Table manners aren't dying. They are changing, though

Though the Emily Post-approved basics of "consideration, respect and honesty" still hold strong

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published November 15, 2023 1:30PM (EST)

Overhead of two men eating holiday meal (Getty Images/Maren Caruso)
Overhead of two men eating holiday meal (Getty Images/Maren Caruso)

In an October 1985 issue of the “The New York Times,” editors published what was essentially an obituary for dining etiquette, accompanied by a notecard-size illustration of dinner party guests committing various faux pas, from reaching for the rolls to sneezing into the soup . In “Table Manners: A Casualty of Changing Times,” writer William R. Greer argued that general manners had largely been lost on the upcoming generation of working professionals, an opinion supported by experts in the fields that track such social phenomena. 

“Over the last 20 years the fundamentals of ‘table manners,’ maneuvers intended to keep the appetites of dining companions intact, like closing the mouth to chew and sipping without slurping, seem to have been lost on many of America's young people,” Greer said. “In addition, a number of these young people seem unaware of the very essence of good manners, which is not to offend, according to the experts.” 

The historians, sociologists, teachers and etiquette experts whom Greer interviewed all generally agreed that, as he put it, dining standards had “reached a low for the century.” 

Again, that was in 1985. 

Now, nearly four decades later — in a period of profound social and political divide, on top of a general sense of anxiety and malaise stemming from experiencing a global pandemic and its continued fallout — I wonder what Greer would think of the state of dining etiquette and where exactly it fits into the daily lives of most Americans. 

To his point, there has undoubtedly been a huge shift over the last century in how table manners, and general societal etiquette, are both taught and implemented, as well as a growing understanding of how those largely Eurocentric social rules have been used to marginalize and discriminate against people from other cultures or backgrounds. When Greer’s experts were remarking on a decline in the fundamentals, they were referencing standards that are captured really well in a 1945 educational video simply called “Dinner Party.” 

"Like everyone else, she thinks her etiquette is perhaps not perfect, but good enough so that there are no glaring errors."

The video was produced by Simmel-Messervy, a company that specialized in “social engineering” films, which essentially operated as short public service announcements about topics related to courtesy and behavior, like “Let’s Give a Tea,” “Junior Prom,” “Introductions” and “Obligations.” In “Dinner Party,” the conceit is simple: 15-year-old Betty is hosting her first dinner party for her friend Bob’s birthday. Viewers are instructed by the incredibly dry narrator to look for mistakes in the party guests’ behavior and, unfortunately for Betty, things are off to a rough start.

“Like everyone else, she thinks her etiquette is perhaps not perfect, but good enough so that there are no glaring errors,” the narrator said. “She is proud of her table arrangement and thinks she deserves a word of congratulation — but the housekeeper must tell Betty that she has noticed a few errors.” 

A napkin is out of place. The butter knife has been separated from the butter dish. The table setting is missing water glasses. Betty quickly resets the room and the guests soon arrive. Over the next three courses, which span the 16-minute film, the narrator points out various mistakes, while also offering insight into the guests’ emotional states; Betty and Bob have the shakiest understanding of proper table manners and, as a result, spend much of the meal feeling insecure and inadequate. 

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Per the film, this is a natural consequence of not boning up on your “Emily Post.” 

“Poor manners can really interfere with the fun of the party,” the narrator deadpanned after Bob, who was gesticulating wildly while telling an exciting story, knocked over a quarter-full glass of milk. Again, the party resets, but a division is becoming apparent. Where Bob and Betty are fumbling through dinner, Bernie and Helen, one of the other couples at the dinner, are floating through the evening with ease because they have a handle on what’s socially acceptable. 

“They know that the object of correct etiquette is not to make life formal and dull, but to make it fully enjoyable,” the narrator declared. “There are reasons for each act of etiquette as in a man assisting a lady with her chair or the order in which people are served.” 

The inherent “do this, not that” of “Dinner Party” is reminiscent of the “Highlights for Children” comic strip “Goofus and Gallant,” which debuted in print in 1948, just three years after the video’s release. As “The Atlantic’s” Julie Beck wrote in June, the premise is as simple as it is effective: two panels, side by side, depicting two approaches to the same situation. 

