At some point during the coming weeks, you will 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 might bring up sex – or worse, politics. And unless you’ve pre-empted 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 says.
It need not be, adds 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.
“You put food on the table. You let people eat what they want,’’ she said. 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 says.
Have we forgotten how to have a conversation over a shared meal?
“It’s not that we’ve forgotten as much as we’ve ignored it,” says Professor Samuel Gladding, who heads the department of counseling at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “The mode of communication – or the most popular these days – is indirect communication through Twitter or text on through, well, you name it.
“Communication is an art form, but it seems to be a lost art at times when people gather together,” he adds. “They look down instead of at one another.”
What also may be to blame is the demise of the family dinner, where one learns how to behave and converse and which Judith Martin refers to as “the training center of civilization.”
So how do you engage table mates in delicious dinner conversation?
“You ask non-nosy but interesting questions,” says 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.
Try, “Oh, I’m fine. How are you?” suggests Judith Martin. “You turn it around. People love to talk. Even tweeters love to talk. Put the spotlight back on them.”
And while a hostess may bring guests into meal-time conversations, she says, “What guests don’t realize is that they also have a responsibility to see that nobody is left out.”
“Certainly a host has more responsibility to the guests, but it’s reciprocal,” adds Nicholas Martin. “The point is hospitality.”