Manners maketh man
Just before we left for London the first time in 2000, my husband and I dined with his mom. Between bites, he put his knife and fork down on his plate in the “quarter to three” position, with only the tips resting on the plate and the handles extending quite far outwards to rest on the table.
His mother was horrified, telling him that he would never be accepted in polite homes in England if he displayed such rampant ignorance of proper and correct table manners.
I’ve often thought of that evening as I sit on a train in London, watching somebody who barely appears to have control of his opposable thumbs, eating a piece of fried chicken with his bare hands, wiping those hands on the train seat, talking to his friend while chewing, and then discarding the wrapper on the train floor as he leaves.
I hate to disillusion all those of you who, like Nick’s mom, still cherish the Victorian ideal of England as a genteel and well-mannered nation, but the world you fondly imagine is gone – lost without a trace like Atlantis.
Decline in knife sales
This week upmarket UK department store Debenhams announced its dismay at the fact that, recently in its 155 cutlery departments around Britain, forks were outselling their matching knives by almost two to one.
People are coming in and buying forks but no knives – because, let’s face it: who needs a knife to eat bite-sized chunks of chicken tikka masala, mirowaved into oblivion, while lying on the sofa watching TV? Or to eat chicken nuggets? Or pot-noodles, for that matter?
It appears that a whole host of social graces that were formerly thought of as aspirational and essential for getting ahead in life have gone the way of the dodo as fewer and fewer families sit down at a table together to eat a meal.
Think about where you learnt your table manners and I’ll guarantee it was from your parents, probably around your family’s dining table. Once you scrap the concept of dining together at the table, table manners just become an obsolete set of rules that nobody is going to bother to teach a child.
A bygone era
Now there are two ways of looking at this. One view is that table manners, like whalebone corsets, are just another invention of the 1600s and although they have remained popular for longer, they are also a passing trend whose time has come and gone.
Their demise will no less shake the foundations of human civilisation than the decline of white powdered wigs or horse-drawn carriages.
On the other hand, if you look at the social act of eating together (rather, say, than just each ripping a chunk out of the chicken and each retreating to our rooms to eat it while guarding against marauding hungry relatives) as one of the cornerstones of ordered human society, then this is a worrying trend indeed. I know which camp I’m in!
So do you think that learning proper table manners is still important in the modern world?