Rude at Dinner? How Table Manners Are Different These Days
In a world of takeout, cellphones, and more relaxed manners all around, it’s safe to say many of the rules Emily Post wrote about in her book Etiquette in 1922 don’t hold up in today’s world. However, that doesn’t mean that good manners have fallen by the wayside altogether.
In fact, one article from The New York Times discussed how many blogs, books, and even YouTube channels have popped up in recent years, driven by society’s desire to conduct themselves in polite ways. We’ll still keep our cellphones, Instagram posts, and ready-to-eat meals, thank you very much, but there’s clearly a need for revamping traditional table manners to account for the changes in eating habits and technology.
Still, despite some of our best intentions, we could all use a little Post-like instruction every now and then. As one columnist laments in The Telegraph, there are times when we forget utensils are still handy for making a good impression at the dinner table — as opposed to picking food up with our fingers. “A finger buffet used to be something you found at weddings; now all of life is one long finger buffet,” author Allison Pearson writes.
So in today’s world, which traditional rules of etiquette still apply? Which ones have changed? And what new rules have been set to account for the most polite way to take a selfie at a restaurant? Here are a few of the basics.
1. Do elbows still matter?
Aside from eating your peas, getting your elbows off the table was probably one of the things your mother nagged you about most during dinner as a child. Though the rule still applies, it’s important to note some distinctions.
Maralee McKee, a self-proclaimed “manners mentor,” explains more recent findings about social interactions have changed this rule a bit. “Research into body language has also taught us that the more we lean towards people while they’re speaking, the more it’s evident to them that we’re interested in what they’re saying,” McKee writes. “While sitting at a table, if you want to lean in, your elbows are going to need to be on the table.”
Though McKee still prefers the no-elbows-on-the-table tradition, she acknowledges that it’s not exactly rude to have your elbows on the table when there isn’t food in front of you. Propping yourself up to lean in and engage is OK before you order food, between courses, and after the plates have been cleared, she explains. Houzz adds the caveat that if seating is tight, elbows should stay off the table.
The Emily Post Institute, a website created and maintained by Post’s family descendants, write that keeping elbows off the table during a meal is still one of the Top 10 table manners by which to abide. However, “It is OK to prop your elbows on the table while conversing between courses, and always has been, even in Emily’s day,” the site says.
2. A call at the dinner table: To answer or not to answer?
Most etiquette professionals will tell you to leave your phone on silent in your purse or pocket during the course of any dinner. However, life doesn’t always fit into neat boxes where you can always abide by those rules.
If you’re on call for work or have young children at home with a sitter, Houzz suggests explaining why your phone is on to your table mates. That way, they won’t be surprised or annoyed if your phone does ring during dinner. Charles MacPherson, who runs a school for butlers in Canada, suggests keeping it on vibrate at the most — and informing your host that you might receive an emergency call. “In the event that it does ring, excuse yourself from the table — don’t explain why, just a simple ‘excuse me’ — and leave the dining room before taking the call,” MacPherson explained to The New York Times.
According to Vogue, it is acceptable to check your phone for texts or emails during a dinner out — but only if your companion leaves the table for the restroom or another reason. (And no, checking your Fantasy Football scores during the dessert course doesn’t count as an exception here.)
3. When can you begin eating?
According to tradition, you should wait to start eating your next course until everyone at your table has been served. This is still the rule of thumb according to Martha Stewart’s team, and could still be a custom at your mother’s table as well.
However, not everyone believes this one is hard and fast. According to Vogue’s Chloe Malle, it’s appropriate to begin eating when at least two people in your party have been served, not necessarily the entire table. You’ll likely have to use social cues to decide what is most appropriate. A good rule in other cases can be to follow your host. If they’re diving in, you should feel free to follow suit. And if you’re the host, house rules go.
4. Food paparazzi: Snap it or no?
You know that friend who stages a mini photo shoot after each course is served at dinner. You either know that person by name, or you are that person yourself. Most modern commentaries accept snapping a photo or two of your meal is a fact of life, but that doesn’t mean it should become a focus of the dinner. Chowhound says taking a quick photo or two is acceptable, so long as you don’t use the flash. Another Chowhound article suggests taking a quick photo, but waiting until after you’ve left the dinner table to post it.
Other experts aren’t as camera-friendly. Martha Stewart suggests it’s only acceptable to take a photo when you’re a professional food writer or photographer — and the meal is taking place in part because of that profession. Again, no flash, and no cringe-worthy shutter noise is OK for that caveat. The Emily Post Institute says the smartphone should stay off the table entirely and on silent, and we can’t see the Posts breaking that rule for a few hearts on Instagram.
Oh, and a quick word about those restaurant selfies: If you must indulge, Vogue suggests taking one at the bar, before you’re seated for the meal at a table. The only exception, most experts agree, is if you’re having dinner with family members whom you haven’t seen in a while. In that case, feel free to capture the occasion.
5. How do you finish your plate?
This is one of the simpler rules of dining out, but most experts agree it still stands today. When you’re finished with your plate, it’s still appropriate to lay your fork and knife side by side at an angle on your plate. (Or any utensils you used during the course.) Though it’s not as widely known as it used to be, servers at restaurants still look for this nonverbal signal to show you’re finished and that the plate can be cleared, Lifehack explains.
6. What are the basics kids need to know?
Aside from chewing with their mouths closed and saying “please” and “thank you,” there are some additional basics children should learn. Chowhound details three of the most important, which should be fundamental at a young age. These include focusing on eating dinner (instead of having pea vs. mashed potato wars on their plates), trying new foods — especially when eating at another person’s home, and using polite manners to ask for items on the table.
In addition to these, the Emily Post Institute put together a list of 13 basic table manners children can, and should, master. They don’t have to worry about which fork to use just yet, but asking to be excused from the table is still appreciated etiquette.