Do table manners really matter? In his 1961 Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers, Walter Hoving says, “In this day of confused standards, manners are sometimes sadly neglected. This is especially true of table manners.” I would go further and say: if there are no table manners, there are no manners at all.
Still, once learned, they should never become a rigid set of rules. They should never, as Hoving says, be “stilted, self-conscious, or artificial,” but should forever adapt, though without losing their purpose: to help you get what you want out of life by doing unto others as they would have you do. When I opened Stars restaurant in San Francisco in 1984, I knew that manners would let me gain access into the circles of the wealthy and social elite of that community, to rally and enlist them as regular customers. Their shock at seeing that “a cook” knew how to behave produced enough curiosity that they were soon flocking to see what I had created. Good table manners meant I was all right, and, therefore, my business must be.
I have found that when people approve of your table manners they think you know how to do everything else properly as well. That is how you enlist them to your side, which is why Table Manners opens with a chapter called “Setting the Table.” Here you will learn to manage the stage for your success. From there the book guides you through what to wear, how to serve, how to eat those pesky foods that cry out for fingers, what guarantees success at your and others’ parties, and how to deal with eating in restaurants, both as a host and as a guest.
Table Manners is organized to give you manners for all dining challenges, including how to handle technology at the table. The chapter “Techiquette” tackles the problems caused by treating your cell phone as your dearest table companion and gives advice on balancing good manners with the realities of contemporary life and its ever-present demands for online communication. This chapter points out also that technology actually hasn’t changed things as much as people think it has, and that the technology-induced makeover of our society is never an excuse for bad manners. It’s not so much checking your e-mail that’s rude; it’s the fact that you’ve ceased paying attention to those with whom you are breaking bread.
The whole point of manners, especially table manners, is the opposite of pretension. The chapter following “Techiquette,” “Pretentious or Not?,” shows that when any behavior makes other people uncomfortable, it’s the behavior that needs to change, not the people.
In a world of increasing global travel, it is important to point out that, once you step on an international flight, many of the specifics of these first chapters no longer apply. The final chapter deals with table manners around the world.
Throughout, as appropriate, I’ve provided guidance for host and guest. Table manners are a two-way street—it’s up to everyone to keep things running smoothly.
This book should be viewed as less about rules and more about suggestions. The world changes. But the general principle of good table manners will never change. You are always correct and safe from any embarrassing gaffes if you remember the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would have you do.
Copyright © 2016 by Jeremiah Tower
Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Libby VanderPloeg