Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Friday, 9 January 2015

Manners maketh the man

Salty cabbage

“Yeah she’s not for me though,” said my friend, “she’s very sweet, but there are just these little things you notice, like – when you’re in a restaurant she puts salt on her food before she’s tasted it.”

There was a silence from me.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“She puts salt on her food before she’s tasted it.”

“Ok. And?”

More silence.

“It’s extremely rude,” he said.

Another pause from me.

“Is it? WHY?!

“It is. It’s the height of rudeness.”

“To the chef maybe," I spluttered, aghast, "Why the hell are you offended? How’s it hurting you? What do you mean?!

At this point, I have to admit I was rather taken aback at my own outrage. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was feeling it, but it certainly had something to do with flashbacks to being a timid, bewildered small child, ever terrified about making some terrible social faux-pas or another that I'd been told by some pedantic tight-ass was critically important to not being a despised figure of ridicule and shame; that I later came to realise, much to my annoyance, was absolute f***ing bullshit.

“I mean to say," I said, "this is one of the bizarrest deal-breakers I’ve ever heard. Why do you give a shit? Why is having the general rule ‘I like my food salty, I’ll put salt on everything’ any ruder than tasting it first and going ‘urgh, no, not enough salt’?!”

It’s got to be said I’d be hard pressed to come up with something that mattered less in my choice of mate than whether she tasted her food before she decided to add salt. In fact I had simply not considered the matter would ever arise in a dating scenario. I felt dreadfully naive all of a sudden.

My friend said, indignantly, “Well, maybe I’m just a very well mannered man. It’s not a deal-breaker, it just makes me think ‘oh no, she's one of those people’."

I’m one of those people,” I said.

“Oh.” he said.

I’m not quite one of those people. I often don’t bother with table salt at all and know better than to load something carefully prepared in a fancy restaurant with the stuff. But certainly I have done it automatically, especially when younger, especially at home and especially with certain foods I know I like a bit of salt on (chips, steak, cabbage. Yes, I like salty cabbage).

Camp tantrum

I tried to explain to him that for many people this was just pure habit, from growing up in families where that’s just what you do when tea rocks up at the table – throw a dash of salt, maybe pepper, maybe vinegar on the meal before tucking in.

It may be a little old fashioned, a little pre-“food revolution” (ugh); it may be a little unthinking, unrefined and not exactly the sign of a distinguishing foodie palette; but what it isn’t, is a slur on the competence of the cook. One could imagine a highly-strung Michelin-starred chef throwing a camp tantrum over the unwashed punters ruining his/her meticulously balanced creation by smothering it in unnecessary sodium, but he/she'd be an arse. Let people eat the food they’ve paid for how they want, for crying out loud – or do as some restaurants do and just don’t put salt on the table. I get it, y'know, you can lead a horse to water etc, but you shouldn't take it personally.

Ok, my friend admitted, so it wasn’t the most offensive thing in the world, just a sign of basic uncouthness. But it got me thinking about manners in general and the million little silly bits of etiquette that I – all right, perhaps mistakenly – tend to think just don’t matter.

I will defend myself. I am the first to admit that I am probably regularly thoughtless, selfish, dismissive, abrupt, half-arsed, immature, irritable or just hard work, though I am virtually never deliberately rude. Most of my transgressions come from either being too wrapped up in myself, too tired, stressed, rushed or pressured, or simply socially unsure and awkward on any given occasion. On the other hand I know that when I’m on form I can be much more patient, reasonable, affable, empathetic, helpful and just damn nice than a hell of a lot of people I know. The bolshy, mercenary bastards.

But I do have a deep-seated disdain for po-faced rule-keeping and ritual, for judgemental airs and graces and unquestioning tradition-following of all kinds.

The most compelling wisdom I ever heard about dinner etiquette, from the mouth of veteran butler no less, is that it should not fundamentally be about endless unfathomable customs and rules at all – etiquette is first and foremost about putting your guests at their ease. If your rules are causing your guests to feel uncomfortable, intimidated or alienated, that is rude of you.

The power of correct and proper protocol

I tend to think if something is rude it is because of the effect - if it puts others out, causes discomfort, distress or upset. If breaking some “rule” doesn’t do any of those things, that rule is clearly serving no purpose – and can be disregarded as some bullshit dreamt up by some fussy anal-retentive to wield the power of “correct and proper protocol” over the uninitiated.

Frankly we would all breathe a sigh of relief to see the back of such nonsense. Such customs are the manners version of the split infinitive in language, a so-called grammar “rule” which some sticklers continue to bafflingly adhere to because it is supposedly “correct” (it isn’t) - despite the fact it often makes sentences more confusing and clunky, not less.

Futhermore: It’s got to be said that while, yes, some rude behaviour is clearly just mean, vile, nasty, selfish and even abusive, to some extent it does take two to take offence – by which I mean we are always involved and complicit in the amount to which we let things affect us. In the case of the small stuff particularly, one person’s indignant outrage is another’s shoulder shrug. We don’t have to obsess about these things, and could all be a little more forgiving and cut each other a bit more slack, man.

Anyway, I’ll shut up now, I don’t want to over-salt the broth.

(Ok, that pun needed a little salt.)

(Ok, so did that one. Don’t rub salt in the wound.)




  1. Good post. I used to salt pretty much all my food without tasting it. Now I only do it with eggs, I think. And chips or potato-based things. You're right that the most important thing is to put your guest at their ease; on the other hand, many people by automatically salting their food are missing out on some great flavours (and also eating unhealthy amounts of salt). So for this to be a social more is to some extent understandable, though if you're going to try to "correct" someone else it definitely shouldn't be on an early date. Wait at least a year I'd say.

  2. I dunk biscuits in tea. Not a deal breaker but sometimes a biscuit breaker.