Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My thoughts on dinner etiquette

The anniversary dinner sparked several discussions about dinner etiquette.

I tried to do some research on the topic ahead of time, and found it frustrating.  Most etiquette guides focus on wedding etiquette, giving a sense that weddings were the only times etiquette mattered.  But what about more daily entertaining?  Why could I not find a magazine or website devoted to home entertaining, that wasn't heavily focused on food and recipes?

I did find two sources of helpful information.  Chowhound's "Not About Food" section had several long discussions about dinner etiquette.  GardenWeb's "Home Site" forum, the "Entertaining" section, also had some discussions, but the traffic seemed a little slow.

My own thoughts on how to behave at a dinner generally concur with a response by Karl S. on the Chowhound boards:

Unless the meal is clearly identified as potluck, the host is responsible for the hospitality. For all the food and drink and what not. 

The guest brings good manners, a sociable attitude, and gratitude to the host. It is also good form, except for routine dining, to bring a token of appreciation (aka the hostess gift) that does not require any work for the host to deal with. (If you bring flowers, offer to deal with them so that the host can continue hosting, for example). In lieu of that, the guest may offer to bring something at the host's discretion and according the guest's ability.

Guests do not unbidden bring food or wine intended for the meal unbidden. That used to be considered very rude, in fact, because it implied that the host would be insufficient in offering hospitality....

I love nothing better than having a herd of guests arrive empty-handed when I am arranging for a full-service dinner party, as it were.

If the dinner party is not routine (OK, I am conceding that some dinner parties are routine, though as a host I do not try to convey that to a guest), I will appreciate Gracious Notes afterwards...and I am not a stickler if they are a greeting card/note rather than Perfectly Proper plain stationary.

And I would love to be reciprocated. If I cannot think of a hostess gift, I will offer to bring something, but very discreetly and not be pushy about it. When nothing is needed, I will do as I outline above as a guest.

I disagree with Karl S. on some points.  First, I think gifts of food, in the form of sweets/snacks/fruit/condiment IS appropriate. (I'm thinking gifts of candy, fruit basket, holiday nut mix, Girl Scout cookies...things like that.)  Drinks are appropriate gifts.  However, one should not expect the food or drink to be served with the meal and hosts are not obligated to serve the food/drink at the meal.

For my OWN behavior, I was taught, and firmly believe, that one should never show up empty-handed to an event.  Whether the invitation is a Chinese restaurant lunch buffet, a casual backyard barbeque, or an apartment "hang out and drink", I bring something.  Alcohol, flowers, chocolates, unique preserves, a card--just something, not nothing.  If the gift is something I can't take into the restaurant, I'll leave it in the car, and make sure to give it to the host at the end of the event.  Also, in respectful disagreement with Karl, I will happily accept flowers as hostess gifts. ^_^

I think a dinner invitation is a dinner invitation, whether to a pizza parlor, or a nice restaurant, or to someone's home.  I think a reciprocal invite is a reciprocal invite: it doesn't have to be dinner, it could be an invite to a movie or a round of bowling.

On Chowhound, there was a discussion on birthday celebrations at restaurants.  There was agreement that there are three forms:  (1) At the end of the meal, the guests takes the bill away from the birthday celebrant, and split it among themselves.   (2) Each person, including the celebrant, pays for his or her own meal and    (3) The birthday celebrant pays for everyone.

Since there are options, and since there is not an agreed upon way of hosting such a dinner, I believe one should make it known which type of event it will be.  I don't think a person should organize their own party if they are expecting others to pay for his meal, but the organizer should make it known to the guests before they accept the invite that the party will operate under scenario (1). It seems the most fair for everyone.  A person may invite others to their own party in situations (2) and (3), but they should word the invitation to denote which one it is (asking others to "join" vs. saying that you are "hosting").

In the same spirit of clarity, I think that if I were to throw a party at a restaurant where meals were included, but alcoholic beverages were not, I should put it on the invitation. That way, there would be no surprises for anyone.  I think to say that you are "hosting", without any comment, means that you pay for food AND drink.

One final thought.  When looking up searching the web for dinner etiquette, I came across this passage from the Bible's book of Luke.

12Then Jesus said to his host, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,14and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."   (Luke 14: 12-14)

I've decided that as part of my anniversary dinner, I will make a donation to a local food bank.

(The penny remains)


Nojh said...

Etiquette is a set of social rules designed to help people understand how to act and react in social situations. At their most basic they're created to help put people at ease when in unfamiliar surroundings. Like of like standardizing the layout of a HEB or McDonalds in all the towns across the US.

The thing about etiquette is that in order to be effective, all people in the social situation must have learned and at least subconsciously agreed to the rules of etiquette being put forth, otherwise etiquette does the exact opposite of what it was designed to do: It makes people feel nervous, out of place, and silly/stupid.

American society is a "melting pot" of cultures, as they tried to tell us constantly in school. Which means that the rules of etiquette for American society vary considerably differently based upon your heritage.

On top of that, American society puts a significant emphasis upon economic status. So what economic status you were at when you grew up helps shape what etiquette you know.

