Don’t put your elbows on the table, don’t talk with your mouth full. Who made up these rules, and what are they for?
It was once an article of faith, in some Australian families, that one should be fully equipped to dine with the Queen.
It wasn’t that the doorbell might ring and it would be Her Majesty popping in for a spot of lunch. It was more that one should know how to handle oneself – and a dizzying array of cutlery, glasses and goblets, dinner rolls and butter pats, troublesome foods and fellow diners – should one crack an invite to a fancy regal do.
Nowadays, dinner with the Queen is less likely to be on our minds but table manners still matter. Attitudes to them vary, however.
Adhering to them is a sign that you value “the whole food, eating thing”, says a Melbourne hairdresser whose parents migrated from Mauritius, a former French and British colony. They are a way to show respect, particularly for one’s elders, says a chef who grew up in Malaysia. They help to build relationships, says an etiquette expert in the United States. They can reflect an upstairs-downstairs morality designed by the elite, so they remain “the cherry at the top of the tree”, says a Catholic priest who grew up poor in Melbourne.
And yet, every family follows table manners in its own way, from those who pepper their urbanity with the odd broken rule – “Whoops, I may have just passed the port to the right!” – to those whose impulses override etiquette – “I totally [crunch, crunch, crunch] disagree!”
Even in families where no one mentions elbows, there are always behaviours at play when sharing meals. And there are many common threads to the rules, even as differences in table etiquette across cultures have long vexed diplomats, traders, travellers and other citizens of the world.
So, what are considered “good” table manners? Says who? And why can’t you put your elbows on the table?
A (rather sanitised) version of a medieval feast from the biblical book of Job, painted in Cremona, Italy. But notice the dog scrounging for scraps.Credit:Getty Images
Where did table manners come from?
The custom of families meeting for meals goes back two million years “to the daily return of protohominid hunters and foragers to divide food up with their fellows”, writes Margaret Visser in her fascinating classic The Rituals of Dinner (1992). From her home in France, Visser says, “I start the book by saying there’s no such thing as a society with no table manners. And that’s why I started with cannibals because even they have table manners – very strict ones – that make a big difference between eating an animal and eating a person.”
Table manners express “all kinds of usually unconscious prejudices”, she says. “You can find out a huge amount about any society by watching them eat: who’s higher than you, who’s missed out, who’s not invited.”
“Do not roll the rice into a ball.”
Some rules are codified. The Book of Rites, a group of texts attributed to Confucius, declared that mealtimes separated savagery from civilisation, writes Jonathan Clements. In his intriguing story of Chinese food, The Emperor’s Feast (2021), Clements quotes the ancient book to illustrate what being “civilised” might have looked like in the 5th century BC: “Do not roll the rice into a ball; do not bolt down various dishes; do not swill down [the soup] …”
Centuries of Islamic dining etiquette were drawn on by Muhammad Badr al-Din al-Ghazzi of Damascus in his 16th-century Table Manners, notes University of Cambridge historian Helen Pfeifer in her article The Gulper and the Slurper: A Lexicon of Mistakes to Avoid While Eating with Ottoman Gentlemen (2020). Ghazzi, she says, warns against dining types such as the annihilator (al-mukharrib) who leaves “only scattered bones in his wake”and – shudder – “the one who leaves greasy traces” (al-mudassim).
Sociologist Norbert Elias put 1000 years of European manners under the microscope in his 1939 study The Civilizing Process, studded with gems fit to make readers chortle now that manners have evolved. The 13th-century German poet Tannhauser spells it out: “It is not decent to poke your fingers into your ears or eyes, as some people do, or to pick your nose while eating. These three habits are bad.”
By the 13th century, courtesy (how to behave in ) was gaining currency with a warrior nobility in Europe, writes Elias. The kingdom of Provence and the city-states and principalities now known as Italy were trendsetters (the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus, from 711 until the late 1400s, were no slouches when it came to refined courtly dining, either).
“Beware no breath from you rebounde.”
The English caught on and by 1392 poet Geoffrey Chaucer was poking fun at “curtesy” in The Canterbury Tales. We meet a nun whose “upper lip was always wiped so clean, That on her cup no speck or spot was seen, Of grease, when she had drunk her draught of wine.”
When merchant and diplomat William Caxton set up a newfangled printing press in England in 1476, it was no surprise that a book of manners was among the first titles he cranked out. Caxton’s Book of Curtesye (1477) spoke unabashedly of belching and farting at the table – “Beware no breath from you rebounde” – as did Erasmus of Rotterdam’s On Civility in Children (1530), which warned that someone fidgeting in a chair looked like they were trying to squeeze out a fart.
