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Table Manners

Photo by Sue Jefferson

Cutlery: A minefield. Photo by Sue Jefferson

It’s all of about five minutes since we had our last comment scrap, so I thought I’d try and get another one started.  Tom Doorley recently wrote about table manners in his Megabites blog, and lists some of the table manner faux-pas that send him mental.  Some of his worst offenders: holding the knife like a pencil, failing to put your knife and fork together at the end of the meal, putting your knife in your mouth, licking plates and removing earwax with cutlery (not one I’ve seen too often, thankfully).  I’m inclined to agree with all of these – I really loathe when people pick their teeth at the table, and watching someone eat noisily with their mouth open makes my skin crawl.

It’s interesting though – some of the above prejudices are fairly reasonable. Watching food being masticated and mushed about in somone else’s mouth is almost empirically disgusting, particulary if it’s accompanied by that loud smacking noise. The same goes for those who see dinnertime  as an opportunity to evacuate their ears and gums.

But many of the conventions are, as Doorley himself admits, a bit daft.  Someone holding their knife like a pencil isn’t revolting to look at, just a bit gauche, and is that an entirely bad thing?   (I should be honest here however, and say that I do always notice when someone does it).  And there are some table manners that only the very elderly or extremely uptight still care about, such as elbows on tables.  But perhaps it makes sense to hang on to these conventions, as the alternative may be a slippery slope where suddenly everyone is licking their plates and spraying food all over each other in nice restaurants.

What do you think? Which bad table manners bother you the most? And do you think it’s important to hang on to a few conventions in order to separate us from the barbarians?


  1. I dont know if this is bad table manners, but I cant stand when someone wipes their mouth with their linen napkin after the main course then balls it up and dumps it on their plate. I think its rude but maybe Im just a clean freak and think its an unnecessary soiling of a napkin. (God, Im my Mother!)

    Another is dining with a mobile on the table, or worse, taking a call or texting during a meal.

    I know I’ll be back…

  2. please, please take your mobile off the table! i just think its the most inconsiderate and classless gesture when someone asks me out to dinner then sets their phone right there in between us in case, you know, someone more important calls (or worse: leaves the bluetooth headset on through dinner!). put the phone away–it cant be that urgent, we all survived dinners without mobiles not 10 years ago. have some consideration!

  3. If I can only pick one, my personal hate regarding table manners are people chewing with their mouths open and the noise that goes with it – thanks Eoin for teaching my two little fellows that gross habit (they think it’s cool)!
    However, I’d be in agreement with all the above mentioned irritating manners including elbows on the table while people are eating.
    amn’t I the barrel of laughs!

  4. I agree with Claire on the mobile phone point. Dinner is for sharing, I sometimes see couples or families eating out and one or several people of the party are on the phone. It’s rude to the person who is eating at your table.
    Re. the knife holding, I think it’s a bit harsh to categorize this as bad manners. Some people have troubles holding cuttelry for different reasons: they may be left handed, or have health issues. My aunt has such bad artritis in her hands that she can’t cut her meat herself.
    My very own nagging is people who leave the table in the middle of the meal to do something else. My brother in law goes checking his emails!

  5. Not really table manners per se, but I hate it when the cuttlery doesn’t match. Does that make me a bit obsessive, but really can we please have knife and fork for everyone from the same set. (I’m turning into my Dad!)

    I think it;s important to have certain social norms, like having your cutlery together so that people know when you’re finished and it drives me mad when people don’t do it.

    As for the phone thing, thats a whole nother conversation. My best friend will answer mid-lunch, mid-conversation whenever, whereever and it drives me MAD, although I;ve never actually told her so. Five years later seems a bit late…

  6. And totally agree with Nanazolie, people who leave the table before a meal is finished are soooooo rude!

  7. Earwax? Really? WOW. Just… wow.

  8. Jenny, ring your friend next time you’re at dinner and she takes a call. 🙂

  9. Haha, I really must try that! Great idea.

  10. I do think table manners are important (as the post above shows!) but never really understood the problem with elbows on the table. Where does it come from? I always associate elbows on the table with comfort and intimacy…people leaning in because they’re having a great conversation and are really engaged with each other. What do you guys think?

