Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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Because You Are Polite column

by Ginger Philbrick

I imagine we have all had favorite ways of conquering boredom if we are self-quarantining. I just might be the only one of us though who brought out the manners books and happily thumbed through their pages. There is a wealth of history in those books, and I thought you might be interested in knowing some of it.

For instance:

For centuries, the fashionable etiquette in Europe and America was to hold the little finger out from its fellow fingers when eating or drinking. This custom dated back as far as 1200 A.D. in France, where most foods were eaten with the fingers.

Spoons had been invented and were used for soup, but meat and vegetables were taken from a common platter with the thumb and following three digits. Mannerly diners saved the little finger, holding it conspicuously out to show they were keeping it clean for scooping up dessert. This custom lasted into the last century and is now considered rudely ostentatious—don’t even try it!

There is a perfectly good reason why our table knives have blunt ends rather than sharp. In 1669, King Louis XIV ordered that all dining knives be blunted. He hoped thereby to curtail the violence that sometimes erupted in the French Court at meals. For the next century-and-a-half, gentlemen used their own pocketknives to efficiently cut meat — presumably out of the sight of King Louis!

Today, a full setting of a meal table where steak is on the menu will include both a traditional blunt knife and a sharply pointed knife. Oh, and no matter whether salad, fish, butter, steak or dinner knife, each one is placed with the blade facing the plate. This is tradition, meaning to show that we, the diners, are not intending to threaten our tablemates with violence….at least not until after dessert.

Hundreds of years ago, someone found that placing a heavily burnt slice of bread in the bottom of a goblet improved the taste of the alcoholic beverage therein. The charcoal in the toast acted as a filter and made the beverage more flavorful. We still honor that finding by including the name of the filter whenever a toast is called for. I would like to know who was having champagne or beer while the breakfast burned on that landmark day.

There is a study called Proxemics. It is research into the physical distances that different cultures observe when conversing. The category of “close talkers,” according to the standard established by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1966, includes those persons who dare to ignore the standard of 1.5- to 2.5-foot distances (average North American) when speaking and get as close as six inches from their companion.

During these days of the call for social distancing, such closeness is deemed criminal by many. Trading in the six inches for six feet of separation is a matter of respecting the health and wellbeing of others. But I don’t have to tell you that Because You Are Polite!

Ginger Philbrick is the owner of Because You Are Polite….LLC. You are invited to email your manners questions to her and she will respond as time and space allow. You may contact her at

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