Who Cares about the Salad Fork?
The poor, beleaguered salad fork. For years it has been the ‘poster child’ for those who claim that traditional manners and etiquette are a bunch of out-of-date rules that are arbitrary and senseless. “Who cares about a salad fork?” “What difference does it make what fork I use?” For the generations that eat most of their food with their fingers, the salad fork quandary is certainly far removed from their daily concerns.
Yet, as with many issues that seem superficial and irrelevant, there is a deeper meaning and significance. The whole topic goes far beyond forks and finger food.
Manner developed as the necessary balm to assist civilization. In short, manners are the fine art of making other people feel comfortable. With tens of millions of people living together, often in close quarters, serving others and making them feel comfortable are a great asset. In our overtly and ever-increasingly selfish and self-regarding culture, courtesy and other-oriented behaviors are more necessary than ever before.
Humans share certain behaviors with the animal kingdom, most notably eating, eliminating and reproducing. It is these behaviors that require the most rehabilitation to highlight the existing separation of humans from animals. The lion’s share of etiquette rules applies to these areas. How we eat, take care of bodily needs and have intimate relations have always had boundaries applied, in the form of culturally enforced manners, all the way to legal restraints. We have all heard “He eats like a pig.” “Watch him wolf down his food.” “What, were you born in a barn?” In case you are wondering, these are not compliments. They are comments denoting the absence of manners.
Mannerly dining makes the others you are sharing a meal with feel at ease and comfortable. This would not be the case if one person grabbed food off another’s plate, spit out chewed food on the floor or used his hands to take something out of a serving dish. Using the salad fork properly may seem trite but it is all part of society’s efforts to ensure all diners are at ease.
The breakdown of civility and civilization itself are seen when these boundaries are eliminated. During his tenure, the former New York City mayor Rudy Gulianni instituted a policing policy called “broken window.” It was based on the idea that small transgressions of the law left unchecked, led to bigger and more violent crimes. Such was proven to be true. It was wildly successful at reducing crime in the city for the first time in decades. As attention was paid to stopping small crimes, the rates of major crimes fell.
I propose the same is true with manners. Paying attention to which culinary utensil to use, a small thing in itself, will lead to more courteous behavior in other areas of life. The habit of considering others’ comfort will grow, and so will civility all around. Let’s save civilization one fork at a time.
©2016 Linda Johnston, MD