Lucy Corry: Mind your manners (please!)

Lucy Corry questions the age-old practice of table etiquette.

Pandemic life is a cycle of the proverbial swings and roundabouts; for every lost opportunity there’s (hopefully) the discovery of something new. But I’m starting to wonder if all this time in the privacy of our own homes is making us how to behave in public.

Take last weekend, for example, when I unexpectedly found myself staying in a fairly fancy hotel. We were sitting by the fire while eating our (admittedly quite average) breakfast, trying not to make eye contact with any of our fellow guests. There was an elderly couple, a younger pair who dined and dashed at high speed, a middle-aged foursome who looked a bit worse for wear, and a family, two sweet little girls with a put-upon looking mother and a swaggering dad in a cap. Suddenly my husband looked over my shoulder and his face twitched with surprise. I raised an eyebrow in the international marital semaphore of silent inquiry. Was he choking? Were the scrambled eggs made from powdered egg? Had he forgotten his credit card? No, the source of his shock turned out to be much worse.

“That man just licked his knife!” he muttered. There was no time to turn around and see which man (my money was on the dad in the cap) because in the meantime some new arrivals had parked up in the dining room and we had to concentrate on not breathing because they were unmasked (a whole new etiquette breach).But really, licking a knife in a public place? Have our standards really dropped that low?

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My great-aunt Makiri would have been shocked to her core. During my childhood she was the chief arbiter of correct behaviour at the table, frequently admonishing me for various transgressions and reminding me that I’d never be able to take tea with the Queen if I didn’t smarten up my act. I thought of her when I saw Paddington Bear cheerfully drink from the teapot in the charming Jubilee skit.

Makiri, who set the table beautifully for breakfast, with napkins, flowers and a toast rack, had some rules that I could never grasp (something to do with tearing bread instead of cutting it) and others that were enforced at home as well (no elbows on the table, eat with your mouth closed, don’t start eating until everyone has sat down and don’t surreptitiously wipe your dirty hands on the tablecloth).

She wasn’t as tough as the mother of a primary school friend, who once roundly told me off for sneezing (into a neatly folded and ironed handkerchief) at dinner time. “Sneezing at the table is RUDE,” she said, shooting daggers at me. I was eight, and after that I was too scared to have dinner there ever again.

You might argue that table manners are outdated social niceties, but there’s something about them that’s just, well, nice. I’m grateful that I learned them early when I see people masticating, open-mouthed, in public. I’m also glad that we never ate in front of the TV (unless in absolutely extreme circumstances, and even then it was from a tray).

At the same time, I’m grateful that I wasn’t subjected to the same boarding school table etiquette sessions as my older sisters, who can still describe how they were taught to eat a plum with a knife and fork. (I’ve never seen any of them use this life lesson, nor the one where you had to daintily peel a banana and carve off slices with a fork.)

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Looking down at the stray crumbs on my keyboard, I can’t help but wonder if pandemic life is partly to blame. If you adhere to a constant diet of eating alone in private, or from a bowl on the sofa in front of the telly, it doesn’t take long for standards to begin slipping. Are we all but one meal away from becoming like Homer Simpson or Mr Creosote?

Call me old-fashioned, but licking a knife seems risky whether you’re in company or not. Licking a plate, which a flatmate of mine once did after a particularly delicious dinner, definitely breaches the bounds of good taste even if she meant it as a compliment to the cook.

Table manners still matter because they help maintain a veneer — even though it might be a thin one — of respect for other people. If we lose that, we’ve lost everything.

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