But where do you put your knife and fork? Etiquette lessons… | Séamas O’Reilly

My daughter is two, and has no manners whatsoever. She marauds around our home like Oliver Reed in his 90s chatshow era. She’ll punch you in the belly and cough in your mouth and expect you to thank her for it. Which we do, because we know what’s good for us.

My son is learning manners, but very much one at a time: please and thank you, cover your mouth when coughing, don’t speak with your mouth full. Unfortunately, this case-by-case approach leaves a vast field of rules we can only mention in breach than observance. He has finally accepted that public nose-picking is a no-no, but yesterday I had to confirm that this was also true for sliding his runny nose all over the shoulder and chest of my brand new woollen jumper.

I tell him my tutelage in manners came from my father. He’d learned his from priests in school, men who likely salvaged guidebooks on etiquette from the English aristocrats they’d murdered. It was they who taught him you must stand up if a lady enters the room and, if courting, always assume the roadside of your date to protect her from the splashes.

On one occasion, I remember my dad saying, ‘One must never wear brown in town,’ a reference to the gaucheness of wearing brown shoes in the City of London. This advice had arguably already gone out of fashion by the time he’d heard it in 1950s Ireland, he was passing it on to me in 1995, when I was just 10 years old and my inquiries into life as a city trader were limited at best.

The only one of these prescriptions he still commits to – and, with mounting shock, I realise I do too – is the inscrutable semaphore with which he conducts his meals. In the absence of a mother, from secondary school on, my siblings and I took turns making dinners and were frequently instructed on the etiquette of cutlery placement when we did so.

Having finished your meal, he told us, your knife and fork must not cross, since this indicates your meal was unsatisfactory. Placing them tightly together, and horizontally across your plate, shows you enjoyed your meal. If, on the other hand, you’ve not yet finished, your fork and knife must be placed at 5 and 7 on your plate’s clock face respectively, to indicate you are merely taking a pause.

These rules, laid down for gentry of an earlier age, were meant in the context of fine dining or distinguished receptions. I can only surmise, with a tenderness that plucks the eyelid, that my father believed his future held the promise of a fully professional household staff. Unfortunately, when this staff did arrive, it was his 11 rowdy children, all with manners closer to that of my daughter than of a royal footman.

And yet, nearly 30 years later, with no job as a city gent or country manor to my name, I’d sooner gargle bathwater than cross my knife and fork across my plate, in any company. I shall remain undeterred. Repetition clearly did enough in my case, so I will continue trying to put manners on my brood until something, anything, seeps in. Which reminds me, I have a jumper to wash.

skip past newsletter promotion

Follow Séamas on X @shockproofbeats

The Guardian

Leave a Reply