My interest on the subject of etiquette or social do’s and don’ts came about during a discussion at the end of a meal. Having finished I duely placed my knife and fork down together on the plate, positioning the handles pointing in the direction of the number six on a clock face. Logical, I had done this as long as I could remember. My Dutch counterpart, however, placed his with the handles both pointing towards the four. The ensuing conversation as to who was right and who not became quite heated. It was apparent that some basic elements of etiquette, that I had taken for granted, were not the same the world over. Being British, I assumed that the precident of good manners must have been poineered by us, that the descrepancy was due to them, and the Dutch-British divide (ie. The Channel). Further research showed that our American cousins also finished a meal by placing their cutlery in the same way upon the plate.
The cutlery saga continues along with the variety of ways to hold, cut and generally wield the impliments during a meal. However, it seems there is no ‘right’ way. One point we all agree on is that leaving soiled cutlery sprawled across the newly starched linen table cloth is a no no.
What is etiquette? Reaching for the Concise Oxford dictionary, the definition of etiquette is ‘the customary code of polite behaviour in a society’. Originating in the eighteenth century and from the French ètiquette. It was seen as a ‘list of ceremonial observances of a court’, also a ‘label, or etiquette’.
Etiquette not only governs ones eating habits but general behaviour and presentation of oneself in polite society. The Victorians had an austere set of rules as long as your arm, that had to be observed unless you wanted to become a total social outcast. Take the raising of the small finger whilst drinking for example, supposedly the height of refinement in its heyday, now a cliché. Amusingly, it can still be spotted in use now and again.
But it wasn’t always like this, etiquette seems to have arisen from the abundance of food and a sort of boredom bred in the royal courts. Our ancient ancestors were far too busy with daily survival and the hunt, kill, cook and eat aspect of things. Imagine them worrying about the placement of the cutlery, gravey running into their bear skins and as to who had emitted that rather obnoxious burping noise, two rocks further down the cave. Although having said that, in some parts of the world burping is often expected to show the host that you are enjoying the meal.
So, next time you are making your gravey-and-potato volcano, just take a minute and ask yourself if you have put your cutlery in the right place!
© Alison Day
First published in the Connections magazine #16 Summer 2007,