And even further on top of that, you have the growth of information technology, which has broken and re-arranged so much social interaction that it has seemingly shattered a lot of rules of etiquette.

It also doesn't help that formalized etiquette like you are describing tends to be social structures only built by people who have leisure time, which historically has been the "idle" rich. American society grants almost everybody leisure time which has helped create unofficial and less structures etiquette rules.

And plenty of other factors that I'm sure I'm forgetting.

The point is that this helps explain why you aren't finding a lot of etiquette based knowledge on the internet. Because you've likely searched the mostly American section of the internet and any etiquette rules you've found likely related back to British/Victorian/Colonial etiquette standards, and perhaps on the outside chance: Pre-civil war southern society etiquette. These were societies which put a lot of emphasis on social etiquette because they had large groups of people who enjoyed "excessive" amounts of leisure.

Now this isn't to say that formal etiquette rules shouldn't be observed, but I think it is better that you actually talk with your friends and family and social circles about it rather than attempting to research independently and assuming that your social circle follows the rules you have found.

There are also other etiquette systems you should consider looking up/exploring. The most common and unaffected etiquette rules in American society are the "business etiquette" rules. The only thing that has changed there significantly in the past few decades is fashion and how you treat women.

There is also academia etiquette, which is generally more defined by the university you're at than as a whole, but it deals largely with how you approach professors, researchers, how you write and submit research papers, when its okay to reference people's works, etc.

As for dinner etiquette. I wasn't raised with a lot of dinner parties that I can remember. Generally I consider it polite to ask the host if there is anything I can bring to help with a dinner, or if not, offer to help in some fashion while at the party, unless it is obvious that the host has provided entertainment of some type (such as being over to watch a movie). I also consider arriving on-time or a little late (no more than 15 minuets) to be more acceptable than arriving early or extremely late (30 minuets or more). Call or notify if you need to arrive early or extremely late.

And being close friends with people means you can ignore more and more social etiquette, in my opinion.

Joseph Joestar said...

I agree to a point with Nojh; people tend to be more informal, and it's generally alright to be more relaxed when it comes to social mores...However, I don't think it excuses you from being a dick or an ingrate. Hijacking conversations, being generally rude, or hell...not even saying "thanks" when someone picked up the tab is a dick move. I've noticed this is a problem with a lot of people in our unconventional social circle.

I guess the bottom line is, I'm not perfect, but I try to be a gracious guest if possible: bring a gift or booze to a party, say thanks, and offer to pick up the tab when invited to dinner. If anything, it feeds my martyr complex.

kateandmouse said...

This was probably not your intent, but I think I'll have to remember to bring something next year!

Teashell said...

Nojh: Thank goodness for friends, right?! I know that I've said and done numerous rude and questionable things, and I'm very thankful that my friends have overlooked them. Even so, I view it as part of my duty as a friend to learn from my faux pas and become more polite. I want to treat my friends with respect, and I think part of that respect is respecting the level of etiquette that *they* are comfortable with.

America is a melting pot of cultures, but I think that that fact makes etiquette more important, not less. Since you don't know exactly what the other person expects, you err on the side of caution, and act as politely as you know how. If it is too formal, then they'll let you know. If you seem a little on the rude side, at best they can see that you're making an effort to be polite.

You characterize dinner etiquette as formal--I disagree. No mater what your social class, what era you live in, whether you live in New York or the rural Sahara, people share food with one another, and there are expectations that people have when such an event takes place. Those rules might be "The chief gets food first", or "Excuse yourself from the table if you are going to have an extended cell phone conversation"--but those rules exist. And, in America, melting pot as it is, there is a set of rules that are generally followed. Are there variations? Sure. But as you pointed out, if a business person from, say Japan, were to come to the US for dinner, there are certain things that he can expect to be different than if he were to have dinner in his home country. An American style of etiquette exists.

I think that the reason I can't find things written down, is that there aren't many instances where such things need to be written down--as in, most people don't have 5 course meals, with multiple plates, sets of silverware, cups and saucers. If I'm in America, looking at American websites, no, I'm not going to find stuff written on "regular, everyday" dining, because, well, that's been assumed that, as an American living in America, you already know what this internalized etiquette is.

For example, I don't think one is going to find much written etiquette of moving in internal corridors. But etiquette exists: move at a walking pace, facing forward, and if someone is coming in an opposite direction, move to the right of the corridor, allowing him to pass on the left. You're just supposed to know this stuff. This is the one reason I think being in an airport is fun--you can run through the terminals, weave through people going both ways, do some sideways skips--and people shrug and think you're trying to catch a flight. Do this inside your office building, and people think it's rude--"No running in the halls!"

I agree with you that the best way to find out what is polite or not is to ask. But it's an awkward question to ask, because, once again, you're supposed to already know this stuff, and second, it's considered bad manners to try to school someone on etiquette (unless you're actually at an etiquette school). Luckily, thanks to Miss Manners and such, we have advice columns, which, if you're looking for something a little more populist, you can crowd source from an appropriate online forum. True, this might not specifically match your specific group etiquette dynamic, but you can get a good feel of generally accepted principles. This is at least a basis of your expectations.

