Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pass the butter please. On table manners.

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” said Jean-Anthelme Brillat–Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste, always on my bookshelf.

I say: “ Show me how you eat and I will tell you who you are.”

Table manners are a microcosm of your life in society. Your behavior at table speaks of your past, of your future, of who you are or wish to be, of where you’ve been, of where you're going. Not to mention that eating with people who have bad table manners can make you lose your appetite.

I work with college students. I always meet my students for the first time at a casual dinner.
After the meal, I know everything I need to know about them. From their table manners.

I see who their parents are and how they have been brought up. I know if they have traveled, whether they are intelligent and sensitive, or vague and without a clue. It begins even with the way the students approach the empty table and how they choose where they want to sit and with whom. Volumes speak to me in how they converse for the first time with new fellow students and with me. I can see much in the way they handle their napkins and their relationship to the objects on the table. I can see their lives in the way they read the menu and address the waiter. I can learn things in the way they look at the food when the plate is placed before them, and how they manipulate their knives, forks, spoons. And finally, how they arrange everything at the end to signal they are finished. And sadly, there are those who, after I have paid the bill, leave without a "thank you."

I learn if they are perceptive, neurotic, demanding impossible. I see if they are wasteful, shy, adventuresome, rude, fearful, picky, gluttonous, happy, sloppy, whatever. It is all there at the table.

One student licks her knife and picks up every crumb off her plate with a wet finger. Another drinks coffee and pokes his eye out with the spoon he insists on leaving in the cup. Yet another student grills the waiter, “Does this dish have cheese? What kind of cheese is it? Is it white or yellow cheese? Is it melted or cold? It is grated or sliced? Is there a lot or a little? Is it high fat or low fat?” Then, upon receiving this diligently queried dish, she inspects it, poking this corner and that with her knife, proclaiming, “I can’t possibly eat this,” and moving the plate aside.

Another student asks, “How much can I eat?” and worse, if there could be such a thing, “How many dollars' worth can I order?”

“Do you ask that when you are out on a date?” I say.

Like it or not, table manners are a barometer of civilization, they are the lubrication of a life in society. We are not cavemen grunting and pointing. Sharing a meal with someone is a daily ritual of social interaction. The ease and delight with which you choose, order, converse, eat, drink and finish can open doors for you, and shut them. Table manners can lose you a date or get you a job.

Many years ago I interviewed in the public affairs department of Exxon Corporation. My appointment began at 11:00 a.m. and after an hour and a half of conversation the Senior Vice President pulled back his chair and said, “Okay then. Let’s go to lunch.”

He took me to an elegant and very expensive Indian restaurant in midtown. I declined a cocktail and spoke to the waiter in quiet, respectful manner. (Never drink on a job interview no matter how confident or relaxed or nervous you are feeling.) I studied the menu with interest and decided to try something new that I had never eaten before. When it arrived, I ate it with delicacy and delight. I was able to make conversation and eat at the same time.

It wasn't because he didn’t want to eat alone that day that he invited me. Our lunch was the final testing ground. Why? Because the job required dealing with high ranking executives and he would not hire someone who could not function smoothly at the table. I passed lunch and I got the job.

Table manners do have to be learned. It is hard work for parents. When I think of the tiresome mealtimes I have had with my children: “Sit up straight. Watch out, your sleeve is in the soup. Move your glass a little further from the edge of the table. Lift the fork up to you, not your head down to the food. Don’t chew with your mouth open. This is how you hold your knife. This is how you put your fork and knife to signal when you are finished. Wipe your mouth before taking a drink. Take sips not glugs. Don’t burp. Don’t stretch at the table. Wait until everyone is finished before asking if you can leave. This is how you cut your meat. Don’t talk to the waiter like that.”

If you think these are all obvious do's and don'ts, believe me, they are not.

Table manners should be as natural as breathing, and not something you have to think about. If you need to freshen up, get yourself one of the many excellent etiquette books out there.

Because if you are at ease at the table, you are at ease in life.

P.S. One of the nicest things Jean Cappello ever said to me was, "Your children have such beautiful table manners."

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Judy said...
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