Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mind your manners. Table manners, that is.

Way back, in the prehistoric era before the internet, when I was mentally getting ready to come to the US for graduate studies, I spent quite a bit of time at the library in the American consulate.  I was certain that I would have quite some problems transitioning to life in America and wanted to get a head-start.  If only I hadn't been a commie-sympathizing teenager--I could have prepared right from my younger years then! ;)

One of the books advised that we should not be shocked to see Americans not only holding the forks in their right hands but if they used that to also cut food to small pieces.  As one who had only eaten with my hands, and maybe a spoon on occasions, I couldn't understand what the fuss was all about.  Americans are practical, that book said.  Aha; I felt comforted that my transition on this issue at least might not be that rough.

How far I have come since then.

Lunch served on a banana leaf, at niece's wedding

Table manners are cultural and contextual.  Wait a second.  For many years, we didn't even have a dining table--as was the cultural tradition, we sat on the floor.  And, even after we got a table and chairs at home, floor was the norm at grandmas' homes.  And in the tradition there, men and boys--sometimes young girls too--sat down and ate first, and then women--young and old--ate.  How atrocious, right?

So, table manners in that tradition were very different from what I read in the book, which made it clear that American manners are different from those in Europe.  Good thing I was not going to Europe!  Somewhere along the way, after humans settled down to have dinners, I suppose they found other people's habits to be annoying.  And they started developing rules:
Throughout history, there have also been good rules, important reminders of things we often forget. The very first book of manners, a papyrus by the Egyptian Ptahhotep around 2350 B.C., included the sound guidances to wait to be served by your host, and to resist staring. In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, there is “Eat as it becometh a man, those things which are set before thee; and devour not, lest thou be hated.” Erasmus says not to lick your fingers, but use a napkin, and to give up your seat to an elder. Brunetto Latini, whom Dante learned from and then satirized, wrote in his poem “Tesoretto” that good manners should always be there, even when no one else is.
America itself has changed over the years that I have been here.  Now, I feel like I am one conservative fuddy-duddy when I feel appalled at the table manners, or lack thereof.  It is a postmodernist anything goes anymore.
In the democratic present, perhaps the way to distinguish useful etiquette from frippery is to discern which rules help us be good rather than seem good. Serving others first is plainly charitable. Filling companions’ glasses, waiting to eat, giving another the last of the stew, chewing with a closed mouth — each is a basic acknowledgment of togetherness.
 Yes, that is what I too refer to--those simple acts.  But, when kids grow up with a drive-through eating habits, or mindlessly swallowing food while being entertained by the television, well, is it any surprise that there is very little respect for food itself, leave alone table manners!
True courtesy will instinctively check faddish manners at the door in the interest of kindness — which is the root from which the entire family tree of courteous behavior, from the noble Egyptian’s papyrus on, has sprung.
Courtesy?  In today's world?  Hah!


Ramesh said...

Ah well, you are getting old my friend. When you object to poor table manners, you know that you are in the last one third of your life :):):):)

I addition to being obsessed with food, you are now getting obsessed with how to eat. Go for a Blazers game instead. Damian Lillard is on a hot streak :)

Sriram Khé said...

At least I will have good food that I will eat well in the remaining years ;)

I will rather starve than go to a Blazers game!!!

Anne in Salem said...

Careful, Ramesh. I hope I am not in the last third of my life (I'm several years younger then Sriram), and I am appalled at the table manners of my children's friends on occasion.

And Ramesh, who is Damian Lillard?

Sriram Khé said...


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