On Table Manners

We were not overtaken by the pandemic pounds from the forced isolation like we expected. Instead, my wife and I looked up from our roasted chicken meal last night and realized that we had thrown most of our table manners out the window. We had devolved into slobs.

Please understand, we have had to practice topnotch manners for decades, as we attended weddings, b’nai mitzvah parties, desserts, business meetings, congregational dinners, and private invitations to congregant homes. We learned to cut up anything served in a red sauce smaller than usual to avoid a “whoopsie,” an advertisement of clumsiness on good clothes. At shiva calls, if the offerings were not finger foods, then all was to be avoided lest the paper/garish plastic plate become our downfall. “Just a cookie please, we have more obligations.”

Yet, we sat across from each other with greasy fingers, picking tidbits from chicken pieces and chasing errant pieces of zucchini and sweet potato threatening to fall off the edge of the plate. Looking down from my fingers, I realized there was no napkin waiting in lap, which I usually need for the whoopsies. Dressed in my old, stained sweats with dogs hovering beneath my stool with bated breath, what was the point of having a napkin? Oh yeah: I cannot touch anything clean without smearing grease on it.

We are not going to restaurants anytime soon, so what is the point?

The point is the lack of attention has demeaned our daily rituals. Our ritual of table manners has served my family for years. Every so often, my adult children thank us for demanding they learn how to carry themselves in public. They have experienced the business meal where their good manners stood out as polite, conscientious, and engaged while those without such knowledge were diminished. We all sat across from diners in any situation with confidence that our conversations would not be sidetracked by an obvious faux pas.

I always considered table manners to be the great equalizer amid the American melting pot. The rituals of sharing a meal with others transcends cultures, countries, education, and economics. This is not a matter of whether one culture belches loudly after a good meal, which can be interesting. Table manners, no matter what culture where one is seated, is about demonstrating respect for the other. They are the simplest vehicles for offering respect, whether the etiquette is over chopsticks, hand foods, or western utensils.

Table manners broadcast respect for ourselves and for others in a most personal and intimate setting. Our use or lack of these rituals telegraph who we are and what we think of others. The cliché, actions speak louder than words, is oh-so-true at the dinner table.

Let not the sticklers for etiquette deter us from the task of giving respect for others. No one really cares if the bananas foster is served with a fork or a spoon; we only care whether you will wait for mine to be served so that we may share together. Table manners are something we do together, a ritual we share that confirms quietly and unobtrusively the respect we each offer.

Unless it’s barbeque in my house, in which case all bets are off and you are on your own, sucker.