Written by Esi Han of Cross–Cultural Coach International manner Instructor PR officer in Diplomatic Mission in Korea
It is important to note that manners rooted in Western history were not solely used as a mechanism to distinguish between classes. Instead, manners are a commitment and consideration to fostering harmonious relations with others.
Table manners are a fundamental aspect of familiarizing oneself with Western manners, with the usage of tableware being of high priority. Tableware can be likened to tools, parts of machinery, or even primitive weapons needed in industrial or cultural settings. In contrast to European culture, many Asian countries such as Korea, China, Vietnam, and Japan use spoons and chopsticks while many Muslim, Hindu, and African countries still use their hands in combination with tableware to eat. Through observing these cultural practices, one can gain insight into the practical function of tableware and its cultural background. The evolution of tableware is related to the ingredients used in the culture, the form of food, and religious guidelines.
The use of tableware dates back to ancient times, with the earliest utensils being spoons used for soup, while bread and fruit were eaten with hands. Even in advanced European societies, hands were commonly used for eating. The knife was the next utensil to gain importance, as meat that needed to be cut and eaten was served on the table. Knives were also used for pressing food with a second knife and dipping the cut food with the tip of the knife or placing the slice of food on the back of the knife to eat. This resulted in knives having sharper tips than their current form, and tableware could easily be used as a weapon in times of violence or threats such as those in the Middle Ages. Servants would deliver knives to the owner or guests when needed, and guests had to signal that the knife in front of them was not a weapon.
Over time, these gestures of directing the knife towards oneself and adjusting its position evolved into manners and etiquette that promise the safety of guests by signaling, "I am not your enemy." Thus, it is evident that table manners originated from the desire to make others feel safe. In every interaction, there is a unique protocol, and manners are essential to creating an environment that makes the other person feel emotionally safe or shows a respectful attitude.The reason why knives on the table became dull can be traced back to the introduction of the fork. Originally used to lift meat from boiling water or fire, the fork quickly replaced the function of fingers and had a similar role to that of the human hand. However, its adoption was delayed by certain religious beliefs that considered hands to be sacred, leading to resistance towards using forks. As recipes and ingredients diversified, and hygiene became more important, the use of forks became necessary. The processing of food using various spices and oils further highlighted the importance of forks. Even in Europe, there was initial resistance to the adoption of forks, but eventually, society embraced them as a standard part of tableware. Table manners and etiquette are essential in creating comfortable and safe social relationships, even in the presence of potentially intimidating cutlery such as knives, tridents, or limb-shaped forks.
A medieval guide to court manners, Tannhauser's Royal Court Manners from 13th-century Germany, advised diners to use whichever hand they prefer while being mindful of the person next to them, ensuring that their hand did not touch their neighbor's.The concept of "safety" goes beyond its association with industrial sites and requires critical preparation and installation in various aspects of our lives, including our dining tables. Even familiar items should be handled with care due to their varied uses.
As a society, we have learned the significance of mutual respect and interdependence in our interactions with diverse individuals and cultures. When encountering differences, it is essential to approach them with consideration and understanding.
Rather than fixating on trivial debates about table manners, we should prioritize creating a safe and welcoming environment for everyone. This means making sure our dining companions feel both emotionally and physically comfortable and secure.
To accomplish this, we must understand the importance of true table manners in the context of mutual relationships. By cultivating a mindset of respect and empathy, we can establish meaningful connections and bridge cultural differences, not just at the dinner table but also in our everyday lives.