To communicate who we are by how we eat and drink may be more common then we first realize. The specific way we behave at a dinner table says a lot about who we are and where we come from. In this article I will try to explore this topic with some examples I hope are adequate.
When I was growing up my father made me and my sister hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right, we should not speak with food in our mouth open or keep our elbows on the table. My guess is that dad wanted to communicate that we were well-behaved, from a good family, and perhaps also instill some obedience. These are all quite common eating conventions in much of Europe and many of them communicate certain traits.
A great deal of table manners are used to communicate sophistication, education, civilization, respect and a good upbringing. It is perhaps at the dinner table that the new-rich struggles hardest; it is not east to pick the right spoon or to cut that tomato if you had no training. Table manners form an integral part of etiquette which are set rules of politeness and procedure, it is far from only an European idea and is present in many cultures like the Japanese and the Indian. These rules vary between cultures but commonly include the demonstration of respect and proper handling of utensils.
Just like abiding to these sets of dictated rules sends a message so does breaking them. It is no coincidence that teenagers tend to disobey them, much to the contempt of many older family members. Contempt for richer people can be manifested in behaviors that go against the set norms, in Sweden it could perhaps be to eat with only a fork or to drink from a can in a restaurant; to openly and consciously behave in a non-proper way is a sure way to demonstrate aversion to the established order in a society. Just like the choice of clothes can communicate traits such as social standing and political belonging so can table manners.
Fashion and trends also plays an integral part, if the rich and the famous are seen whisking out bubbles from sparkling wine it could soon become common practice. If some teenagers in a Hollywood blockbuster share a pizza eating with their hands it can make whole generations do the same. An interesting question is how much films from Hollywood has helped the spread of American fast food and the habit of eating in cars. Since trends are limited in time this also enters an aspect where how we eat change with how old a person is. In Sweden it was common to eat hamburgers with fork and knife until the 1970’s, only in the 2000’s did it really catch on in the northernmost parts of the country.
Eating manners can communicate many other things. To hold and drink from a glass in a certain way can indicate that a person is gay or feminine. To drink from a beer bottle in another can be a way of displaying masculine rebel attitude, pretty much like how the way a cigarette is smoked also can be a way to show others who you are (or perhaps more accurately: who you try to be). Cultural belonging can clearly be discerned around the dining table. The way glances are exchanged, cups held and utensils used. When people emigrate absorbing new manners is part of integration in the new culture, abstaining from it is a way to hang on to the old.
The idea that the little finger is pointed out while drinking is by many seen as something quite posh and unmanly, ideas of the origin are many. One theory has it that the extended little finger has its origin in a syphilis ridden Paris in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The disease attack the nervous system and one of the symptoms is how the fine motoric movements of the fingers are lost. To be able to drink your absinth while holding the little finger out was thus a way to communicate you were disease free and thus a viable sexual partner.
If I would sum this article up I would perhaps conclude that table manners function as vehicles of messages, both conscious and unconscious. These messages can be of social standing, education, sexuality, political belonging, cultural background and much more.