A reasonably formal table setting for the coming Thanksgiving holiday in two days' time here in the United States.
The holiday season is once more almost upon us, and with it the annual lead-up to the rather frenetic Christmas and New Year's period in a little over a month. While I naturally hope that regular and occasional visitors to Classic Style will have the good graces NOT to show up to any special holiday dinners or other events dressed in hoodies, sweatpants, sagging jeans, and flip-flops or sneakers -- or, frankly, any other common attire of the sort -- this post is not about that.
Nope. Instead, it's a yearly reminder to average guys everywhere to remember and practice polite table manners. Not just on special occasions either, but everyday. With that idea in mind, here is a reprise of a post from November of 2012 (with a few small recent edits by yours truly), which presents all kinds of useful tabletop information, most of which used to be common knowledge. At least in my particular dimension. Sadly, however, the very knowledge about how to conduct oneself pleasantly at the table seems to have become more arcane and even enigmatic in recent decades. Much to our collective detriment. In any case, here we go.
In the blogosphere right now, you'll come across any number of blogs and websites that talk at great length about men's clothing style, grooming, appearance, and how these things contribute to our being/becoming/conducting/perceiving ourselves as gentlemen. Good. That's a decent enough goal by itself. However, it's only one small part of the picture. There is another hugely important and related topic that no one seems to mention on the many blogs and websites on the subject that I peruse and read each week. What is it, you ask?
Why, table manners of course. Shock! Horror! Gasp! Yep, I said it. And I'm making no apologies. Table manners should be as much a part of our daily personal style as our attire and grooming, if not more so. Average guys ought to keep that in mind. Even when we are at home with the door closed. Newsflash! Our close family is just as deserving of polite behavior as people we work with, ride public transport next to, or pass on the street.
However, because table manners are associated with upbringing and/or perceived socio-economic class, they are a potentially explosive issue, prompting knee-jerk accusations of snobbery, exclusion, and arguments about elitism. Regardless of your position, basic table manners are clearly a challenge for many these days based on what you'll observe in most any restaurant or dinner gathering in which people from different backgrounds cross paths.
Sadly, too many people in the 21st century labor under the delusion that table manners -- or indeed polite behavior and social niceties in general -- are stiff, overly formal, old-fashioned, not genuine, and outmoded with no place in modern society. And if that's your attitude, fine. I can't change it.
But let me make a few relevant points. We aren't talking about state occasions, bowing to our social superiors, curtseying to the Queen, shrimp forks, or finger bowls here. Just common decency and ensuring that we remain pleasant to have around. We are not cavemen, dogs, or farm animals eating from troughs after all. Moreover, actions speak louder than words. And just like our attire, our behavior speaks volumes about us and conveys a great deal about where and who we come from, as well as the kind of person we are beneath the fancy clothing, excessive education, certifications, and impressive-sounding titles.
Of course we want to make a good first impression with the various people we meet and those we work with. But we also want to maintain that positive initial image over time. Likewise, and I would argue even more important, we want to remain attractive, likeable, and desirable to our chosen mates and partners. The people with whom we share our lives and selves on a daily basis 24/7. Why risk spoiling that with crass or even just downright crude behavior?
Finally, if we have them, we want to set solid examples of decent behavior for our children. We want, hopefully, to teach our youngsters to be gentlefolk with good grooming and at least a modicum of refinement and sophistication before they are unleashed upon the world. Basic table manners are a part of all that like it or not. After all, do you really want to come across like a ravenous street cur that knows no better?
So, without belaboring the point any further, here are 15 tips to remember that will go a long way in helping average guys become more pleasant dining companions -- and become more gentlemanly in the process -- whether we are around the family table, having a working lunch with colleagues, or meeting that special person's parents for the very first time with a sit-down dinner as part of the equation. Here we go:
1) Above all, use the words, "please," thank you," and (if necessary) "excuse me" liberally. Don't forget it!
2) Sit up in your chair with both feet on the floor in front of you. Don't slouch in your chair, and keep your feet confined to the space beneath your seat. Don't swing your feet or stretch out your legs beneath the table into someone else's space. Keep yourself to yourself. Finally, keep your feet off the darn chair! In other words, don't bend one of your knees and rest your foot on the seat of the chair with your bent knee at face level. . . something that seems to have reached epidemic levels these days. Buck the trend, and just keep your feet where they belong. On the floor.
3) Keep your elbows off the table and your napkin in your lap during the meal. Oh, and you might want to use it to wipe your lips gently when necessary. Your napkin that is. Not your elbow.
