JO BRYANT explains how to fix your table manner faux pas…


Why do so many modern women have ghastly table manners? JO BRYANT explains how to fix your faux pas… including picking your teeth, burping and slurping and licking jam off a knife

The lunch appointment with a respected business contact had been on my calendar for some time. We’d never met, but I admired her enormous success and couldn’t wait to greet her in person.

It seemed only right that we should meet in one of London’s finest restaurants. The kind of place where snowy white tablecloths, sparkling crystal and tasteful floral centrepieces exude timeless elegance.

My formidable guest arrived looking just as stylish as the surroundings — all artfully applied make-up and sophisticated designer trouser-suit.

Yet any expectation of a graceful dining experience was rapidly skewered when she began tucking into her meal. Frankly, her table manners would have made a hungry toddler wince.

Jo Bryant met a business contact in London with bad table manners who ate with her mouth full and picked her teeth (stock image)

Jo Bryant met a business contact in London with bad table manners who ate with her mouth full and picked her teeth (stock image)

With her head lowered towards her plate, she shovelled the delicate mushroom risotto into her mouth like a stoker heaping coal into the boiler of a steam engine. Barely pausing for breath, she chattered constantly with her mouth full (making me a captive audience to her mastication) and picked her teeth.

Hurrying through the meeting, I couldn’t get away fast enough — departing with raging indigestion and crumbling respect for a woman I had admired so much.

So I cheered a hearty ‘hear, hear’ when author Dame Susan Hill revealed this week how disgusted she is by bad table manners. ‘I can’t stand it when people eat with their mouths open,’ she said.

It’s a cliche to say that manners — or, rather, table manners — cost nothing. Yet it’s remarkable how many people, by default or design, demonstrate complete disregard for polite conduct when eating.

And where once we might have thought such behaviour to be the preserve of the unreconstructed male, it seems a remarkable number of women now have gut‑churning dining habits, too. It’s something which, as an etiquette expert, I find perplexing and dispiriting.

The question is, why? I spent a decade at Debrett’s as an etiquette tutor; and as the author of more than 15 books on etiquette, I teach people, among other things, table manners. I do wonder whether those who fail in this regard might not have been taught properly as children. (I’m teaching my own two, aged seven and 11, a little bit at a time, with lots of positive reinforcement.)

Or have those with the conduct of a zoo animal at feeding time simply forgotten manners once drummed into them, since there’s no reason to remember them in our more casual modern age?

If it is the latter, what a great shame, because they are so fundamental. They telegraph to others that we are polite, that we respect food and those who have prepared it, as well as safeguarding us from messy eating.

She says that women might lack good table manners nowadays as they are used to eating in a rush (stock image)

She says that women might lack good table manners nowadays as they are used to eating in a rush (stock image)

Believe me, if you raise your fork to meet your mouth rather than lower your mouth to meet your fork, I guarantee you’ll have a much neater dining experience.

And it might help you to find romance, since one survey found that 74 per cent of men said that they would turn down a second date if their suitor’s table manners weren’t up to scratch.

HERE’S HOW TO FIX YOUR FAUX PAS 

  • Removing food from your mouth: Leave the table if you have something stuck in your teeth. That’s it. Your fingers should not be in your mouth at any point, and hiding behind a napkin is no excuse.
  • Belching or burping: Cover your mouth, swallow it back and don’t let the belch break cover. Remember, the slower you eat, the less likely you’ll be to trap air.
  • Slurping drinks or soup: A deafening slurp is usually because your drink is too hot. If it’s not cool enough, then wait.
  • The fork shovel: When using a knife and fork, keep your fork turned down at all times. Otherwise it acts like a garden spade.
  • Talking with your mouth full: Your mouth should be closed when you eat. If you are called upon to speak, indicate with your hand that you’re finishing your food.
  • Leaning into food to eat: Sit up relatively straight and let the fork travel to your mouth, not the other way round.
  • Noisy eating: This is easily avoidable if you keep your mouth closed and take smaller mouthfuls.

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Perhaps women these days lack good table manners because we are all time-poor and many of us have become used to eating in a rush. They might grab lunch at their desk or gulp something standing up in the kitchen, while trying to fit in with the other needs of their household. As a result, opportunities for communal dining — when our manners are on show — are less frequent.

Meanwhile, since eating provides extensive scope for disgusting conduct — be it scraping up chocolate mousse with fingers or picking one’s teeth for stray salad leaves — lack of practice fails to hold poor comportment in check.

This rush-rush culture also translates into talking with a mouthful. Instead of swallowing first before expressing a view, the assumed wisdom is that it can’t wait; that everything is so fast-paced, we have no time to think, therefore we speak.

It’s as if we see a sort of virtue in being too busy to slow down, eat properly and listen with courtesy to our dining companions.

Or maybe it’s fear that unless we respond immediately (despite the spag bol churning round our mouths), the opportunity to get our point across will be lost.

But I also think there is a rebelliousness to this kind of ‘macho’ eating, a culinary hangover from the ladette culture.

After all, for too long women were told to conform. Now they are fighting back. To the point where many feel they are simply too busy or too important to observe good table manners. This is trophy behaviour that says ‘the rules are for little people — they don’t apply to me’.

One woman I know (very loud and opinionated) will wait until her mouth is full before she makes a point. As if the drama of spluttering indignation or forceful accusation is somehow enhanced by food rotating round her mouth like a washing machine in full spin.

It’s important to stress that what I’m seeing isn’t lack of etiquette, such as using a fish knife to eat steak or incorrectly unfolding a napkin.

No, what I’m talking about is an increasing number of women who simply don’t know how, or don’t care, to behave politely at the table. Be it leaning over fellow diners to pick, uninvited, at other people’s food or happily burping at the table.

Some, of course, might not realise they are doing it. I had to retrain a friend on how to drink tea because she had no idea she was slurping so loudly (tip: wait for anything hot to cool down).

Jo was surprised over a working breakfast with a journalist who constantly licked jam from her knife while having tea and pastries (stock image)

Jo was surprised over a working breakfast with a journalist who constantly licked jam from her knife while having tea and pastries (stock image)

One of the times I was most surprised by a woman’s poor table manners was over a working breakfast with a journalist. We dined on tea and pastries, during which time this sophisticated, metropolitan professional constantly licked jam from her knife.

The only explanation I could find was that since this was breakfast and a casual catch-up, perhaps she thought the rules didn’t count.

And that lies at the heart of this problem. When poor manners are routine, they create habits which are hard to break. Hard, however, but not impossible.

So ask yourself if you’re a serial (or cereal, if it’s breakfast) offender. Remember no one notices good manners. But bad ones will be your hallmark.

As they are with that high-flyer who is still making inroads in her field — and who doesn’t hesitate to pick her teeth at the table.

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