

  9. Coming on latish it is interesting to read both your post and the comments so far. Methinks what we consider polite and proper largely depends on both geography and personal background. I come from an army-law-politics background in Northern Europe but have lived since childhood in Australia. Amongst my very large number of friends and colleagues, at least 70% multi-cultural, I cannot think of one who breaks any of the ground rules and I do not think these have changed at all (yes, I deal with many ‘young’ people as well 🙂 !) except for the addition of the possible use of mobile phones. Many of my multi-cultural friends make me think twice at times with their perfect behaviour at dinners, receptions and drinks parties. I do call the ‘toilet’ a ‘toilet’ tho’ many of the people I know here ask for the ‘bathroom’. If I use butter, I do break the bread roll, have some butter on the side plate and butter it piece by piece. And, having been to the US dozens of times, I accept but cannot understand the interplay of forks and knives at all. And here I have never seen anyone take out or use their mobile indoors . . a few awaiting texts have walked down into the park to receive and reply . . . funny, had never ever thought of any of this . . . it just happens naturally . . .

    • I think the toilet/lavatory thing is peculiarly English and class-based. What well-mannered friends you have, to be sure! They could probably teach us all a lesson. 🙂

  10. I am a bread breaker and don’t salt until I’ve tasted the food. Can’t stand rudeness to waiters and waitresses, as I was on the receiving end of it once upon a time. The US/UK fork and knife rules will forever be one of those transatlantic idiosynchrasies. When I go to the States, I have to relearn how to hold my cutlery as I don’t want to invite staring and pointing. And then once I’ve got the hang of it again, it’s back to the UK, to the fork flip/knife push manouevre. And wherever I am, I hate phones on the table.

    • I think I’m the only person here so far so ill-mannered as to chomp on my bread roll. *hangs head in shame* It seems though that Americans aren’t alone in transferring the fork to the right hand to eat. What an interesting conversation this is turning out to be. Hope you’ve had a lovely Easter! Lxxx

  11. Great post. I agree with all of it and all of the comments. I also have one inherited from my Polish father (from as I understand it, the higher end of the social scale), and it’s rather odd. Thou shalt never cut fish with a knife. Use the fork in your right hand and if necessary, use a piece of bread roll with your left to help tease the flesh apart. My father’s been dead forty years, but I still can’t bring myself to use a knife with fish.

    • This is turning into a fascinating insight into manners around the world! On fish, btw, I wonder how many people have inherited fish knives and forks? They always seem to me to be a particularly useless Victorian invention and you see so many in junk shops I wonder how many people still use them? Watch this space! (I hope.)

      • Yup. We have fish knives and forks in the attic. Never used, never loved, but I can’t quite bring myself to discard such period pieces. In their own way they are quite handsome.

      • I have some sitting in their box in the dresser, too. They’re very pretty. But I always feel as though, if I use them, I should also be drinking tea with my little finger crooked. Not necessarily at the same time. 🙂

  12. Love the post Linda, and lots of the replies. You have obviously touched a nerve. My parents were very strict, we even had to do a contortionish thing with our index finger on the wide bit of the fork. After 16 years in Spain we are a bit more relaxed. We reach out and grab whatever we want, otherwise we would go hungry in the land of “raciones”, forks and fingers prevail, and we need our hands above the table to gesticulate! However, I must say it’s bad form to use your mobile…we are used to Westy taking photos of his beer and pacharan though.

    If you don’t mind I would love to use this post for one of my conversation classes. I think it will spark a lively chat. If I find out anything interesting, I will let you know.

    • Thanks, Suzy. Your comment had me fiddling with my fingers trying to remember how I hold my fork, it’s one of those things you just do on auto pilot. Turns out I was taught by contortionists, too. I love eating with my hands (except when it’s soup). Westy would be lost without his pacharan shots (in both senses) so please don’t deprive him. And yes, of course you can use this for your conversation classes, I’d love to know what it brings forth. Ten un excelente fin de semana!

  13. Oh yes, both Westy and I were taught to eat soup with a soup spoon, scooping the soup up away from you….I suppose doing the laundry was more of a fag in those days! xx

    • I’ve just read a wonderful description in an old detective novel of a woman who sat erect to eat her soup. “Her head was held gracefully, just a fraction forward, and had none of that curious motion – half butt, half scoop – that most soup drinkers find it necessary to adopt.”

  14. It alls seems like sensible advice to me. I just admit, however, to whipping out my cell phone occasionally—if I’m with someone who knows me very well and won’t be offended.

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