“On the left, Goofus does the wrong thing. On the right, Gallant does the correct thing,” Beck wrote. “If Goofus is rude, Gallant is polite. If Goofus lies, Gallant tells the truth.” 

Beck’s survey of the comic, which turned 75 this summer, examines how the lessons it teaches have shifted over the decades — which, in turn, reflects the current state of etiquette. On one hand, some elemental truths regarding our behavior have remained pretty static. 

“Again and again, I saw Goofus pocket lost money while Gallant chased down the owner,” she wrote. “Goofus left a mess while Gallant tidied up; Goofus bullied and excluded other kids while Gallant welcomed them. If you crack open a December issue from any era, you’ll probably find Goofus being a greedy little gremlin about his Christmas presents, while Gallant rhapsodizes about the pleasures of giving to others”

However, a lot has changed. “Goofus and Gallant,” Beck wrote, has guided its young readers through the etiquette of taking polite messages on the home phone all the way through to being quiet during a parent’s Zoom meeting. This reinforces an important point: Etiquette shifts in real time. 

This reinforces an important point: Etiquette shifts in real time.

Do you remember how people started bumping elbows as a greeting during the pandemic? It would have been absolutely absurd to go up to someone in a professional setting in 2019 and attempt to get them to tap elbows, but a year later, you had politicians, professional athletes and college professors using the greeting (even if it still looked a little ridiculous). Overall, humans possess a nice plasticity when it comes to adapting to new codes of conduct, something that is seen every time a new social media platform is unveiled and, in relatively quick order, its users establish how to behave on it. 

While it may be tempting to think the inverse, I’m generally swayed by the idea that changes in etiquette reflect changes in society — not the other way around. 

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For instance, in Greer’s article for “The New York Times,” he said experts drew a correlation between the decline in table manners and the “demise of the traditional evening meal, when families gathered to eat and parents were quick to pounce on errant manners. They also point to the growth of fast food and ready-to-eat meals, and the fact that individual freedom has come to be valued over decorum.” 

That was true in 1985 and it’s arguably even truer now, which is why it’s perhaps tempting to declare table manners, or even just general manners, dead. Multiple publications, Reddit posts and morning rush-hour disc jockeys certainly have. 

That, however, ignores the mountain of evidence suggesting that people do care about behaving properly, even if that understandably looks different than it did in 1945. Just in the last week, pop culture has been saturated with the topic of etiquette: 

On cookbook author Alison Roman’s new podcast, “Solicited Advice,” a young dinner party host called in to ask about how to deal with a friend assuming they would bring their partner to the party, despite the fact that they weren’t explicitly invited. There was an entire subplot on the most recent “Bob’s Burgers” about the often ludicrous social mores of the adult cocktail party crowd. 1A rebroadcast a segment titled “The Problem with Politeness and the Matter with Manners” in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday, a prime occasion for etiquette-spotting. 

In each of these scenarios, it was interesting to see that the ultimate message delivered wasn’t grounded in an insistence on particular rules or regulations, but rather a broader push towards empathy and care, which very closely mimics the core of etiquette expert Emily Post’s work: “Good etiquette rests on a foundation of consideration, respect and honesty.” 

This isn’t to say that setting a good table or learning how to host a multi-course dinner party should become a lost art. It absolutely should not, but let’s also be real about the fact that we live in a world where more people are eating fast-casual than formal dinners. In that scenario, a little courtesy and respect for the employees and fellow diners — ordering politely, leaving the table relatively tidy, etcetera — are more important than which plastic fork you choose to use. 

Speaking of Post, for further proof that table manners aren’t dead, last October, Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning — the great-great grandchildren of Emily Post and co-presidents of The Emily Post Institute — released “Emily Post's Etiquette, The Centennial Edition.” Its scope has expanded, too. The book covers tech etiquette including video meetings, home security and tipping screens, as well as how to inquire about someone’s pronouns and use them politely in conversation. 

The book’s dining etiquette section is still expansive, but The Emily Post Institute helpfully released a “Top 10 Must Know Table Manners” list which details some basics on which most everyone can agree: chew with your mouth closed, keep your smartphone off the table, hold utensils correctly, come to the table clean, use your napkin, wait until you’re done chewing to take a drink, cut only one piece of food at a time, avoid slouching, don’t reach across the table and finally — and perhaps most importantly — bring your best self to the meal.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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