Will Barratt, Ph.D.
I found a great photo of a formal place setting recently with each plate, bowl, glass, cup, and utensil labeled and I posted the photo to Facebook. Anyone can find such a picture by searching for images using some variation of the words formal, place, and setting. It is curious that the first several hundred images show a European place setting. When you add a nation to the search terms the pictures and diagrams remain largely unchanged. The formal European place setting has taken over the world, easing out indigenous place settings. I must admit that I do like the irony of the photo of a hot dog and bun on a plate with a knife and fork.
The short discussion of the photo on Facebook brought up the critical question: Where did these rules come from and why do we have them. A dinner companion once regaled us with a story of a formal event that she attended annually in Paris, the purpose of which, she claimed, “was to set the table in such a way that no one would know what everything was for”.
What is the purpose of formal rules of etiquette?
The answer is simple and horrifying. You, me, him, her, and everyone else is the etiquette police. The purpose of formal rules of etiquette are to separate out the social classes. Formal rules of etiquette are the rules of membership in the prestige social class. When each of us participates in co-creating these socially constructed rules we are reproducing the social class structure of the world. We are facilitating social injustice when we assume that everyone can, and even should, adhere to certain rules of dining. Don’t forget that the formal place setting is designed around certain foods prepared in certain ways. If your foods are different then you should have different formal place settings. Many Asian cultures use chopsticks of some variety and this reflects food preparation practices dating back thousands of years. Reliance on formal rules of dining behavior is one way in which social class is reproduced. Even reliance on informal rules of dining behavior is one of the ways in which the social class hierarchy is reproduced. Formal rules and formal utensils are for the upper classes and there are other rules and utensils for the middle and lower classes. Internationally many of the formal rules are based on the European multi-utensil model in spite of long term dining practices with other utensils.
Colleges and universities, institutions dedicated to helping students build intellectual, cultural, and social capital in order to build economic capital, don’t really help students learn formal etiquette rules. While there are occasional etiquette dinners to help students who didn’t learn the multi-utensil dinner skills at home, attending a few dinners and learning to eat your soup by spooning it away from your body hardly offsets formal dining at home and at restaurants. Dining halls on campus are more accurately described as market driven efficient feeding stations. Finding a soup spoon among the utensils in a student dining hall is difficult. In reality, the people who manage student dining halls are very good at providing what students want to eat and the two plate sizes, two glass sizes, one bowl, and a knife, fork, spoon makes the whole process cost effective.
Of course, exploring rules of formal place settings and etiquette are an entry way to exploring all of the formal rules of the social classes. There are a myriad other rules, some quite secret, that act as membership rules for the prestige class. The prestige variety of English, the posh or upscale accent, greeting rituals, dress codes, and oenological knowledge are other examples of prestige social class rules. Having homogeneity of norms helps build and sustain relationships, whether these are language norms or dining norms. There are dangers inherent when one set of norms is elevated as the formal rules. I am not arguing against dining etiquette, I am fairly fluent in at least three styles of dining rules, I just want us to be aware that our participation in these rules has consequences.
So, wash your hands before you eat and then use your fingers. Or not.