Thursday, July 28, 2011

Table Manners and Other Things That Become Important Over Time

I was having lunch with an old friend last weekend, and he was excited to tell me about this new girl he had met. He hasn't been in a serious relationship in awhile, and he asked my advice regarding how to really wow this girl. It took me awhile, but recalling some of the things that had turned me off to a guy (or really making a big impression on me) boiled down to a few points. One of those was table manners.

I know that sounds really bizarre, but now that I really think about it, table manners have been something important in my upbringing. It's no wonder that it has, as a consequence, had such a huge impact on my dating life.

Some of my very first memories of being disciplined by my parents were over the dinner table. Don't get me wrong, my parents weren't the decorum Nazis, but because of our food idiosyncrasies, my mother had to exert some measure of control over meals. The first dinner table rule I remember was this: "No singing at the table." Apparently, as a youngin' I would provide dinner entertainment with a rousing chorus of "Everybody Knows Your Name" from the show Cheers. Mom got tired of me not eating my food, so she put an end to that. After listening to song again, just now, God only knows what I was really singing. Probably only the part that everybody knows...(~~~...Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your naaaaame!!!!!......~~~).

Sidenote: It's really odd knowing this because now I am so bashful that I can't won't even sing alone in the shower when Jon is five states away on a business trip. Jon has some spider senses, and sometimes, if I am singing VERY quietly to myself while being lost in a task, he will sneak into the room and listen, smiling. Romantic? Yes. Any less embarrassing when I've found out he's been listening to me sing off key? No.

Back on Task.

Now, if you are dating a person that sings at the dinner table, than I can't help you. Wait, yes I can. Dump that weirdo. As far as the rest of the table manners I am going to talk about, most adults should have this minimum level of decorum to be up to snuff. These standards, like I said previously, did not seem overly important at the time. However, they have grown to be very important aspects of what I consider proper adult behavior. How to start? Historically to present time, or from modern time moving back? Let's start historically.

Do not reach across the table. Request items be passed to you.

This was the second oldest dining rule I can remember. It comes from me reaching across the table for more mashed potatoes and my mom whacking the crap out of my hand with a wooden spoon. I never reached again, even if something was at a full arm's length. I would ask for it to be passed be someone who was a little bit closer. As a result, I have never had a sleeve accidentally get dipped in a bowl. Mom also tried her hardest to make me use the "May I...?" versus "Can I...?" statements properly during this time. That never did work out. Oh well, can't win them all.

Ask to be excused from the table, don't just leave.
If you need to leave the table, for whatever reason, asked to be excused for a moment. Don't just get up and leave. I don't need to know if you are going to the bathroom, or answering a call or whatnot. Just ask, "May I be excused?" Even at the end of a meal, if there are others still eating, ask to be excused.

Don't eat in front of others with no food, serve a guest first, the host takes the first bite.
This is a dining trifecta. If your meal at a restaurant arrives before your partner's, wait until theirs arrives unless they insist that you start. It is rude to nosh down on your meal while they are salivating for theirs. It is okay to start, say, if you get a salad before your meal, and they don't. However, if you both have just entrees, wait. If they did not order anything, offer to share some of your meal. I always ask twice. This part is from a harsh smack down in first grade when I was eating a snack after school and taunting the other kids. "MMMMM, these crackers are soooooo good and you don't have any!" My mom caught that one. I'm sure my butt was tore up after that.

If you are hosting a meal, you always serve your guest first. Guests should be given the choicest pieces of the meal because they are honoring your table by dining with you. If a guy asked me out and we go to a restaurant, he had better have offered me the bread basket first before grabbing a roll for himself. I would do the same if I asked him out.

Finally, if I am the guest at a meal, my host is the one that takes the first bite of a meal. He/She may have offered me the first plate which means her meal was served last. Until she is settled and begins, neither can I. It is just a way of showing that we are equals and that I honor them by waiting. This all may sound very formal, but really, if I am sitting at a dinner party with four, how long am I really going to have to wait until the host serves themselves? Three to five minutes tops? I think I can manage that level of respect.

Don't hold your fork like a shovel.

It KILLS me when I see adults who hold a fork like a shovel, then summarily shovel food into their mouth.

The "Shovel" *said with disgust*
I remember one day, when I was probably 6 or 7 years old, my mom said with a fair amount of tension in her voice: "THIS is how you hold a fork like an adult." I've held it properly ever since.

Proper "forking" technique
You would be surprised how many men out there are shovelers. They are barely one step above Neanderthals.
I have other fork idiosyncrasies when it comes to cutting, but I will spare you...for now.

Forks on the left, knives on the right.

It was my job to set the table. I would put things willy-nilly to get done quick-like and in a hurry. Mom got tired of that. She taught me to remember that forks go on the left because fork and left have same number of letters. Same with knife and right. To this day, I always do it. It makes sense because most people are right handed, and you want a knife controlled by your most dominate hand. Now if I only knew where to put that damn spoon.

