Tuesday 4 January 2011

Efficiency over etiquette

At the Mont Pelerin meetings last year, I was seated next to a Kiwi resident of reasonably longish acquaintance. More British than the Queen and always with an eye on etiquette, he kindly informed me that I'd been using my fork incorrectly - apparently for my whole life. His preferred method made it well neigh impossible to eat. And so I loved reading Scott Adams:
Undaunted, Shelly went on to demonstrate her point, holding a knife in her right hand, and a fork in her left hand with the tines pointed inexplicably downward. Her index finger was on the back of each utensil, and she explained that you should continue holding the knife even while you're not sawing on a dead animal.

Against all odds, Shelly's words penetrated the fog of my feeding frenzy. As her explanation sunk in, I started to go into traumatic etiquette shock. That's the feeling you get when you realize that for several decades people have watched you eat and probably compared you unfavorably to a stoned raccoon on garbage day.

The world started moving in slow motion as I looked around the dining room to verify this stunning revelation. Sure enough, every adult diner was using the method Shelly described. How could I have gone my entire life without noticing? I was shocked and ashamed.
Yup, same thing. And his excuse is identical to mine:
In my defense, I grew up in a small town, in a farming environment. We valued efficiency over ritual. Inefficiency was synonymous with stupidity. If there had been a way to eat faster by somehow involving your ass cheeks, that's how I would have learned to do it. If someone sneezed where I grew up, there was no reason to say "God Bless you," because either God was already handling it or he didn't exist. God didn't need a middle man to handle a simple sneezing transaction.
Etiquette rules, like the downward fork tines rule, that deliberately hobble the person making the display have a signalling value: it's the peacock's tail. Folks who've been able to spend hundreds of hours practicing how to eat in a deliberately hobbled fashion are then able to demonstrate finesse in that form of eating. Everyone else at the table will recognize them as being from the leisured class, whose parents either had sufficient servants to spend time drilling that technique into the children, or who invested that time in lieu of other pursuits in early adulthood. Either way, you're demonstrating that you've had time and leisure to spare. Scott almost sees the point, but not quite:
Anyway, back to my story, I was horrified and humiliated by my lack of forking knowledge. I started to panic, wondering what other rules of etiquette had somehow escaped my notice. Was I supposed to open doors using nothing but my elbows? Should I dial my phone with a single knuckle? Should I salute anyone wearing a hat and ask, "How's the war going, Captain?" My point is that there's no way to deduce etiquette from logic.
If you could deduce etiquette from logic, it wouldn't be etiquette. If it's not a costly signal, it can't induce the separating equilibrium that keeps the farm boys like Scott and me from having airs when dining with our purported betters.

Down with the tyranny of etiquette and its oppressive class-entrenching function! Up with efficiency! Ecraser l'Infâme! Join me in the revolution! All you have to lose are your chains!


  1. Your Kiwi friend should have realised that you, as a North American, wouldn't know how to use a fork properly. The lack of etiquette is all his.

  2. It was an opportunity for educating me. And I'd honestly never ever noticed that other people ate backwards. So useful for me to know. I prefer to breach custom willfully rather than ignorantly.

  3. There is definitely a big chunk of signaling etiquette, but a lot of etiquette is about wise navigation for social situations as well. ie Miss Manners pretends to be about, and often gets questions about, signaling etiquette, but most of her advice is actually ruthlessly practical advice about how not to annoy people, how to protect your privacy politely, how to navigate potentially tricky social situations, etc.

  4. I thought it was more about culture differences between North America and Britain than etiquette. I find it very hard to believe that the crazy North American way of sawing up a section, putting the knife down, changing the fork to the right hand and proceeding to eat the food can be more efficient than keeping both utensils in your hands to allow for constant sawing and shoving food into your gob. I think this calls for a race....

  5. @Patri: I'm all for the practical stuff.

    @Rachel: I use an mix of the two. Tines up, fork in left hand, knife in right. The hand switching is only a local optimum 'till you learn to shovel with the left hand.

  6. It's generally known in Sweden, at least when and where I grew up, that Americans tend to eat like "children". Now that I think about it it may have just been parts of our family observing our twice removed American relatives in situ and spreading the word. The point is that it seems to be a specific American affection.

    When I was young I used to consider the way of eating with the tines up inefficient and finicky but nowadays I vary between the two methods depending on foods.

    There was no conscious effort involved in my switching but eating tines down has two advantages: It looks and is tidier when you eat and you can increase the precision when combining the different parts of the meal. This method also doesn't turn the dregs of the meal to a mush so the last bites are more or less like any other bite.