Will a Decline in Table Manners Lead to a Rise in Murder? No: But It’s Not (Quite) as Ridiculous as You Might Think


We’re losing our table manners, apparently. A study of the nation’s eating habits finds that Britons no longer worry about eating with their mouth closed, putting the knife and fork together when finished, or – most damning of all – keeping their elbows off the table. I know, I can hardly credit it myself.

Whatever the merits of the study – it’s carried out "on behalf of Birmingham Food Fest", and has the distinct whiff of PR nonsense about it – there’s something interesting here. What on earth is the point in keeping your elbows off the table? It’s not as if you’re digging them into your neighbour’s ribs: it is, apparently, an entirely arbitrary convention. Who decided that this inoffensive and comfortable posture is "wrong"?

Steven Pinker, in his fantastic and important book The Better Angels Of Our Nature, found himself wondering something similar, about what I can only assume is the North America-specific commandment of not using your knife to steer food onto your fork:

For as long as I have known how to eat with utensils, I have struggled with the rule of table manners that says that you may not guide food onto your fork with your knife. To be sure, I have the dexterity to capture chunks of food that have enough mass to stay put as I scoot my fork under them. But my feeble cerebellum is no match for finely diced cubes or slippery little spheres that ricochet and roll at a touch of the tines…

I remember, as a child, questioning this pointless prohibition. What is so terrible, I asked, about using your silverware in an efficient and perfectly sanitary way? It’s not as if I were asking to eat mashed potatoes with my hands. I lost the argument, as all children do, when faced with the rejoinder "Because I said so," and for decades I silently grumbled about the unintelligibility of the rules of etiquette. Then one day, while doing research for this book, the scales fell from my eyes, the enigma evaporated, and I forever put aside my resentment of the no-knife rule.

Pinker attributes his "epiphany" to reading Norbert Elias‘s The Civilizing Process, which documents how European society became more refined, more considerate, more self-controlled – more civilised, in short – in the centuries either side of the start of the modern era. He describes some of the over-emotional, frequently violent, and at times frankly childish behaviours of our ancestors, and quotes Dorothy Sayers: "The idea that a strong man should react to great personal and national calamities by a slight compression of the lips and by silently throwing his cigarette into the fireplace is of very recent origin." In the medieval period and before, Pinker and Elias both argue, people were far less prone to resisting their immediate emotional impulses.

Where it gets interesting from the table-manners point of view is when Pinker starts quoting the great philosopher Erasmus, who, in between contemplating the deeper truths of the universe, took some time to write an etiquette manual called On Civility in Boys. The things he warns people off doing – which, you would think, implies that they were commonly enough done to make it worth warning – are unexpected, especially those dealing with bodily effluvia:

  • Don’t foul the staircases, corridors, closets or wall hangings with urine or other filth
  • Don’t relieve yourself in front of ladies, or before doors or windows of court chambers…

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