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Salon's social bootcamp: He says licking his fingers at the table is fine

Readers ask Fancy, our etiquette expert, how to navigate tricky social situations and live their best life


Kirsten Schofield
August 23, 2016 4:00PM (UTC)

Welcome to Salon's Social Bootcamp. Fancy is the pen name of Kirsten Schofield, a writer who spends her spare time considering modern etiquette, manners and social mores. If you have a question that's technical (Which fork do I use?) or theoretical (How shall I assess the unspoken rules of conduct at my new Pilates studio?), direct it to advice@salon.com and she’ll do her best to shepherd you in the direction of correct behavior.

Dear Fancy,

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My husband and I disagree about licking your fingers while eating messy foods such as Buffalo wings. He finds it appropriate to put his finger in his mouth to the second knuckle in order to get all the sauce and I do not. Who is right? Are there different rules depending on the location — for example, a sports bar versus a restaurant?

Finger-Licking Mad

Dear Licker,

Buffalo wings are a menace to a civilized society.

It may come as a great surprise to you, but Fancy does not, under any circumstances, eat wings. I tried, on several occasions, to find a way to do it with some modicum of grace. I even practiced in the privacy of my home with some takeout Buffalo Wild Wings to limited success. Eventually I decided that, much like what came of my desire to be a Victoria Secret model or to neatly fold a fitted sheet, for some things, I have to accept my limitations.

A lot of people think that this table manners stuff is, well, stuffy. And sure, some of it is. Knowing which one is the white wine glass and which is the red is something of a shibboleth, and a person who will shame you for not being sure is a jerk. The basics, though, are about showing respect and making other people comfortable.  

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There are different standards of table manners specific to the setting and company, but there are some rules that are static. Chewing with your mouth open, blowing your nose at the table and licking your hands are not acceptable in any circumstance. Even at home. Especially at home. You wouldn’t eat ribs at a business lunch with the president of your company, right? You want to make a good impression on her, and spilling pickle juice on your pants isn’t the path to seeming like an adult who really has it together. Consider the message you are sending to your nearest and dearest when you’re talking with your mouth full at the kitchen table. Even if it isn’t intentional, you’re saying, “I know that looking at half-masticated food is gross. I know better and I don’t care because it’s just you.”

Some of life’s greatest gustatory pleasures — crawfish, barbecue, powdered doughnuts, croissants, pho — are messy. There’s no need to forsake them (I never would). But you need to be self-aware. If you’re eating a Chipotle burrito and a little sauce gets on your hand, I won’t get too worked up about your licking a tiny bit off your fingertip once or twice during the meal. Anything beyond that is a job for a napkin. Having dinner at Masa? Don’t even think about it. Use your very fanciest manners (and please don’t forget to invite me next time).

Regards from the land of well-used table linens,

Fancy

***

Dear Fancy,

I’m getting married soon and we are registering for flatware. I’m lost. What do I really need? What can I skip?

Hungry at Bed Bath & Beyond

Dear Hungry,

Buy a bunch of plastic forks and throw them away after each meal. Done.

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No, wait, come back! I was kidding. Fancy is not very good at jokes.

At a minimum, you should have eight of the following: salad forks, dinner forks, teaspoons, tablespoons and table knives. That’s enough so you won’t have to do the dishes constantly but not so much that it’s a pain to find a place to keep them. After that, there are a couple of things to consider. Ask yourself a few questions: How many people are in my household? How often do I entertain? How much space do I have for storage?

It’s really easy to fall down the rabbit hole of lobster picks and grapefruit spoons and oyster knives. So be realistic about your needs. Do you love fondue? Register for those hilarious spear forks! I am partial to the ones that come with the color-coded handles so that I don’t accidentally mix saliva with anyone else while eating delicious melty cheese.

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Are you a vegetarian? Then there’s no real reason to request steak knives if they’re just going to get dusty in a drawer and eventually be taken to Goodwill.

Do you hate to host dinner parties? You don’t need more than just the basic set that I mentioned above unless you just like silverware.

Congratulations on your upcoming wedding. I hope you and your partner share a great many wonderful meals with whichever eating utensils you choose.

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Yours, tine after tine,

Fancy


Kirsten Schofield

MORE FROM Kirsten Schofield

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Advice Column Etiquette Manners Social Bootcamp



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