It's Friday night. You and your significant other are celebrating the end of a long week with a candlelit dinner at Capital Grille. The waiter fills your water glass, from which you take delicate sips. No chugging. No slurping. You silently berate yourself for the millisecond during which your elbow brushed against the table. Is your partner using the right fork? You decide to let it slide.
You're two years old. Your mother has seated you in a wooden high chair and is presenting you with a plate of chopped up hot dogs and watermelon chunks. She places a fork in your hand. You throw it on the floor. She demonstrates the proper way to eat a watermelon chunk. You smash it into your forehead. You can eat however you want, so long as some of the food ends up in your stomach.
As time passes, your internal impulses are replaced with the rules of American etiquette. You're frequently shamed for eating with your hands, resting your elbows on the table, and chewing with your mouth open.
Manners, at their core, are meant to elevate humans beyond their natural instincts. When we're told to act properly, the underlying message is that we shouldn't be acting like animals. But we are animals. There's no hiding it. We can spend all the time in the world piling on clothing, titles, and wealth, but at the end of the day, we're still sneezing, slobbering, shitting beings.
Confession: I eat with my hands. Yes, I'm familiar with forks and use them when my food is too hot or messy, but eating with my hands provides a feeling of connection with my food that forks, by design, cannot. Forks literally create distance between our bodies and our food -- four to seven inches on average. In fact, the Etiquette scholar specifies that dinner forks should be seven inches in length, salad forks should be six inches, lobster forks should be 6 ¾ to 8 inches, fish forks should be between 7¼ inches to 7 ¾ inches, and strawberry forks should be 4 ¾ to 5 ¾ inches.
Who the hell eats strawberries with a special fork?
Eating shouldn't be this damn difficult. Yes, we should take our time. Yes, we should savor our food. But standard dinner table etiquette makes mealtime less about eating and more about looking and behaving correctly.
Manners seem especially futile when we consider how technology has changed the American dining experience. Sure, we keep our elbows off the table and use the right salad fork on occasion, but the vast majority of us spend meal times obsessively checking our emails, playing Candy Crush, and scrolling through Facebook. We're completely disconnected from the ritual of eating and the communal sense it's meant to instill.
Nancy R. Mitchell, the "Etiquette Advocate," may be the queen of arbitrary table manners. In the above video, she tells viewers that they should not take medications at the table (even if they need to before eating), should not ask for to-go bags ("if you care about your image"), should not switch place cards, and should talk to everyone at the table. But Nancy, what if my mortal enemy is seated next to me? If I can't switch my place card, must I still talk to that person? And if the conversation gets heated and I choose to go home, I can't take my meal to go? From my understanding, manners are meant to promote the smooth functioning of meals, but strict rules leave little room for the unpredictable.
"These things reflect very poorly on you," Mitchell says at the end of her lesson. According to whose standards?
What I'm proposing is this: Instead of distracting yourself at the dinner table with the laundry list of manners your mother taught you as a child, why not ask yourself in the moment, "Is this is effective?" and "Will this add to or detract from my current dining experience?"
One of Nancy's rules does have merit: Stash your cell phone, Kindle, and/or tablet under the table, precisely because such devices promote disconnection. If you're updating your Facebook status at dinner, it's almost impossible to savor your food, register fullness, and forge deeper relationships with people. Still, we don't need to make a rule about it -- it's just about being conscientious.
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