Erasmus of Rotterdam urged children not to fidget at the table,Credit:Getty Images
Such talk of bodily functions was typically medieval in its directness, noted Elias. Life was a visceral affair. If you wanted to be delicate, you used three fingers to pick up your meat, and you refrained from offering a half-eaten hunk to someone else, even if you liked them. But the nuanced advice of Erasmus, in particular, hinted at a change in the wind – the impression you made mattered. Power was shifting from feudal lords to a new kind of aristocracy for whom delicacy and civility were at a premium.
“Not abruptly but very gradually the code of behaviour became stricter,” Elias contends. “The sense of what to do and what not to do in order not to offend or shock others became subtler.”
By 1605, the late French King Henri III was being satirised for having chased peas around his plate with a pretentious implement called a fork, writes Visser, and in the lavish royal court of Versailles under Louis XIV, florid displays of feasting were de rigueur. It’s thought the word “etiquette” (ticket) came from place cards, which indicated where each guest was to sit at banquets. While a hereditary title could get you a place at the table, soon enough money could buy a way in, too. Learning the rules was a high-stakes enterprise for the bourgeoisie – one didn’t want to commit a faux pas (false step).
A banquet at Versailles in the presence of Napoleon, 1854.Credit:Getty Images
Culinary historian Professor Barbara Santich at the University of Adelaide pored over the texts on table manners from these times. “Very often when books of etiquette are done, it’s to enable people to improve their social situation,” she says. “After the revolution in France in 1789, the ‘father of food writing’, Grimod de la Reyniere, writes a number of books about how to eat in a restaurant and how to entertain at home, and he said, precisely, it is for the nouveau-riche who have flooded into the capital.”
“You would have a teaspoon and a coffee spoon and a soup spoon and dessert spoon …”
But the peak of fusty formal dining may well have been in the 19th century, says Santich. It was by then accepted that cutlery was a good idea, and the Industrial Revolution meant factories could pump out the stuff. Where once you had to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, now a middle-class person could afford a whole set. “You had a fish knife, an oyster fork, a cheese knife,” says Santich. “You would have a teaspoon and a coffee spoon and a soup spoon and dessert spoon.” Crockery proliferated. “There were tea cups and little coffee cups and saucers … A dinner service might have a dozen different items for each person. For each item of cutlery, there had to be a new rule.”
The perils of eating too quickly, illustrated in “Deportmental ditties: and other verses” in London in 1900. Credit:Getty Images
But in the colonies, manners were more relaxed, right?
“I was brought up to have table manners,” says celebrated chef and author Tony Tan, who grew up in coastal Kuantan in Malaysia, eating Indian, Chinese and Malay cuisines with chopsticks, hands, spoon and fork. The Federation of Malaya became independent of the British in 1957. Tan’s parents ran rest houses for the British, his mother cooking roast chicken and trifle for the guests.
One of Tan’s earliest memories is of watching Indian road workers eat lunch. “They unbundled their bag of food. They were eating with their fingers, and I was salivating,” he recalls. Seeing the little boy looking peckish, a woman rolled some rice and curry into a ball and flicked it deftly into his mouth. “I burst into tears because it was so hot; chilli hot. It was like the pain and the ecstasy of it all; too hot to eat, but so beautiful to swallow,” Tan says.
Tony Tan as a young boy in Kuantan, Malaysia. Credit:Courtesy Tony Tan
It was into this pungent cultural mix that a Mrs Windsor (no connection to the Queen) arrived to instil “Britishness” into “us natives”. “All I can remember was very heavy, red velvet curtains and all the cutlery was being laid out on the table,” says Tan. “What is a fork? Knife? Serving knife? All those things that put the fear of God into all of us. And then we’ve got to start eating, from the fish knife to the oyster fork. And that was really very daunting, particularly for an eight- or nine-year-old who’d never actually ever eaten an oyster in his life – those horrible, squiggly-looking things!”
“You’ve got to invite your elders to start eating, or say, ‘We are now eating’ so the elders can say, ‘Go ahead.’”
Tan, who went on to train as a chef in Paris and London, is an expert in Asian cuisines from Cantonese to Malaysian, which he teaches at his school in country Victoria. But the etiquette, particularly of his Chinese heritage, has remained. “You’ve got to invite your elders to start eating, or say, ‘We are now eating’ so the elders can say, ‘Go ahead’,” he explains. “It’s a sign of respect to people who are older than you.”
