How do sit at the table? Do you put your hands on the table, very politely, on each side of your plate, or so very politely, do you put your hands on your knees? Do you belch to show how you’ve eaten well, do you immediately say no when your hostess asks you if you want some more? Do you use a knife, and do you lick it? Do you cut the bread or do you break it? Do you eat at table or on the floor, on a carpet?
The table manners are universal. To eat is a basic need that everybody feels, all over the world. Nevertheless, we all eat differently. Not only because our plates are full of dishes which are appreciated here and unknown there.
When we eat, our attitude is different as the attitude of our ancestors. Using a fork – with its four tines – a knife, a spoon, a plate and a glass, individually for each person now seems obvious. But, even since the 13rd century, the « manners » books insist on different points: how to serve, how to eat, how to support some body inconvenience.
« Two aristocratic men musn’t use the same spoon (…)
Some people bite their slice of bread
And then, put it again into the dish like peasants
Aristocratic men refrain from these bad practices. (…)
It’s improper to put the hand to the ears,
Or to the eyes, as some people do
Or to pick at the nose ;
Nobody must do any of these three things. »
Poem by Tannhäuser about courteous table manners, 13rd Century, related by Norbert Elias, pp. 142.143 and 146, La civilisation des mœurs, Calmann-Lévy Publishing House, 1973
Some recommendations seem surprising. They say to use the table cloth, or eventually his table napkin, to clean his greasy fingers, instead of licking them or wiping them on his jacket.
In each era, the standard seems to be civilised and clear. We almost forget the previous norms.
It’s also interesting to see that these civilised manners spread from high society to lower levels of society. What the aristocracy does is a model for the middle-class, which then becomes a model for the peasantry. This last social class is seen as the model not to be followed.
But, depending the era, the social class and the subject, this direction of transmission of manners goes on in reverse. Some people feel an infinite pleasure in lowering themselves; eating, speaking, wearing the clothes, and moving like people from a social class much lower than their own. But they are so socially conditioned that they cannot really imagine and share the daily life of this lower class.
So before judging as improper other people’s way of eating, let’s open our eyes to the immensity and the diversity of the world.