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 burps from an iPhone tucked in a cousin’s pocket.
At some point during the coming weeks, you will join family and friends for a meal to celebrate a holiday. Expect laughter, camaraderie, good eats and wonderful memories.
But don’t be surprised by uncomfortable table-manner moments that don’t include fork mix-ups and spilled milk.
People might pry with personal questions. (“So are you pregnant yet?”) The food obsessed will talk about their meal and your meal. (“You can’t eat that. It’s not good for you.”) Someone may bring up sex — or worse, politics. And unless you’ve pre-empted the problem, someone’s digital device will demand attention.
Where have all 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 Martin (aka “Miss Manners”) thinks — and she suggests we stop fussing over those forks.
So does her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, with whom she’s written her latest book, “Miss Manners Minds Your Business” (W.W. Norton & Co.). “The wrong fork thing seems to be the societal equivalent of the dream where you’re in public in your pajamas,” Nicholas Martin says.
It need not be, adds Judith Martin: “First of all, you’re not likely to get more than one fork. … If you use your fish fork on your meat, you’ll have your meat fork left to use on your fish. Who’s policing? That is something that’s thrown at etiquette to make us sound petty. And I’m getting impatient with it.”
For the record, Judith Martin is impatient with dinner conversations focused on people’s food issues, what they can’t eat, what you shouldn’t eat. In the days 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.”
Although the weather is always an option, it raises the question: Have we forgotten how to have a conversation over a shared meal?
“It’s not that we’ve forgotten as much as we’ve ignored it,” says Professor Samuel Gladding, who heads the department of counseling at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “The mode of communication — or the most popular these days — is indirect communication through Twitter or text on through, well, you name it.
“Communication is an art form, but it seems to be a lost art at times when people gather together,” he adds. “They look down instead of at one another.”
Emoticons deliver digital emotions, but “if we don’t read facial expression or hear voice tone, we don’t know if the person is really inquiring or being sarcastic or being empathic,” says Gladding. “We can’t hear it, and we can’t see the expression on the other individual’s face.”
What also may be to blame is the demise of the family dinner — where one learns how to behave and converse and which Judith Martin refers to as “the training center of civilization.”
So how do you engage table mates in delicious dinner conversation?
“You ask non-nosy but interesting questions,” says Judith Martin. “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)?” “Why did you pierce your tongue?”
Still, it can help to be ready with an answer when those questions are lobbed your way.
“If it’s granny or a 6-year-old child, you handle it differently than you do if it’s an adult who you have a personal relationship with,” Gladding says. “The first line of response to those types of questions is to give an answer, but it’s not a direct answer unless you just really have news that you’ve taken the new job or the love of your life has just asked, ‘Will you marry me?’”
Try, “Oh, I’m fine. How are you?” suggests Judith Martin. “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 meal-time 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,” she 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.”
With the sticky situations, Gladding says, “prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If uncle George launches into an uncomfortable topic, or your niece starts canoodling at the table with her fiance, think “distraction.”
Have a topic of general interest for diversion, suggests Gladding, or interrupt uncle George by beginning with the words, “If we look at this historically …” At which point, eyes will glaze over, someone will ask for the gravy or start talking about the weather.
If incessant texters and tweeters lurk among your guests, “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,” Judith Martin suggests.
But put a positive spin on the request. “Frame this as a special time regardless of what holiday it might be and for what group,” says Gladding.
As for the oblivious table mate with a dish of green beans parked forever at his elbow or the soup slurper driving you nuts, Gladding offers this: “Try to not make an issue of something that’s not an issue. Try to deal with issues in private if you can. And if not, as gently as you can.”