Tony Tan in the 1970s with his mother outside the family’s kopitiam (coffee shop) in Kuantan.Credit:Courtesy Tony Tan
In a socially mobile colony, it was manners, more than a family coat of arms, that “reveal[ed] to us the lady and the gentleman”, declared the Australian Etiquette, or the Rules and Usages of the Best Society in the Australasian Colonies in 1885. “Manners and morals are indissolubly allied,” it contends, “and no society can be good where they are bad.”
Naturally, it was “the duty of Australian women” to ensure the development of this moral fibre, with a view to Australia becoming “the best society of any country”. Colonists were advised to practise their table etiquette at home, even when eating alone, lest they become “stiff and awkward” when out.
A picnic at Freshwater Beach in Sydney, c. 1890s.Credit:Tyrell Collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences
Among the many little points to be observed: “If anything unpleasant is found in the food, such as a hair in the bread or a fly in the coffee, remove it without remark.” (It’s hard to imagine anyone today keeping quiet about a
fly in their macchiato.) As Santich points out, “sometimes you’ve got to look at the books as trying to correct a situation, not necessarily reflecting [it].”
Free from the strictures of British deportment, colonials did relax some rules. “The picnic became terribly popular in Australia,” she says, “much more so than in England. The weather had something to do with it, but it was also symptomatic of an attitude: we can be a little bit more free and easy, and possibly egalitarian – we can do our own thing. The picnic was, in a way, a
deliberate infringement of table manners.”
Cut one piece of food, put the knife down, transfer an upturned fork to the knife hand then use it to bring the cut morsel to the mouth.
Barbecues do away with some of the rules, too, says Visser. “Even having a table means we choose who we’re going to feed, so the barbie is a wonderful way of breaking that down.” They also dissolve the hierarchy that comes with sitting at a table, although she suspects not entirely, noting how it tends to be the men “doing the fire”.
Today in Australia, says Santich, “You look at people in restaurants. There are ways that some people hold their knife and fork that would have been frowned on, or even a more American style [where diners cut one piece of food, put the knife down, transfer an upturned fork to the knife hand, then use it to bring the cut morsel to their mouth] – you wouldn’t have been allowed to do that.”
Pamela Eyring, president of the Protocol School of Washington, gives a tutorial in dining etiquette.Credit:Courtesy The Protocol School of Washington
Surely, in the United States – the land of the free – table manners are more relaxed? Pamela Eyring, who heads the Protocol School of Washington, says Americans, like Australians, “are more relaxed and more casual people”.
As with anywhere, table manners in the States are all about context. Take hamburgers. “When I was the chief of protocol at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, we had German military counterparts who were visiting, and they wanted to go to an authentic cheeseburger restaurant. So, I took them, and they [wanted] to use a fork and knife. [But] I said, ‘Culturally, you have to pick it up and bite it – it tastes better this way’,” she laughs. In upscale restaurants, though, she uses cutlery to eat her burger.
The allure of the old world was sent up in a 1994 episode of TV comedy Seinfeld, when a trend catches on for eating chocolate bars with knife and fork. “Forgive me for trying to class up this place,” George Costanza says to colleagues at the New York Yankees as he slices into a chocolate bar on a plate. A co-worker deadpans, “What the hell are you doing?” Costanza waves his forkful of chocolate in the air: “I am eating my dessert. How do you eat it – with your hands?”
What is behind table manners?
”A meal is always both love and violence,” says Visser. “When I gave lectures on this, [people would say], ‘There’s no violence at the table, what are you talking about?’ .” And yet there is a distinct possibility of violence “when you’re sitting around with knives and forks and you’re all hungry,” says Visser. “If ever there’s a place for violence, there it is.”
Rupert Wesson, academy director at Debrett’s – an authority on how to behave and who’s who among the British peerage since 1769 – also nominates avoiding violence as an ancient driver of etiquette. “If you actually sat down for a meal, to a certain, extent you were vulnerable. Was the food poisoned? Would that knife I’d just given a stranger end up being plunged into my chest? So [today], it’s rude to wave your knife, point your knife. The knife should never really come up much above the height of the plate.”
“If you pass someone a knife, take the point in your hand, and offer him the handle, for it would not be polite to do otherwise.”
As Tan notes, in Chinese cuisine “everything is cut up into small pieces, so there’s no need to use a knife”. (It’s also considered rude to point at someone with chopsticks.)
