The turkey’s on the table, the family’s gathered around, Grandpa’s ready to give thanks. You’ve pulled off a perfect Norman Rockwell moment — until a ping erupts from an iPhone tucked in a cousin’s pocket.
When you join family and friends for a holiday meal, expect laughter, camaraderie, good eats and wonderful memories. But don’t be surprised by table-manner faux pas that don’t include fork mix-ups and spilled milk.
People might pry with personal questions. (“So are you pregnant yet?”) The food-obsessed may overstep. (“You can’t eat that. It’s not good for you.”) And unless you’ve preempted the problem, someone’s digital device will demand attention.
Where have our table manners gone? Have we spent so much time fussing over which fork to use that we’ve lost sight of hospitality, of being a good host and a good guest?
That’s what syndicated columnist and author Judith “Miss Manners” Martin thinks. So does her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, with whom she’s written her latest book, Miss Manners Minds Your Business (Norton).
Judith Martin is impatient with dinner conversations focused on people’s food issues. Back in the day when even middle-class folks employed cooks, there was a rule against discussing food at the table.
“Now it’s changed because the host has probably done the cooking and you want to compliment that,” she says. “But that opened the floodgates. Now people talk about their preferences and their prejudices and their digestions. It all gets pretty gross. It’s not conversation.
“You put food on the table. You let people eat what they want. You don’t over-urge them and you don’t keep track of what’s going in their mouths — ‘Oh, you only had this?' ‘You only had that?’ A ban on talking about food would take care of it all.”
Speaking of dinner-talk bans, add religion, politics and sex, she says.
“People say, ‘That’s ridiculous. We talk about these things all the time.’ … But if you don’t know how people stand, it could turn very ugly. So those rules I still consider in effect.”
So how do you engage table mates in delicious dinner conversation?
“You ask non-nosy but interesting questions,” Judith Martin says. “Like ‘What do you do for amusement?’ ‘What are your interests?’ ‘Do you travel much?’ It’s the innocuous questions because with innocuous questions people can lead them in any direction they want.”
And steer clear of the nosy ones: “What did you pay for those shoes?” “When are you going to (pick one: get married, retire, get a job)?”
Still, it can help to be ready with an answer when those questions are lobbed your way. Try, “Oh, I’m fine. How are you?” suggests. “You turn it around. People love to talk. Even tweeters love to talk. … Put the spotlight back on them.”
And while a hostess may bring guests into mealtime conversations, she says, “What guests don’t realize is that they also have a responsibility to see that nobody is left out.”
“Certainly a host has more responsibility to the guests, but it’s reciprocal,” adds Nicholas Martin. “The point is hospitality.”
And that means learning that dining at someone’s home is not the same thing as going to a restaurant. “People have started treating private hosts as if they were running restaurants,” Judith Martin adds, telling them what they will eat, critiquing menu choices, taking leftovers home.
On the other hand, some hosts ask guests to cater, telling them what to bring and, to her horror, “charging family for Thanksgiving dinner. People are using business manners in their private lives and social manners in their business lives.”
If incessant texters and tweeters lurk among your guests, she suggests, “get out the old children’s table and put all the texters there or, preferably, have a nicely decorated basket you pass around and confiscate everybody’s phone before dinner.”