Tuesday 2 July 2013

Efficient etiquette

Rules of etiquette often seem designed to be inefficient. The point of the European "tines down" fork rule seems to be to hobble the eater, as I'd suggested a while back:
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.
It's nice to see an eloquent defence of my "tines up" alternative, and mocking of the tines-down types. Via @bkdrinkwater, here's Slate:
We’ve bastardized Euro-manners to make them still more convenient. Many Europeans stubbornly deploy their forks tines down—either as a spear, or, if the food isn’t stab-able, as a surface on which to awkwardly pile or smoosh food (awkward piling is particularly English—“How many peas can dance on the back of a fork?” asks Kate Fox, in Watching the English). But the pragmatic Americans who’ve abandoned the cut-and-switch almost always use the fork tines-up—i.e., as an efficient shovel—whenever it’s convenient to do so.

This hybrid style of eating is how Anna Post herself eats. But America’s lurch toward such modified Continental-style eating has been worryingly uneven. Nearly everyone I spoke with associated cutting-and-switching with older Americans and Midwesterners, and no-switching with younger and coastal diners.

Another culture war is just what we don’t need—especially one in which we’re all waving sharp implements, and both sides are open to plausible charges of unedifying Europhilia. Perhaps the best way to avoid open warfare is to formalize many Americans’ simplified take on Continental style (no fork-switching, but tines pointing any damn way you please) as itself an American creation—an efficient, relaxed blending of old and new worlds.
The "cut-and-switch" is the practice of switching the fork into the dominant hand after cutting; it's generally considered gauche by the Europeans and high-class Europhile Americans. Proper etiquette has the fork remaining in the left hand after cutting. But the Slate piece notes that the cut-and-switch is less efficient than the European standard of keeping the fork in the left hand.

This may be a problem for my "table etiquette is the peacock's tail" theory - especially if America switches entirely to "tines up, no-switching" - almost the most efficient form of food delivery. But note the almost: try bringing a spork along with you to a fancy restaurant. Drinkwater might call you a savage!


  1. ARRRG cut-and-switch, in my 3 years in the U.S.A eating lunch with mid-west work colleges who cut-and-switched, drove me nuts. They would chase food with the fork, where a well place knife would have been faster. Groan. And I'm just a mid class NZ, but even I can use my utilise correctly.

    It does help that I'm left handed, so my forks always in the base hand... really hard to convince my child to leave the knife in the off hand, and cut slowly. sigh. The above 3 years in USA didn't help them with school lunches where the children where not even allowed knives.

  2. My wife's family is Filipino, so my daughter is learning by example the most efficient form of eating: dispense with the utensils entirely and just use your hands. Not a single grain of rice goes to waste.

  3. Hmm. Efficiency for me means minimising the loss function consisting of time taken eating and mess created while eating. The latter has me strongly preferring utensils.

  4. You sure you can use your utilise correctly?

  5. Oh, I forgot we were on there the Internet where every word must be spelt/spelled correctly or your entire points is forfeit.

    Well played.

  6. It was a cheap shot. But way too fun not to.

    Sadly, I sometimes revert to using the fork in the right hand when there's lots of fiddly stuff around, like tiboulli. And be darned if I know how to spell that one.

  7. Google is my friend when I know I've spelt something wrong.

  8. sometimes on Arab Emirates they bring me a plastic fork, to eat with not, and well i m not sure the food is worth eating at all and I say " what the fork is this plastic thing, bring me a steel fork'

    and they say is that is first class Sir, and I say
    you mean to be dangerous with fork i have to buy first class ticket, what the furck ?

  9. I tend to be a proper gent and go tines-down where possible, but peas defeat me and I have to revert to my common roots and practice the tines-up scoop unless there is mashed potato or similar to make them sticky.

  10. Yeah... depends on whether I'm posting from my phone or from the desktop.

  11. I guess this means fingers are out?