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Table manners

Wikipedia Creative Commons

These are the most sociable weeks of the year. Between now and January we will eat out more, be invited to some dinner parties, and perhaps even host a few of our own.

These gatherings always raise delicate questions about food etiquette and table manners. There are plenty of books on the subject, and we can even hire a personal trainer to correct our unsophisticated habits, but table manners are increasingly conspicuous by their absence. One reason for this is that a lot of people don’t have dining tables. They eat on the couch in front of the TV. The big difference is that a table almost forces sociability, because we sit face to face with no other entertainment but each other. On the couch all the formal rituals of the table are abandoned. The focus of attention is the television. Knives and forks and even plates can vanish. It’s all too easy to slip back into the pre-civilized habit of simply grabbing food with our hands.

In a restaurant it’s easy to tell which families habitually eat at a table. The children know how to sit up, and how to use their utensils. They talk to each other. Couch families are equally conspicuous. The children run around the restaurant looking for a TV and carrying pieces of food, while their parents stare fixedly at their phone screens. So a dinner party that mixes table people with couch people is likely to be awkward, and messy.

You may say that this is just one advantage of living in the Land of the Free — we can choose exactly how to eat, and we do. In a democratic republic there are no artificial, aristocratic standards to dissuade people from eating with their hands, or on the street, or in cars, or on the couch, or on the floor with the dog. What are table manners anyway, if not a form of social control?

That’s exactly what they are, and why they may be more important than they seem. Anthropologists argue about this, but one school of thought says that modern civilization began with the introduction of table manners. When people eat together, they will talk and argue, so certain rules developed. Even today there are many — an increasing number indeed — of subjects that it is safest to avoid at the table, or anywhere else. In more primitive times, when food was scarce and every diner had a knife in his hand, a political disagreement during lunch could turn very nasty indeed.

So, with food as with love, rituals and formalities were introduced. Modern western table manners began in the Middle Ages and have been elaborated over the centuries until we have rules about everything — order of seating, what a formal place setting should look like and how to use all the utensils, plates and glasses, what never on any account to do with your napkin, and even the correct way to pass the wine or the salt.

Of course, the rules are arbitrary and ridiculous. The point is that table manners, like any other social conventions, make order out of what can easily become chaos. They save embarrassment, because everyone knows how to behave. They also save the carpet, and the couch.

The last people to eat while lounging on couches were the ancient Romans, at the height of their imperial glory — and we know what happened to them.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.