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A serving of holiday manners: Before you feast, experts offer some pointers

  • Chicago Tribune
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, at 1:34 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, at 10:51 a.m.

The turkey’s on the table, the family’s gathered around, grandpa’s ready to give thanks. You’ve pulled off a perfect Norman Rockwell moment – until a ping burps from a smartphone tucked in a cousin’s pocket.

As you join family and friends for a meal to celebrate a holiday, expect laughter, camaraderie, good eats and wonderful memories. But don’t be surprised by uncomfortable table-manner moments that don’t include fork mix-ups and spilled milk.

People might pry with personal questions. (“So are you pregnant yet?”) The food obsessed will talk about their meal and your meal. (“You can’t eat that. It’s not good for you.”) Someone may bring up sex – or worse, politics. And unless you’ve preempted the problem, someone’s digital device will demand attention.

Where have all our table manners gone? Have we spent so much time fussing over which fork to use that we’ve lost sight of hospitality, of being a good host and a good guest?

That’s what syndicated columnist and author Judith Martin (aka “Miss Manners”) thinks – and she suggests we stop fussing over those forks.

So does her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, with whom she’s written her latest book, “Miss Manners Minds Your Business” (W.W. Norton & Co.). “The wrong fork thing seems to be the societal equivalent of the dream where you’re in public in your pajamas,” Nicholas Martin said.

It need not be, added Judith Martin: “First of all, you’re not likely to get more than one fork. … If you use your fish fork on your meat, you’ll have your meat fork left to use on your fish. Who’s policing? That is something that’s thrown at etiquette to make us sound petty. And I’m getting impatient with it.”

For the record, Judith Martin is impatient with dinner conversations focused on people’s food issues, what they can’t eat, what you shouldn’t eat. In the days when even middle-class folks employed cooks, there was a rule against discussing food at the table.

“Now it’s changed because the host has probably done the cooking and you want to compliment that,” she said. “But that opened the floodgates. Now people talk about their preferences and their prejudices and their digestions. It all gets pretty gross. It’s not conversation.

“You put food on the table. You let people eat what they want. You don’t over-urge them and you don’t keep track of what’s going in their mouths – ‘Oh, you only had this?’ ‘You only had that?’ A ban on talking about food would take care of it all.”

Speaking of dinner-talk bans, add religion, politics and sex, she said.

“People say, ‘That’s ridiculous. We talk about these things all the time.’ … But if you don’t know how people stand, it could turn very ugly. So those rules I still consider in effect.”

So how do you engage table mates in delicious dinner conversation?

“You ask non-nosy but interesting questions,” said Judith Martin. “Like ‘What do you do for amusement?’ ‘What are your interests?’ ‘Do you travel much?’ It’s the innocuous questions because with innocuous questions people can lead them in any direction they want.”

And steer clear of the nosy ones: “What did you pay for those shoes?” “When are you going to (pick one: get married, retire, get a job)?” “Why did you pierce your tongue?”

Still, it can help to be ready with an answer when those questions are lobbed your way.

“If it’s granny or a 6-year-old child, you handle it differently than you do if it’s an adult who you have a personal relationship with,” said Professor Samuel Gladding, who heads the department of counseling at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “The first line of response to those types of questions is to give an answer, but it’s not a direct answer unless you just really have news that you’ve taken the new job or the love of your life has just asked, ‘Will you marry me?’”

Try, “Oh, I’m fine. How are you?” suggested Judith Martin. “You turn it around. People love to talk. Even tweeters love to talk. … Put the spotlight back on them.”

With the sticky situations, Gladding said, “prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If uncle George launches into an uncomfortable topic, or your niece starts canoodling at the table with her fiance, think “distraction.”

Have a topic of general interest for diversion, suggested Gladding, or interrupt uncle George by beginning with the words, “If we look at this historically …” At which point, eyes will glaze over, someone will ask for the gravy or start talking about the weather.

If incessant texters and tweeters lurk among your guests, “get out the old children’s table and put all the texters there or, preferably, have a nicely decorated basket you pass around and confiscate everybody’s phone before dinner,” Judith Martin suggested.

But put a positive spin on the request. “Frame this as a special time regardless of what holiday it might be and for what group,” said Gladding.

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