No hats at or on the table.

To be fair, this was never explicitly stated at our home. My step-dad is a ball cap guy. He would always take a hat off at the table and put it on his knee or under the chair. When I would go out with a guy and he would eat with a hat on, I would get a sense of uneasiness. If he took it off for me +1. If he then proceeded to put that nasty, sweaty thing on the table next to his plate, -5000. Gross. I don't care how bad your hat hair is guys. If you don't want me to see your hat hair, you shouldn't have worn a hat on our date. No hats at a table unless you are at a picnic table, outside.

No elbows on the table. Ladies, only one hand in view at the table. The other in your lap.

Elbows started early, but the development of the gender specific rule came much later. This one developed more from my dad. For the longest time, I would snarf my food down as fast as I could. I don't know if this was so I could hurry and play outside before the sun went down, or because our lunch period at school was only 20 minutes and riddled with food thieves. Probably a combination. While whroffing down my dinner one day, my dad jokingly told me that he wasn't going to steal my food and to take it easy. Being just a child, I didn't get that this was a reference the almost vacuum-like manner I was using to consume my daily bread. I would use my right hand to fork in food, and my left to hold on to anything else, like a roll or my drink. Finally, he got so disgusted that he made me take a bite and put down my fork between each bite. My left hand was not allowed to mantle over any of my other grub. No elbows on the table meant that it naturally had to rest in my lap unless I was using a knife. That is where it is to this day. My amount of "fork resting" is situational. The more formal the meal, the more likely my fork is to rest between bites. It really helps me to savor my food anyway.

No technology at the table.
As you might have guessed, this one developed a bit later. This is actually a rule I came up with in high school with the very friend that inspired this post. We were out together at a restaurant. He had just gotten a new cell phone (for the first time!!!) and he was on it constantly! He was also on his palm pilot, and any other gadget that was in circa 1998. This particular time he was attending to 3 separate pieces of technology at the table. He would spend so much time fiddling around with these devices that I could not so much as get a word in without him holding up his finger for me to wait. Asshole. I laid down the law then and there, if you are with me, no technology is to be pulled out at the table. This is probably a peeve that was ingrained in me earlier than I initially realized. My mom took no phone calls while we ate dinner, and no TV was allowed either. I guess that the cell phone was just a natural extension of that rule. Of course, you see this rule all over dating websites now. I like to think I invented it 1998.

Jon learned this rule hard and fast with me. It was especially difficult when we got our first smartphone. Now we will only pull it out to play games together while we wait for our food, or if we are having a discussion and we have to Google a fact. Then it is put away. No matter what, if our food comes, technology is put away.

In addition, I do not see technology as a means of distracting kids while parents eat their meal either. Children need to learn that the entire meal does not revolve around them finishing their nuggets. They can be a part of the family and behave appropriately at a table without constant entertainment. They learn important skills about listening, appropriate times to enter and exit a conversation, and how to introduce new topics. Angry Birds or texting is not going to teach them that.

Men stand when a lady excuses herself from the table*.
*Let me add the little caveat that this behavior is reserved for more formal and sit down restaurant level dining experiences.

This is the newest of my meal time standards, and may be more of a southern tradition. When a lady excuses herself from a table, the men at the table stand with her until she leaves the area. This was a very common practice in British courts and made it's way across the pond. It was very aristocratic. I am not sure when the practice died out here in the US, but a few true blue gentlemen still hold onto it.

I'll never forget the first time I experienced this. It wasn't but a few years ago. I was sitting at a table of 10 during a meal hosted by Jon's company. We were in the presence of four to five influential gentlemen that Jon regularly does business with. I had to go "powder my nose" and as I stood up, every man at that table stood up, too. At first, I did not realize what was going on and was kind of shocked as they were all standing there staring at me. I think I had a big goofy smile on my face and said, "Excuse me, gentlemen." A chorus of, "Ma'am" with a slight nod was returned. I was enamored. As I returned to the table, the men were on their feet again. Jon pulled out my chair, I sat, then the men sat. It was truly breath-taking.

When Jon is aiming for lots of brownie points with me or to show off his chivalry amongst other men (usually his younger brothers, which I can only assume he's doing to whip them into shape) he pulls this baby out. It's a pleasant surprise every time. To be treated with such a level of dignity and respect is not something ladies of our generation are accustomed to. 

Wow, this post got a little out of hand. Now, however, you can see where some of my dining rules developed. I'm sure there are many more. It seemed like as I was typing this another would pop into mind. I take them so much for granted that it seems almost weird to have to flesh them out. (i.e. don't chew with your mouth open.)

What are some dining rules you look for require for your date, family, or children?

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