Teashell said...

So in my case, I didn't look for Emily Post type advice, but I'm suggesting Chowhound. Chowhounders might be a little better off economically than the average American, but they still cook their own food, rather than have servants cook it for them. (I did come across dinner advice from 1920's Emily Post, that stated that a hostess should go over the seating arrangements with the butler, and that it wasn't important for her to know what was being served for dinner, because that was the domain of the cook.) The Chowhounders live in 21st century America and entertain friends that live in 21st century America. I believe that any consensus that their groups form, is a good enough reflection of contemporary acceptable dinner behavior (with variations).

Nojh said...


Just to clear up something. I never said that etiquette wasn't important. I was attempting to explain why etiquette in the modern American world is hard to determine.

And yes I do think of etiquette as formal. Especially when it is studied and considered a set of rules. Otherwise it falls under the heading of courtesy or being submissive (to take the extreme descriptor).

An no. I don't believe you are correct that there is an American based etiquette system just because someone from another etiquette system expects it to be different here. I think that proves that America has at least one etiquette system.

I'm of a mixed position when it comes to how appropriate it is to ask how to behave. It seems utterly silly that one should be embarrassed to ask. It would seem that if people around you actually cared about etiquette then they would be happy to help you learn, rather than attempt to cause you embarrassment. After all etiquette is about making people feel comfortable about their social interactions with others. I don't disagree that sometimes I feel like I'm "supposed to know this stuff" but that seems like a horrible double standard if the tradition for etiquette systems is to not write it down.

Here is a better theory: Etiquette systems become less and less restrictive (to be defined as: Less rules about how to do something and more rules about what not to do) as the social group it encompasses grows in size.

What this means is that in a small town filled with at most 200 people, it is easy to say that everybody /must/ go to church on Sunday and that the only way to break your bread is to do so with your bare hands but all other food must be eaten with gloves and utensils.

But as the social group widens to include more and more people, social deviants an outliers will grow more numerous simply due to population and percentages, so in order for the etiquette system to better encompass everyone, the rules shift more towards what one shouldn't do.

The only rules that might remain in the paradigm of 'You should do this' instead focus on particular events: Weddings, Funerals, Dinner Parties. This is because these events tend to have outside traditional forces (such as religion) that help aid etiquette systems.

But even these systems might be infiltrated by other factors such as other etiquette systems from other societies.

Theories mind you. I'm not a sociologist.

Teashell said...

Nojh: Regarding your original comment, I thought you were saying that etiquette applied only to the higher social classes. If I misread your comment, I apologize. I disagree with you that etiquette is formal.

I guess our difference lies in how to define "etiquette". I think of it as all the rules that define acceptable behavior in a culture. And in my world, everything is defined by rules. Maybe not written rules, but rules nonetheless. Most of these rules are internal, taught to us as children, or observed from parents. Things like, if you are introduced to someone, and they offer you their hand, you accept it and shake it nearly automatically. Whereas, someone with different cultural norms might pause to think "Why is this person holding out his hand?"

I think that there are so many things that we do that we don't consciously think of doing--like, when you knock on a door, at what height do you knock?

I would guess that you knock at approximately shoulder height or a little above, with your middle set of knuckles, fingers facing downwards and toward the door. Am I correct? But why shoulder height? Why the middle set of knuckles, rather than the bottom set of knuckles? Why curl your fingers all, why not use an open hand?

Now, I'm not sure anyone would get offended if I knocked on a door with an open hand rather than a closed one, but I think etiquette is like this in a way, it's mostly internal if it's something we do on a day to day basis.

I don't think that because there may be multiple etiquette systems in America means that there isn't an American etiquette system. It is possible to find a system of behavior that the majority of Americans agree on. For example, don't kill kittens. I think the vast majority of Americans would be offended if you stood out in your front yard with a knife and a box of kittens, and started stabbing them one by one.

As for asking about etiquette, I was unclear. I mean, I think it's considered not appropriate asking at the particular moment when you are unsure about the rule. As in, before food is served, it's OK to ask someone about which forks to use, but once the food is in front of you and everyone else is eating, you look a little silly asking.

Or, say, before you meet someone, you ask for advice on whether or not to bow. But when that person is in mid-bow in front of you, it's a little late to ask, "Ok, at this point do I bow back to you, or would you be OK if I wait until you stand up, and then I shake your hand?"

I agree with you about how in a more diverse society the rules focus on what not to do. But I'm no sociologist either. : )

As with everything else, context matters. And manners/etiquette/politeness are always evolving. What is considered polite today, might seem condescending tomorrow. Or what is considered rude today may be acceptable tomorrow. I guess that's the other difficulty with manners. You have to keep up.

Teashell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Teashell said...

Kate: We hope you enjoyed the dinner this year, and we hope you will be able to enjoy it next year, even if you can't bring a gift. ; )

kateandmouse said...

Teashell: We did enjoy dinner this year - and Nathan enjoyed the leftovers! And as always, we look forward to next year!