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.

Skepticism or Ignorance

On one of the more academic message boards I follow, someone asked, “How do we know the First Temple (Solomon’s Temple) actually existed? Those who took the man’s question at face value gave proof texts from many different books in the Bible while admitting that there is no archeological evidence. There is no archeological evidence because one cannot/should not excavate under the Dome of the Rock. No matter, the skeptic was not convinced; he became belligerent.

His belligerence only confirms the status of this person – the man is ignorant. The stupidity of the question is easily explained by the course of Israelite history. Solomon’s Temple and his palace was a turning point in Israelite history but not because of a standing House of Worship dedicated to the One God. The excesses of slave labor and the territorial ceding of twenty-three towns and villages in the northwest corner of the country to the Kingdom of Tyre to pay for these buildings led to civil war and a split of United Kingdom into the minor kingdoms of Judah and Israel, kingdoms that never reunited. If the skeptic had studied the Biblical history of the First Temple just a little bit, then the question never would have been asked.

A cliché that has been tossed about for years, usually to encourage shy students, is “there is no such thing as a stupid question.” For a shy student who is afraid to ask, asking any question is a pedagogical success because the content of the question does not matter as much as the new interaction with the teacher. A first question becomes a starting point for teaching a student how to engage the material. However, the cliché is not always understood from a teacher’s point of view but is assumed as a broad statement of academic integrity, that is to say, any question is legitimate. Perhaps in perfect world but in our day the cliché is just a “feel good” sentiment that permits ignorant questions that suck time, effort and life out of a lesson or conversation. When questions and challenges stop the learning process, they are stupid questions. Belligerence on the part of questioner is one of the symptoms of destructive pedagogic behavior.

Skepticism, a philosophical tool of the Greeks, was developed to test the soundness of an argument and its assumptions. Skepticism uses questions as tool to test the soundness of an idea, like using your finger to thump a watermelon to test its ripeness. Like the cliché above, skepticism is great when used in this limited sense but as a broad tool used to challenge everything, skepticism is destructive and debilitating to the process of learning or decision making. Using skepticism as a broadside is meant to attack rather than create.

For anyone who has come prepared to a class and listened to another student who has not prepped ask an ignorant question that the first sentences of the assignment answered, the sense of dismay is powerful. Yet this is not the destructive skepticism that destroys a lesson but statement of pervasive ignorance. Correcting ignorance, no matter its source, can be used as a part of teaching. Pervasive skepticism is not redeemable.

How many times have teenagers exclaimed, “Why do we have to study this? I’m never going to use it.” This is not a teachable moment. If the student has exclaimed, “When am I ever going to use this?”, only then is the opening to teach available. Overindulgent Skepticism kills learning.

Then again, there are some people whose agenda is to do just that.