Saturday, November 7, 2009

Table Manners

What is the line between behavior that might be considered offensive in another culture and that which is just different? I started thinking about this question with respect to table manners. Americans are taught to always keep their fork in their right hand at the table (if you are right handed, that is) except when using a knife, and then the fork gets transferred to the left hand. When you're done cutting, you put down the knife and transfer the fork back to your right hand to eat.

Now the French (and for that matter most Europeans), when dealing with a dish that requires a knife, just keep the knife in the left and the fork in the right, and eat in a two handed style, piling up food on the back side of the fork. They even set the table with the fork and spoon facing down; often silverware is imprinted on what we Americans would consider the back side. And there's almost nothing that they'll eat with their hands, except, as my husband pointed out to me, asparagus.

So here's my question. I'm fine with using a fork and knife for things I might have eaten with my hands back home, pizza, for example. I can see how that might gross out someone who's not used to seeing that. But is the whole changing hands thing going to make my French dinner companion recoil? If a French person came to my house and put their bread on the table instead of on a plate, should that bother me?

I'm not sure and I certainly don't want to offend. Where do you draw the line between the truly rude and the quaintly other? Help me out here.

9 comments:

Busylizzy said...

I can just offer you the german perspective, which is quite similar to the french one. Germans do not like the american way to eat very much, and find it especially gross, if the unused left hand vanishes under the table, as it is taught here to always under any circumstances leave both hands on the table. Maybe you can find a sort of a compromise between the american Miss Manners and the european Mr Manners?

Dan said...

I hope your commentors will also explain the No Hands In The Lap policy. I don't get it. Do Europeans think those hands beneath the table are engaged in something naughty? Or is it just objectionable because it is a violation of a rule, even if the rule has no rational explanation?

drew-o-rama.com said...

during WWII, the us government recruited german-speaking americans to be spies. they had to teach them how to eat with a knife and fork so they wouldn't stand out when they were undercover in europe!

Nathalie said...

Well, there is no line between 'truly rude' and 'quaintly other' - it depends who's looking and judging!

As you are in France, though, and asking for advice, I think it's only fair to say that many French people consider the American style of eating pretty uncouth. What seems entirely normal to Americans, or just a neutral cultural difference - cutting up your food, laying down your knife and switching fork hands - often looks to Europeans in general like a sign of poor table manners and suggests a low level of education and a low social class. It's not that you're offending anyone, but you are risking letting your table manners stamp you as uneducated and crude, if that bothers you.

Nothing to do with hands under the table in my experience, it's more that cutting up your food first and switching the fork over suggests you are eating like a child who cannot eat the 'adult' way.

Starman said...

You will not offend anyone in France by eating in the American "way". They will just think you're foolish because you waste so much time changing hands. The "no hands under the table" thing is from way, way back. It shows that you do not have a weapon aimed at your guest.

jonnifer said...

According to my sources, no one should be offended, if they even notice. You can probably get some leeway because you're American.

I much prefer the European way personally, and have done it that way my whole life, having been taught by my great aunt. I don't know how the American system came about but it's not very elegant or efficent.

Anonymous said...

I find it amusing that the Europeans find the American style of eating to be uncultured, since we learned it from them!

The American style of eating is actually the way the Europeans used to eat. About 130 years ago the French decided it was more chic and more efficient to eat with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. The rest of Europe followed suit. At the time, the Americans did not want to change so the old European style became the American Style.

In most places in the US both styles are acceptable. Those who don’t like the new (Continental) style say it was adopted as a way to shovel food into your mouth faster. They consider it barbaric to stab meat with a fork and pull it off the tines with your teeth, which is why the fork is turned over and used to scoop food onto the tines. Those complaints generally only come from very formal Southerners. Those who don’t like the old (American) way say it is inefficient and time consuming to switch hands.

I was raised in the U.S. by European parents. I use the Continental style for most meals but use the American Style when eating something which does not require cutting like, for instance, a main course salad. As Europeans will never switch the fork to their right hand or eat with the tines up, they still require a knife to eat this type of meal. Also, the average right handed person would have trouble using a fork left handed without the aid of another utensil.

People in the U.S. who are taught proper table manners are taught that both styles are acceptable. Other than the use of utensils, most table etiquette remains very similar with the exception, of course, of the dreaded placement of the left hand....

Anonymous said...

As a European living since many years in the US I can say from my personal observation that there are three styles of dining in the US. First, in fast food people eat using their body parts (fingers, hands), second, in low cost restaurants people switch fork constantly from right to left and third, in medium and up-scale restaurants, over $50 a plate, most Americans are eating like Europeans.

I do have a totally different issue though: I hate it when I am not finished with the appetizer and the unobservant waiter puts the main course on the table where it will get cold. The kitchen and waiter should serve at the eating rhythm of their guests. It's not the guest who should cater to the kitchen. Or am I wrong?

In all countries and any social setting I hate it if audible sounds come out of a chewing mouth which the owner forgot to close....

Anonymous said...

I have been living in Provence for 37 years and have never heard any comments on manners or ways of eating except for the obvious putting your hand on your lap. I don't quite understand what you say about pushing food on the back of a fork because I frankly have never seen that and would personally find it uncouth.

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