Have you ever been in a restaurant and watched as some uncouth guy at the next table blew his nose in his napkin, licked his knife clean and then went to work with a toothpick? Did you then conclude that our manners aren’t what they used to be? Join the club.
Jeff Neumann, Special to The Denver Post
A survey in 2018 found that 74 percent of Americans believe we have become more rude and less critical of behavior we used to scorn, such as using cellphones in restaurants and cursing in public. What the survey didn’t show was that people have always felt manners were going downhill, that the new generation isn’t matching up to cultured persons such as you and me. This goes back to Socrates, and it continues today, according to John Kasson, a cultural historian.
Kasson, a soft-spoken North Carolinian who still wears a tie to dinner, said that manners reflect the political, economic and social realities of their time. In the 1500s, it was polite for noblemen not to relieve themselves in the corner of the dining room. Ladies sat in such a way as not to display their privates to fellow diners. (Yes, those things were once a mark of refinement. It makes the guy fouling the napkin look like a dandy.)
Americans created their own set of manners, and judged each other more on behavior than birthright. As we became more urban and civilized, upwardly mobile natives — and newly arrived immigrants — could climb the social ladder simply by looking and acting like they belonged there. Nowhere was this more tested than at the dinner table.
For starters, according to one manners guide popular in 1890: “One is correctly seated at the table when the figure is erect but not rigid, not self-consciously tense; feet firmly on the floor; elbows off the table; left hand in the lap when it is not engaged. The chair should be neither too near nor too far from the table: a good distance is about eight inches from the chest.”
Strict rules applied to what you wore and what you said. You had to master the silverware, as your place setting likely included a pastry fork, terrapin fork, berry fork, fish fork, pie fork, ramekin fork and oyster spoon. And, speaking of spoons, it was gauche to eat soup from the point of the spoon instead of the side. Pastry, pudding and cheese were to be eaten with a fork. Diners were directed never to bite fruit whole, but instead to peel it with a silver knife and cut it into pieces.
A SHIFT College Dining & Etiquette session for the 2019 class of Daniels Scholars was held in June at The Cable Center, University of Denver campus. The class was given by an instructor from the American Preparatory Academy in West Valley City, Utah. (Provided by the Daniels Fund)
If you found a fly or hair in your food, you removed it without remark. You ate your ice cream with a fork. If you felt a sneeze coming on, you were to stifle it by placing a finger firmly upon the upper lip. And you never laid your hand upon the table. And on and on. But there was a darker side to all of this.
Etiquette columnist Judith Martin wrote that Victorian manners were intentionally complicated so that the rich could look down on people who couldn’t afford things like an arsenal of silverware. Manners were an instrument of class warfare.
As Americans cast off that kind of rigid etiquette, not everyone was happy. Kasson said that our long-lasting national migration toward informality was first blamed on the increase of working women, then the divorce rate, then World War I, then Prohibition, then the Depression, then television, then the women’s movement, TV, hippies and immigrants.
Today, technology and gender influence our manners. Bobby Stuckey, owner of Frasca Food and Wine, said he’s seen more changes in patrons’ dinner behavior over the last 10 years than since he entered the business in 1983. If a patron never looks up from a cellphone, or if a woman is offended because a server took her order first, it’s OK with Stuckey. “People don’t come in with a card that says, ‘Treat me this way.’ Hospitality is about being agile,” he said.
“Behavior isn’t negative or worse; it’s just natural that you get different wants and needs from different guests. Younger people have a different idea about manners than older people. People have different expectations, and we have to be attuned and aware.”
Being attuned and aware applies to diners, too. The Denver-based Daniels Fund conducts a SHIFT (Scholars Headed Into The Future Together) program for its scholarship recipients. In addition to supporting them financially – most are the first in their families to attend college – the fund has taught its 4,100-plus students financial literacy, ethics, how to dress, how to carry a conversation, and other so-called “soft skills,” including table manners.
“Because food is an accessory to most social situations, learning simple tips is helpful for building confidence and feeling at ease,” according to Catherine Findlay, one of the teachers for the course. “It’s the civility in our behavior that identifies our character. The idea behind teaching social leadership skills is to prepare students to focus on the people in front of them rather than worrying about the silverware on the table. People are the most important part of any gathering,” she added.
Feedback from the scholars is universally positive, according to the Daniels Fund’s Bruce Wilmsen.
One problem with what we expect of others’ manners is that they aren’t the same for everyone. For example, one woman may welcome a man holding a door open for her; another may see it as the toxic vestige of a patriarchal society, and she might tell the gentleman to shove his door-etiquette up his ascot.
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In a world made smaller by technology, “We’re not separate anymore,” Findlay said. “We are much more alike than we are different, so when you teach younger people to be aware of their surroundings and to notice them, isn’t that a principle we want them to take into adult life? We open a door for someone carrying a big box no matter who they are. We’re being aware of others and offering kindness.”
Manners change, everyone agrees, but rudeness remains the same. Maybe the day will come when courtesy is universal, and we can put a fork in rude behavior.
Use the one on the far left.
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