  11. I always feel really guilty if I catch myself with my elbows on the table. I’m not sure why but it just feels wrong. I also can’t share a table with someone who slurps, puts me right off my dinner.

  12. One I’ve noticed, is people who have “aeroplane wings” when cutting the food, their elbows are out so far each side that they bash into the person they sit beside. I find my brothers and an ex had extreme problem with “wings”, thereby requiring loads of space around them at the table, and it drives me barmy. Elbows should be kept neatly in towards one’s side when eating.

  13. Rattling cutlery off ones teeth. I had to break up with someone over that; he would drag the fork off his teeth. Shudder.

  14. My sister in law cuts her meat like a 5 year old, stabs the meat with the fork then tries to drag it apart using the knife, never actually using the knife to cut… it also doesn’t help that she holds her knife like a crayon (i’m not polite enough to compare it to a pen 😉
    Fully agree with the mobiles at the table, the best I saw was on holidays a few months ago, 10 teenagers sat down, all busy talking or texting… I’m kind of hoping one or two were actually calling each other, so that it was an actual social occasion!

  15. I wonder if the elbows on table thing is to stop you from excluding anyone from the conversation, i.e. angling your body towards the person to your left for a good old chat but away from the person to your right?

  16. Found the attached, not sure of its authenticity, but there is a some sense in it!
    “The great houses and castles of England during the middle ages did not have dining tables in the great halls, so tables were made from trestles and covered with a cloth. The diners sat along one side only; if they put their elbows on the table and leant too heavily, the table could collapse.”

  17. It’s hard to expect everyone to have perfect manners so I’m tolerant of others when others get the water and wine glasses mixed up, or when they confuse fish knives with butter knives 😀
    Seriously though, table manners I do expect include (A) waiting for everyone to be seated and served before starting to eat (B) no telephone or other silly interruptions (C) closing your mouth while eating and no slurpy noises

  18. Actually now that I think about the elbows on tables thing, by the intimacy and informality I really mean at the end of the meal when there’s no plates and everyone’s leaning in over coffee. It’s true, if you’re at a busy table, elbows can be a nuisance.

  19. I find farting during dinner terribly rude.

  20. I agree with etiquette proscriptions that have bases in hygiene (e.g. dipping a knife that you’re eating with into a communal slab of butter) and common courtesy to whoever you’re eating with and restaurant staff, if you’re out (e.g. no phones on the table, wait until others are finished before leaving, placing knife & fork together when finished).

    If they don’t fall into either of those camps I take it as a personal preference and don’t really care – putting wine in a water glass and vice versa, or non-matching cutlery, or elbows on table are fine by me. I do feel guilty when I have my elbows on the table as my mother has me well-trained on that point, but I’m trying to de-train myself!

  21. Table manners dictate that you should wait until everybody has their food before you start eating yours. If I’m waiting, I ALWAYS tell others to go ahead.
    It would be ideal if all the food always arrived at once, but this seldom happens, particularly if you’re with a big restaurant crowd or at a big dinner party or wedding. It’s so pointless waiting restlessly while your dinner goes cold. Not to sound too much like Larry David, but I think it’s a wee bit asshole-ish of your fellow diners to want you to wait for them.

  22. I do agree with you Peter. I would always tell others to start without me, but I would never dive in without some ‘signal’ from others. It’s about finding the balance between practicality and manners.

  23. Eating with a fork only …. and using it as a shovel. I have a work colleague who does this, its more poor manners, its revolting – yuck!

  24. From yesterday’s Guardian, in the comment and opinion section (

    “A headhunter I bumped into last year told me about the difficulty she’d had in finding suitable staff. That week she’d taken a candidate with excellent paper qualifications for a meal. Which was where it all went wrong. “His manners were just unspeakable. Shovelling food on to his fork with his fingers. Talking with his mouth full, but holding his hand over it. Licking his fingers.” And that was that. “My business is done over lunch. That’s where you persuade people and do deals. I can’t employ someone if people won’t want to eat with them.”

