An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Sunday, August 21, 2005  

Table manners

Sarah Carey: Manners maketh civilised children

Manners featured high on the agenda last week and a consensus quickly emerged: children are unruly because their parents are too tired to teach them how to behave. I’m not so sure that it is that simple. The disappearance of the family meal may contribute to the disappearance of table manners, but there are other forces at work in the coarse, vulgar world that has become Irish society.
The principal one is a wilful confusion between manners and etiquette. The general agreement is that etiquette is an elitist conspiracy that invents unnecessary and silly rules for the purpose of excluding lower classes. Since the second world war and the decline of such minor aristocracy as we possessed, etiquette is deemed to be bad. Attempts to teach skills such as holding one’s knife correctly are condemned as symptoms of snobbery. Etiquette seems so British, so imperial, that it equates to hypocrisy and the use of charm to disguise the cruelty of conquerors.

Conversely, manners show proper consideration for others, and it is socially acceptable, if increasingly difficult, to pass these on to one’s offspring. There are some things on which we can all agree. Correcting other people’s children is a faux pas that will earn you a cold shoulder from the respective parent. Indeed, publicly correcting anybody is the ultimate in rudeness. Whatever manners we pass on, we must pass them on in private.

I recall taking afternoon tea with a friend and her young daughter in a swish Dublin hotel some years ago. With great relish, I cut my scone in half and began to spoon on the jam and cream. The little girl took my lead. As she lifted her knife, her mother took it from her and in a superior tone announced: “No, darling, we don’t cut our scones, we break them”. The daughter and I exchanged a glance in which we silently debated which one of us would stab the cow. I remain unconvinced that the prohibition on cutting bread rolls applies to scones.

The problem is that we no longer seem to know which rules are the disposable foibles of a past era and which are the ones worth keeping. Some people never knew half the rules and most people thought they were daft.

Take the thorny issue of the HKLP (holds knife like pen). Having been reared in a slightly more archaic style to most of my contemporaries, I can’t help wincing just a little when faced with a HKLPer. However, I like to think I am mature enough to know that this is not a character-defining issue. It is far more important that the same person serve others before digging in themselves. It’s okay to use the wrong fork to give somebody else the last potato, but not if they’re taking it for themselves.

But can the same logic be applied to putting your elbows on the table while eating? Theoretically, it doesn’t affect anyone else, and yet the resulting hunch over the plate is inelegant enough to make table companions, this one anyway, uncomfortable. Similarly, straightening one’s knife and fork on the plate doesn’t just look neat, it indicates that the person has finished their meal and makes the cutlery less likely to fall off the plate when lifted from the table.

There is no right or wrong any more, it’s all about one’s personal opinion. If, in your opinion, your child is entitled to talk with food in their mouth, then the rest of us have to swallow our distaste along with our meal. Still, as somebody said, good manners are all about putting up with other people’s bad ones.

The general level of ignorance on what is good or bad behaviour is compounded by the idealisation of childhood. Whatever our childhood, it is generally assumed that the past was by definition a cruel and abusive environment. Most people come to parenthood with a determination to spare their children the deprivations and chastisements of their own youth. Over-identification with a child’s feelings causes many parents to apologise and beg forgiveness if an admonishment results in a few tears and an irritating wail. I prefer the perspective that toddlers are little savages who need to be trained through a combination of praise and reproach to make themselves as invisible as possible when in public.

For this is the essence of good manners. How can I conduct myself so that I come under people’s notice as little as possible? How can you conduct yourself so that you refrain from invading my personal space? The world is an increasingly crowded place and, when contemplating topics for next week’s column, I would prefer not to listen to your mobile phone conversation and not to have your child’s noisy behaviour interrupt my expensive meal or peace in church.

But the prevalent view is that we are all encouraged to think that we are great and our children are great. While good manners are about discretion, bad manners are the preserve of those who fail to realise that, while they are the centre of their own universe, they are the Pluto of ours. A well-mannered person respects your right to a quiet life. The ill-mannered think everybody should respect their right to do as they please.

While psychiatrists and anthropologists will analyse violent incidents such as road rage, deconstruction by manners will suffice. Do I yield out of consideration or do I proceed because I am better than you? Horace Mann, the American educational reformer, said that manners easily and rapidly mature into morals. Looking around today, it seems we have lost both.


two notes on this:
In the Irish edition I am in Jeremy Clarkson's spot. Does this mean I am in the English edition too? Any UK readers out there who can assist?

Also, and more delicately, the issue of the HKLP is very close to home. It was really only when my toddler began to sit at the table that I realised that the husband is a HKLPer. Suddenly, what I happily ignored before now seemed a huge issue as I know which way I want my children to hold their knives and it's going to be difficult to enforce it if Daddy is doing something different. I mentioned it as diplomatically as possible. Talk about a taboo subject. In principle he agreed that when I began to teach the children how to use cutlery properly he would support me but needless to say he was a bit irked at being criticised and who can blame him. I felt really guilty. It's such a touchy subject. But still, I do notice when people don't straighten their knife and fork on the plate and it just seems so ignorant to leave them all over the place. You don't know if they've finished or not and whoever lifts the plate does have to straighten them. And elbows while eating just looks uncomfortable. Surely it can't make me a bad person because I think there is a right and wrong way?

posted by Sarah | 15:08 0 comments
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