June 14, 2010 in Features

Miss Manners: Caveman manners best left unnoticed

Judith Martin Syndicated columnist
 

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Have you noticed how many people do not seem to be aware of how to eat properly or how to hold an eating utensil?

Whenever I eat out, I notice more and more people who hold a fork like it is a dagger and stab at their food like it is still alive and then bring the chunk of meat (and it is a large chunk) to their mouths in a very unsettling way.

In a formal restaurant, I saw quite a few young people (anyone under 30) who seemed to have no idea of how to eat properly. One man was shoveling food into his mouth with portions so large he had to chew them with an open mouth until he could partially swallow some of the food to close his mouth. His date was not much better, as she filled her fork with pasta and then slurped it up into her mouth and bit off what she couldn’t fit into her mouth. They both held their utensils like they were foreign objects.

Looking around the room, I noticed quite a few people not faring much better. In case you are thinking this was a dive, the average entree was over $30, bottles of wine were twice that, and the place is actually very nice.

In discussing this with friends, they agreed that many people nowadays seem to have a difficult time doing something as simple and basic as eating in a manner which separates them from cavemen.

GENTLE READER: Let us not be so quick to malign cavemen. Whatever their eating rituals were, they probably all knew and followed them, which is more than we can say of modern Americans.

In normal societies, primitive or somewhat civilized, eating properly is learned as routinely as talking – perhaps more so, since at times there is a stronger motivation. But modern America has all but done away with the routine communal meal in favor of grazing, munching and other such means of ingestion, which are done without guidance or observation.

One might think, then, that there would be no one left to disapprove. Except those of us in the etiquette business, who are popularly supposed to spend their pathetic lives waiting to pounce when someone fails the Pick a Fork test – a test that interests no one but themselves.

Wrong. There is someone else who is thought to notice – a feared and respected personage known as The Head Waiter. The presumption is that all waiters at expensive restaurants report infractions to him.

So there are those who do learn conventional table manners in order to practice them in restaurants. Others, as you have observed, do not bother. Therefore, Miss Manners keeps her eyes strictly to her own table when dining out and advises you to do the same.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My sister-in-law’s husband’s son is dying of cancer, and his ex-wife came to visit his son. Since her arrival, she has insinuated herself at the arm of her ex-husband, and it is not at the behest of his new wife, my sister-in-law.

Should she step aside and let his current wife comfort him, or is this proper etiquette?

GENTLE READER: His ex-wife came to visit his dying son?

Ah, that wouldn’t, by any chance, be the dying son’s mother, would it?

It is not just etiquette, but, Miss Manners would think, simple humane decency that should keep your sister-in-law from injecting jealousy into these poor parents’ attempt to comfort each other.

Visit Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

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