    Had she told him why he hadn’t got the job? Of course not. He’d been let down with polite lies. He would never know that something so apparently trivial had such significance. And perhaps what the headhunter really suspected was that if his manners didn’t fit, he’d also be unaware of a myriad subtle rules about how to socialise and negotiate in the group he wanted to join.”

  25. I hate people ostentatiously licking each finger in turn. They might as well be spitting on everything they handle after that.

    I also hate watching people drink wine when I know they are going to be driving home afterwards. They should be flogged for putting their own gratification ahead of everyone else’s safety.

  26. “They might as well be spitting on everything they handle after that.” Lol! 😀

    I can not abide someone being rude to the staff. What is the point, it is an ego thing? Also, people being overly fussy, eg I used to work with someone who has to know the exact ingredients of everything she ate. If something arrived with an unadvertised sprinkling of herbs, she would send it back. Not an allergy or anything, just because it’s green.

  27. I see a lot of things that drive me mad about people’s table manners in work everyday. I sit with a large group of people and I can say that each individual has bad table manners. They are nearly all guilty of eating with their mouths open and making really irritating noises. I’ve even had food from someone’s mouth land on my hand! I hate to see someone licking their knife. Where do they pick these habits up from. Were they brought up by animals?! And when a person is finished their meal then they need to place cutlery at the 6.30 position on the plate. It even bugs me when I see people dunking biscuts into their tea and eating all around a bar of chocolate to remove the chocolate layer first! I’m really fussy about these things and people think I’m mad but they are the people with the bad manners so what would they know.

  28. Spot on Laura, things like eating all the chocolate off a club milk first, then the biscuit…ooooh im feeling hungry now…are for the privacy of your own home. I love to eat a twirl after using it a straw in a cup of tea first. I would never do this in public!

  29. Nah, that’s a step too far – dunking in tea is what biscuits are for!

  30. Interesting article Peter – I do a fair few meals for business and although I would not be particular about manners, bad manners can be very obvious in a work situation. I can really see why the recruiter didn’t hire that person, especially if it’s a face-to-face type business.

  31. Laura Lou, I know exactly what you mean about the eating all the chocolate off a chocolate bar thing – sometimes you see people eating food in really elaborate and intimate ways that would be better done behind closed doors. Go make love to your yogurt in private please!

  32. Jean, don’t get me started on licking yogurt lids. Muller have gone and made it worse by encouraging people to do it…’lick the lid of life’! I remembered another hate of mine – when people have a mouth full of food and then they take a drink and swish it all around in their mouth. It just turns my stomach thinking of it.

  33. What’s wrong with licking the yogurt lid? It’s just a tongue, we all have them…

  34. I love licking my yogurt lid. And eating my Nice biscuits starting by the corners and progressing to the sides. And licking my 99’s ice cream. I don’t think of it as bad mannered. It’s not a love affair with my food, I just enjoy it that way and no, it’s not disgusting. As long as you don’t do it with ostentation, I don’t see the problem

  35. About yogurt – I didn’t mean licking yogurt lids, I meant that thing that some people do where they take a big spoonful and put it in their mouth and then pull it back out with some yogurt still on the spoon, and then do it again. I realise that I sound mental here, but I’ve seen many people do it over the years. Essentially, they are fellating their spoon, and it’s not pleasant to watch. 🙂

  36. I think table manners are very important and one should not feel foolish for expecting good manners from dining companions. Parents should give children a good grounding in table manners from a young age and it will stand to them for life, and from what I see around me, this is definitely not happening in some homes!
    One of the habits that really irratates me is when people persist in speaking with their mouths full but keep their hand in front of their mouths as a sort of food barrier? It is more of a trend than a habit I suppose but not an acceptable alternative to waiting until you finished eating. Think I am showing my age!