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Etiquette Is a Bullshit Code Written by Wealthy Aristocrats, So Keep Your Elbows on the Table, Fellow Peasants

These days, your table manners matter less than how you navigate the inevitable dinner conversation about politics

I am, herein, seeking justice for my five-year-old self, who underwent military-grade table etiquette boot camp under the supervision of my loving but sometimes despotic father, a man who insisted that family dinners were a prime opportunity to teach his kids about class. I was young, impressionable and all I wanted was to fork some previously frozen peas that I didn’t even really want, without being told that I’m offensively gripping my fork.

And so for him, but for us as well: Fuck table manners!

But also, thanks dad. Thanks to your hour-long fireside chats about table etiquette, while I may be judged for the clothes I wear or my affinity for unhinging curse words around strangers, I have, for the most part, skirted by being side-eyed for my table manners. I close my mouth when I eat; I wait for everyone to be served their food before I begin to gently fork and knife my own; I keep my elbows off the tablecloth. In other words, I’m making you proud, even if I no longer use a spoon when I eat spaghetti.

Speaking of which: Using a spoon to twirl your fork against isn’t actually correct etiquette, according to Italians — not just the arbiters of pasta, but also the architects behind the table-manners renaissance that began in 1533, the year of the wedding between the 14-year-old Catherine de’ Medici (the niece of Pope Clement VII) and the future French king Henry II of France, according to National Geographic:

“Catherine was raised in Florence, the epicenter of the growing cult of refined eating habits. Her arrival in France, Fisher writes, shocked the Italian noblewoman: “Paris seemed harsh and boorish to the lonesome Florentines. They moped for the gay lightness of their own banquet-halls. … Here in Paris many people still laughed jeeringly at ‘those Italian neatnesses called forks’ and gulped down great chunks of strongly seasoned meat from their knife-ends or their greasy fingers.’ Catherine was determined to change such customs, which is why her marriage in that year, Fisher writes, ‘changed the table manners of Europe.’”

Even before Catherine, though, during the Middle Ages, while it was largely acceptable for knives, spoons and cups to be shared, and for soup to be drunk straight from the bowl, there was still at least some semblance of dining etiquette. For example, in one behavioral guide written in 1384 by Francesc Eiximenis, a theologian from Catalonia in modern-day Spain, he encouraged “well-bred diners” to attempt to be civil. “‘If you have spat or blown your nose, never clean your hands on the tablecloth,’ he admonished,” reports National Geographic. But again, the standard here was very low, considering Eiximenis felt he had to also instruct diners to spit behind themselves whilst dining, rather than on the table or on another person.

To that end, much of the early history surrounding table manners revolves around hygiene more than it does the later development of Victorian era mechanisms, which were used to belittle those who don’t know why there might be two variably sized forks set at the table (more on that later). Per Smithsonian Magazine, Italian poet Giovanni della Casa advised in Galateo, his 1558 book on manners, “One should not comb his hair nor wash his hands in public… The exception to this is the washing of the hands when done before sitting down to dinner, for then it should be done in full sight of others, even if you do not need to wash them at all, so that whoever dips into the same bowl as you will be certain of your cleanliness.”

This ritualistic pre-Renaissance hand cleaning isn’t a surprise when you consider that during much of this era, it was common to eat with your hands. “In good society one does not put both hands into the dish. It is most refined to use only three fingers of the hand. … Forks scarcely exist, or at most for taking meat from the dish,” as noted by sociologist Norbert Elias, per the same Smithsonian Magazine article. In fact, while it was customary to use spoons for soup during this era, forks were viewed as excessively refined or even a sign of effeminacy by Northern Europeans until as recently as the 17th century.

Such aversion to forks would only last so long, however, and there soon transpired a table-etiquette overcorrection during the 19th century. Things got fairly out of hand at this point, thanks to the industrial revolution and the rise of a middle class that aspired to act more gentrified. “From the 1850s, dinners were usually served a la russe, which meant as separate courses as opposed to the previous practice of putting all the dishes on the table at the same time,” reports Colin Bissett in his article about the origins of the fish knife for ABC. “This led to the introduction of a variety of implements to help distinguish the serving and eating of everything from oysters to elaborate puddings, making negotiating a dinner a nightmare for those lacking knowledge of table etiquette.”

In many ways, this level of etiquette could be seen as a trap, a way for the aristocracy to easily spot the nouveau riche middle class industrialists at the table — generally the hapless goons trying to eat roast beef with an oyster fork — and titter at them cruelly from behind their embroidered napkins. Because of this, it wasn’t uncommon for cookbooks from this era to cover the topic of table etiquette as part of their instruction. “If children are carefully taught to hold the knife and fork properly, to eat without the slightest sound of the lips, to drink quietly, to use the napkin rightly, to make no noise of the implements of the table, and last but not least, to eat slowly and masticate the food properly, then they will always feel at their ease at the grandest tables in the land,” reports LoneHand, quoting text from an 1890 cookbook.  

But enough history. It’s no secret that in this brave new world of food trucks and taco stands, where men and women often go dutch on dates, cell phones are an acceptable table accoutrement and employees eat their sad, cold, airplane-adjacent nutrients at their desks, the era of the serrated fish knife is dead and dying. But can the same be said of all vestiges of table etiquette? Have we devolved back into our medieval selves, spitting behind our stools and wiping our hands on our beards while guzzling from the communal soup bowl?