That knives give us the jitters explains a few things: why the cutting edge must face the plate in a setting; why we are taught not to hold cutlery in our fists, like weapons; and why Claude Calviac’s advice, in Civilite in 1560, still stands: “If you pass someone a knife, take the point in your hand, and offer him the handle, for it would not be polite to do otherwise.” It’s also why table knives are so blunt, evolving from spikes to double-edged blades to … rounded off. Only steak knives have survived to be sharp and pointy.
There are more positive reasons for table manners, too.
In the Punjabi village where chef and restaurateur Jessi Singh grew up, families ate together sitting on jute mats on the floor. Some of his friends did not have enough to eat. “The biggest manners would be, you can’t leave anything, and you eat happily whatever you get in front of you,” he says.
The four fingers of the right hand create a cup and, using the bent thumb, “you just slowly put food in your mouth without opening your mouth too much”.
“Food is such a sacred thing in India, when you touch food, and it goes in your mouth, you bring all those positive elements of your life: you work so hard to get there, that you are able to eat,” he says.
It’s little wonder Singh is troubled any time he sees dishes left unfinished or food going to waste at his restaurants in the US and Australia.
Restaurateur and chef Jessi Singh: “You just slowly put food in your mouth …”Credit:Eamon Gallagher
Grasping at food is just not the done thing. “If you think about something really simple such as reaching across the table,” says Wesson, “and everyone says, ‘Gosh, that’s rude, we don’t do that’, you can even run that back [in history]: that’s the idea of grabbing more than your share.“
Tan watches in horror when diners pile portions of every single dish on offer into their bowl of rice in one go. They should pick “very gently and politely” at dishes on a communal table, he says, “and if you’ve touched that piece of parson’s nose [on a chicken], you’ve got no choice but to pick it up and put it on to your plate.”
Slouching is poor form, too, thus “Sit up straight!” Every place at a table has a boundary made up of the cutlery and the space between chairs, says Visser.
Keeping your elbows tucked in, and not spread out on the table, is a way of not invading your neighbour’s space (which might, in the end, cause violence). An exception, she says, is the diner who places their elbow with an “elegant lightness” that makes it clear they are not supporting themselves on the table and don’t need to do so, and who has shown in everything else they do that they “have earned this nonchalance”.
Rupert Wesson, right, on exercises with the British Army in Canada in 1993. Credit:Courtesy Rupert Wesson
Before he coached etiquette, Wesson was an officer in the British Army, suiting up for regimental dinners in barracks “with all the sort of stiff formalities one might associate with British etiquette”. But he also mucked in for more rustic meals in Bosnia, Iraq and Sierra Leone. During his deployment in West Africa, in a team of 25 soldiers from 17 nations, meals were “absolutely the thing that bonded us together”.
At times, though, especially with memories fresh of the deadly Ebola virus, and other bugs still afoot, the role of hygiene in driving etiquette was heightened. “You would eat in a way that was not messy. You wouldn’t use your knife and fork in the communal bowl,” he recalls.
Rupert Wesson with his spaniels, Tilly, left, and Bert.Credit:Courtesy Rupert Wesson/Debrett’s
In India, hand-washing is a given. “You’re using the right hand to eat food because your left hand you use for your bum,” says Singh. “In India and most parts of the world, we still use squat toilets, and you use running water to clean yourself.”
“Not putting too much in your mouth, not talking with your mouth full and not wiping your hands on the tablecloth.”
Hygiene is behind many of the manners Santich studied from 14th and 15th- century Europe, which were not unlike the ones drummed into her as a child. “Not putting too much in your mouth, not talking with your mouth full and not wiping your hands on the tablecloth. The three of them I would call simple hygiene that would arouse disgust if you did them,” she notes.
Film director Quentin Tarantino, no stranger to gore, reportedly said the only film scene he ever found truly disturbing was the Mr Creosote sketch in Monty Python’s 1983 The Meaning of Life. In it, a projectile-vomiting glutton played by Terry Jones is attended to by an obsequious maitre d’ played by John Cleese. The provocations to disgust are all there. Nobody wants to be a Mr Creosote, nor to sit near one, not anywhere.
Can you have bad table manners and succeed?
Most senior US military leaders have good table manners, says Pamela Eyring, but not everyone was taught the finer points of formal dining. On attaining the rank of brigadier-general or senior executive service positions, air force leaders are sent to what used to be called charm school. She says many later lament that they didn’t learn the lessons earlier.
