When I was growing up in the gentile, Bible-Belt South, not using manners at the dinner table was like not closing your eyes when you were praying.
It was downright sinful.
Now I am the mother of a 15-year-old boy who barely has time to eat, much less at the table, much less be concerned with keeping his left hand in his lap while doing so.
“It just doesn’t make sense, Mom,” Benjie counters. “If it feels more comfortable for me to keep my hand lightly on the table next to my plate, why does it matter?”
Some table manners, I can easily explain. Like the one about not talking with your mouth full. Nobody wants to watch peas being masticated with human saliva.
Then there’s the rule about placing your napkin on your chair if you temporarily vacate the premises. And the one about not letting the handle of your knife touch the table once you’ve used it.
For these rules of decorum, I have no explanation other than “You’ll look really good some day when you’re eating at the British embassy.” At which point Benjie says, “This isn’t the British embassy.” At which point I say, “Home is where habits are formed.” And so it goes with a modern-day teen whose generation grew up wearing flip-flops to church.
Sitting before the commission of my 21st-century children, I don’t even try to enforce the more esoteric manners, like passing the salt and pepper shakers together.
But keeping the left hand in the lap? And cutting only small pieces of food for your mouth? And the elbow? It remains forever imprinted in my brain: “Debbie, Debbie, strong and able, get your elbows off the table.” A lack of adherence to these rules could lead to choking, and even worse, slouching.
Alas, the way I see it, there are three public-relations problems with table manners in today’s world: First, we live in a casual culture where kids respond “Yeah” to their elders instead of “Yes, ma’am.” Second, the presence of one seemingly absurd rule — like making sure the knife blade faces the plate when setting the table — lowers the credibility of all other rules. Third, Americans are increasingly exposed to different cultures whose rules are the reverse of ours: South Koreans are not allowed to lift dishes from the table during the meal, while we Americans say with great confidence “Please pass the mashed potatoes.” The French must keep both hands visible at all times, while we must hide one of them in the shadows of our skirts.
At some point, rules of etiquette are simply what somebody decided fit the situation at the time. The elbow rule developed during the Middle Ages because the dinner table was often no more than a board placed across a tree stump. Elbows on this table would bring the whole thing toppling. Apparently, parents in the Middle Ages needed a reason to yell at their kids at the dinner table, too.
Clearly it would be better if all table manners made sense today, as well as the Middle Ages. The more things make sense, the easier my job as a parent.
In the meantime, I tell my son that keeping his hand in his lap — no matter how archaic, and yes, even if it makes him feel “lopsided,” like he says — is still expected at the embassy, the job interview, Thanksgiving.
And at his mother’s table.
A well-timed “Because I said so” still works, as long as my mouth is not full of peas.