4) Ask for things to be passed to you. Don't reach. If serving yourself, don't pile heaps of food on your plate. Take a small share (a slice or two of meat, and a serving spoon or two of other items), and leave enough for others. You can always come back for a second helping later.
5) Cut your food -- or if eating a roll or bread, break it -- into bite-sized pieces. Don't force huge hunks of food into your mouth. Ick!
6) No one will take your food away from you, so don't hunch over your plate with an arm around it, stabbing at or picking through your food with your fork as though someone will swoop down and steal it. We aren't vultures, so let's not act like it.
7) Slow down! Don't gobble your food as fast as you can. This is not a pie or buffalo wing eating contest at a summertime county fair.
8) Don't slurp, burp, or make other noises at the table. Excuse yourself if and when this happens although it really shouldn't at a table of older children and adults. Chewing with your mouth closed might help.
9) Likewise, avoid (like the plague) talking with your mouth full. No one wants to see that. And just imagine how embarrassed you would be if you spit out bits of food in the direction of a dining companion in the middle of relating something to him or her. Chew it up, swallow, and take a drink before you say anything. Oh, and try not to leave food particles on the edge of your glass. Better yet, make sure you don't.
10) Remember not to gesture or point at others with your eating utensils. We're nearing the end of the meal here, guys, so stay with me just a bit longer.
11) When you finish, don't wipe up your plate with a piece of roll or bread. Just place your silverware to one side on your plate (the right side in the 10 o-clock-4 o'clock position), and leave any remaining food residue where it is. By the same token, DON'T lick your plate or utensils clean. Yes, I know. I've actually heard of families where this is the norm.
12) Finally, please don't wipe your mouth with your hand or the back of your wrist when you are finished. Use your napkin! That's what it is for, but be discreet. Your napkin is not a washcloth/face flannel for Heaven's sake, so don't scrub your entire face with it. And it should go without saying that you never, ever blow your nose into it! If you run into nasal issues during a meal, excuse yourself from the table without going into details and, once again, take care of the problem in private, well out of earshot of your dining companions at the table.
13) Avoid picking food from your teeth with a toothpick or finger while you are still at the table. I actually once witnessed a young woman engage in the latter yesterday in the dining commons of my former small college where I was holding late-semester meetings with students. Ugh! But then, she was sitting with one knee bent and a foot on the seat of her chair, airing her differences to the other three young "ladies" (sarcasm intended) at the table with her, so I should not have been surprised. In any case, if or when you find yourself with food stuck between two teeth, excuse yourself from the table for a few moments to take care of the matter privately in the restroom.
14) While at the table, there is certain subject matter (illnesses, certain surgeries, anything having to do with the bathroom, or bodily functions, related jokes, etc. ) that is best left for another time. If you absolutely need to discuss it at all. Talking about things like that during meals is just plain crude and will probably put at least one other person at the table off of their food. Really. Our mothers raised us better than that, and we are no longer 10-year old boys at summer camp trying to show our friends how gross we can be. Hopefully, we have left that behind by now. Right?
15) And here's one last tip to keep in mind. Silence your iPhones and leave them elsewhere. Don't bring 'em to the table, guys. Talk to each other (when your mouth is empty of course) and give your full attention to those with whom you dine this holiday season. Be mentally present at the table in other words, and leave the digital bells and whistles for another time. Do you really need to text your best dudebros from your three semesters on a college campus somewhere about the big game during the meal? And for the love of Christ, remove those damn baseball caps or knitted skicaps before you sit down to the table!
Remember, guys. You might be wearing wild new statement socks, those nifty square-toed shoes, your best ripped jeans, and your lucky "going out" shirt (think about it) to Thanksgiving dinner this year at your latest on again-off again girlfriend's parents' house. But behaving like an ungroomed slob at the table is not attractive (understatement of the year) and will rapidly undermine any decent impression you might otherwise make.
Unless, of course, Dad or her brothers either answer the door, lounge on the sofa, or come to the table clad only in their underwear. Then knock yourself out, disregard all of the advice above, and let everyone see the "real" you. By all means. Ask your date's mother to pull your forefinger between the main course and dessert if you want. Go on. Without doubt, everyone around the table will think the result is terribly clever and guffaw raucously.
On the other hand, it might be somewhat more civilized if you ensure that you are a pleasant dining companion by taking the necessary steps above. Even when you are alone. Make considerate behavior during mealtimes a normal part of your routine, a habit that is, and you will be well on your way for many of the situations you'll encounter during the holiday season or, indeed, anytime of the year.