Eyring started her working life as a stenographer at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base but was its chief of protocol by the time she left 23 years later, rolling out red carpets for visiting presidents including Bill Clinton. Any head of state will have a team to advise on etiquette, she says, but “they have gaps, they’re humans … they forget, or get casual. I mean, you might get sick”. George H.W. Bush famously threw up in the lap of Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa while suffering from gastro during a state dinner in 1992.
Pamela Eyring as chief of protocol for Air Force Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio c. 2000.Credit:Courtesy Pamela Eyring
“Meals are a tool of the trade both in conveying messages and forming relationships,” says Richard Rigby. As a diplomat from 1975 until 2001 in Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, London and Tel Aviv, he researched etiquette before each posting but learnt “tricks for young players” on the job.
He recalls a Chinese vice-minister rushing around tables at a dinner at the Australian ambassador’s residence in Beijing just moments before guests entered, saying, “No, no!” as he switched place names. Although they had planned the occasion “by the book”, the Australians seemed to have erred in seating their guests by ministerial title rather than Communist Party rank.
Richard Rigby at a Chinese-Australian wedding in 2021.Credit:Courtesy Richard Rigby
Sometimes, the meal is the message. When John Hewson visited Beijing as Australia’s opposition leader in 1990, he was one of the first Western leaders to do so after Chinese troops had killed protesters in Tiananmen Square. He declined to attend the Asian Games “to avoid being the focus of propaganda”.
He was duly given the bum’s rush. “The warmth of the initial introductions faded as the meetings proceeded,” he later wrote, “to the point where, at the last formal banquet, a 13-course meal was served in about 12 minutes.”
Bob Hawke declines a cigarette from Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping during their meeting in Beijing in 1986. Richard Rigby is second from left. Credit:AP
Rigby, who was there too, chuckles.“Normally, you would have an hour-and-a-half. Courses were whipped away before you had a chance to get into them – I’ve never witnessed anything quite like it,” he recalls.
As part of his job, Rigby ate sheep’s eyes and camel hump – “sometimes it’s just a test to see if you can” – and had his drinking limits tested thoroughly. Feigning a heart condition, saying you are a teetotaller or, if desperate, emptying your glass of clear spirits under the table were all diplomatic exit strategies.
Rigby, who is now an emeritus professor at the Australian National University’s Centre on China in the World, notes that leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption push has meant more modest banquets and less “weaponised drinking” – a “great relief” for diplomats.
Father Bob Maguire wields the tongs at a community meal in St Kilda.Credit:George Haig
So, what is the point of table manners today?
“There’s etiquette and there’s etiquette,” says Father Bob Maguire, a priest since 1960. “The best etiquette is to make sure that you put other people first.” Just as sit-down meals can exclude people, they can also welcome people in.
Maguire hosts a big Christmas lunch in Melbourne every year. “We have 100 people sitting there with knives and forks and plates and God knows what they haven’t seen before, but they do their best,” he says. “The best manners is to make sure that other people feel comfortable in your presence.
“Etiquette is more about care and consideration, and all of those things that allow everyone to sit down at the table as equals, to share food and to feel comfortable doing it.”
“The best manners is to make sure that other people feel comfortable in your presence.”
There’s an apocryphal story, says Wesson, about a Queen (in most accounts, Queen Victoria) entertaining guests and everyone being served prawns, which, according to etiquette, should have been broken open with the hands. The diner was provided with a small bowl of warm water to rinse their fingers. But at this meal, a foreign dignitary picked up his finger bowl and drank from it. The Queen, without missing a beat, picked up hers and drank from it, too.
“Etiquette is more about care and consideration,” says Wesson, “and all of those things that allow everyone to sit down at the table as equals, to share food and to feel comfortable doing it.” He points to a “weaponising” of etiquette where people are “consciously and overtly” judged for having “incorrect” table manners. “The sort of people who would notice and make a mental note probably aren’t the sort of people you want to be dining with anyway,” he says.
Another good reason for table manners, says Visser, is that they provide a kind of false morality. “You’re behaving as though you are virtuous,” she says. “It’s not real virtue, but if you pretend to be virtuous, then virtue might occur.” Even people who behave very badly must at least behave themselves at lunch, she laughs. “You can’t get out of it, in other words.”
In this way, etiquette sets the scene for something we all care about deeply. “The reason why you don’t want the violence is because you want the love. If you think about it, every single religion, without exception, is based on a sacred meal. If you’re eating together, it’s love. You’re sharing food. You have consideration for others. You pass the mustard. You don’t shout and jostle and scream. All the things that table manners are supposed to do, it’s because the rule symbolises love.”
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