It’s certainly seemed this way to some for a while now. William R. Greer’s archived New York Times article from 1985 laments that today’s youth — or rather, the youth of the mid-1980s — had emancipated themselves from etiquette traditions. “The nation’s restaurants and corporate dining halls, it seems, are filled these days with men and women in their 20s and 30s who hold their forks like shovels and their knives like saws,” writes Greer. “They reach across one another for the butter or the salt, neglect to pass the bread, start eating before others are served, tuck their napkins in their collars or forget them altogether and wave their utensils around like little flags at a parade.” Additionally, Greer argues that in the 20 years prior to his writing the article, “maneuvers intended to keep the appetites of dining companions intact, like closing the mouth to chew and sipping without slurping — seem to have been lost on many of America’s young people.”

But while it may be true that Western society writ large doesn’t put as much stock in table etiquette as the Victorians did (or as my father currently does), claiming that manners are completely lost on Americans is also a stretch. A quick poll of my colleagues indicates that most people have at least some level of consideration for other diners. “If someone puts their elbows on the table, I could care less,” says MEL staff writer Ian Lecklitner. “But if someone’s spitting food all over the place, that’s just gross.” Others equated bad table manners to bad grammar. “The grammar analogy is good because I think that, like grammar, you need to know the rules to break them,” says MEL staff writer Tracy Moore. “So there are different manners for different eating scenarios. Anyone who can’t get a little dirty with barbecue is a snob, or anyone cutting pizza with a fork, etc.” Her point, basically, is that sometimes it should be okay to be casual, messy, less mindful. “Holding a fork like a spear for instance, yes, bad,” says Moore. “But I don’t think I know how to set a table properly, for instance.”

Etiquette expert Diane Gottsman has noticed some changes in the scope of table etiquette, too, noting that in years past, certain parts of society had a utensil for almost every item of food. “For example, asparagus tongs, a tomato server, sardine fork, pickle fork, etc.,” she says. But she’s not ready to describe table manners as irrelevant. “We have evolved into a civil society where everyone has the opportunity to use the same manners regardless of status or financial means,” she says.

In contrast to the past, Gottsman continues — specifically status-obsessed Victorian etiquette — the value of table manners nowadays is that they can make you appear confident while putting your guest at ease. “It’s not a classist or elitist type of gesture, but more an opportunity to conduct yourself in an environment where there are no awkward moments or hiccups,” she says. “Having good table manners shows that you’ve taken the time to perfect the small details in your day-to-day life. If you spend time on the ‘small things,’ you certainly will demonstrate the ability to handle any type of task.”

There’s also, of course, the fact that in an ever-globalizing world where the dining possibilities have reached all sorts of new heights, there’s no universal set of rules for table etiquette anyway. “The way in which you turn a knife is relative, and it varies from culture to culture,” Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Greer in the aforementioned New York Times article. “Manners are merely a set of rules that allow you to engage in a social ritual. They are a way of telling the other person that it is an honor to be able to eat with them. But that is also one of the reasons adolescents use them as a way of rebellion, as a point of hostility.” (To confirm Birdwhistell’s point, I did rebel for a few months during my fifth year of life, by maintaining my mangled death grip on my utensils. But of course, as every budding insurgent knows, the promise of no post-dinner dessert is enough to surrender yourself to acceptable fork and knife decorum.)

The point is, much of the advice from professional etiquette experts focuses on table manners in the Western world, ignoring the fact that in Eastern cultures, it’s appropriate — or even considered “good manners” — to slurp your food or eat with your hands. “In some areas in the Middle East, it is common for people to take their food from a common plate in the centre of the table,” reports Santransalte. “Rather than employing forks or spoons, people may scoop up hummus and other foodstuff with pita bread.” Practices that would likely be met with horror in the more snooty American establishment, then, aren’t just the norm but the preferred method elsewhere.

With this in mind, the future of table etiquette is perhaps one less informed by a codified set of dining rules built on classist principles than it is by the question of what is and isn’t considered appropriate dinner conversation. Per the Spruce, topics to avoid include ones that are controversial, overly opinionated, and as ever, not touching upon politics and religion. But this rings hollow, too. As MEL Deputy Editor Alana Levinson points out, “People cry about their divorce and politics on Facebook. There’s no real privacy anymore, or pleasantry.”

Certainly, avoiding talking about politics at the table gets harder with each passing day. Moore agrees that even those dinner conversation faux pas can’t be totally dismissed, instead arguing that the inability to make dinner conversation is in and of itself impolite. “Are some people still offended by discussing politics at dinner — yes,” she says. “This idea that anything while eating can’t ever be unpleasant is interesting. I get it, I don’t want impassioned screaming debate either while trying to chew food. But a little tête-à-tête, please.”

Really, what the average person would consider “good” table manners these days boils down to common sense: Chewing with your mouth open is, and always will be gauche. But the more specific etiquette practices — the rules for how to hold your utensils or scoop up your soup — are no longer uniform, and therefore, mistakes are less likely to be met with the same bougie judgement they would have been a century ago.

Unless, of course, you’re dining with my dad, in which case, get your Goddamn elbows off the tablecloth.