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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Perfect Behavior

Guest Blogger: Donald Ogden Stewart. He was a stalwart at the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s, then he headed for Hollywood, picking up an Academy Award for his screen adaptation of Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story." (Stewart also adapted Barry's "Holiday.") Blacklisted in the 1950s, he never regained his old career footing -- although Woody Allen is said to have used him in the writing of "Love and Death." The book excerpt below is from 1922.


Formal Dinners in America

Donald Ogden Stewart
EATING IS AN EXTREMELY old custom and has been practiced by the better classes of society almost without interruption from earliest times. And “society,” like the potentate of the parable whose touch transformed every object into gold, has embellished and adorned the all-too-common habit of eating, until there has been evolved throughout the ages that most charming and exquisite product of human culture—the formal dinner party. The gentleman of today who delightedly dons his dress suit and escorts into a ten-course dinner some lady mountain climber or other celebrity, is probably little aware of what he owes to his forefathers for having so painstakingly devised for him such a pleasant method of spending his time.

But “before one runs, one must learn to walk”—and the joys of the dinner-party are not to be partaken of without a long preliminary course of training, as many a young man has learned to his sorrow when he discovered that his inelegant use of knife and fork was causing humorous comment up and down the “board” and was drawing upon himself the haughty glances of an outraged hostess. The first requisite of success in dining out is the possession of a complete set of correct table manners—and these, like anything worth while, can be achieved only by patient study and daily practise.

Table Manners for Children

As a matter of fact, it is never too early to begin to acquire the technique of correct eating, and the nursery is the best possible place for the first lessons in dining-room behavior. Children should be taught at an early age the fundamentals of “table” manners in such a way that by the time they have reached the years of manhood the correct use of knife, fork, spoon and fingerbowl is to them almost second nature. But the parents should remember, above everything else, to instruct their children in such a way that the pupil takes pleasure in his lessons. This is the method which is employed today in every successful school or “kindergarten”; this is the method which really produces satisfactory results.

Thus, for example, if you are a father and your boy Edward persists in bringing his pet tadpole to the table in a glass jar, you should not punish or scold him; a much more effective and graphic method of correcting this habit would be for you to suddenly pick up the tadpole one day at luncheon and swallow it. No whipping or scolding would so impress upon the growing boy the importance of the fact that the dinner table is not the place for pets.

Another effective way of teaching table manners to children consists in making up attractive games about the various lessons to be learned. Thus, whenever you have guests for dinner, the children can play “Boner” which consists in watching the visitor closely all during the meal in order to catch him in any irregularity in table etiquette. As soon as the guest has committed a mistake, the first Child to discover it points his finger at him and shouts, “Pulled a Boner, Pulled a Boner!” and the boy or girl who discovers the greatest number of “Boners” during the evening is rewarded with a prize, based on the following table of points:

  •  If the guest has dirty hands, 5 points.
  •  If the guest uses wrong fork or spoon, 5 points.
  •  If the guest chokes on bone, 8 points.
  •  If the guest blows on soup, 5 points.
  •  If the guest drops fork or spoon, 3 points.
  •  If the guest spills soup on table, 10 points.
  •  If the guest spills soup on self, 1 point.

Of course it is often well to tell the guests about the game in advance in order that they may not feel embarrassed but will enter thoroughly into the spirit of this helpful sport.

And so, when the young person has reached the age for his first formal dinner party, he will undoubtedly be able to handle the fundamentals of correct etiquette in a satisfactory manner. But, as in every sport or profession, there are certain refinements—certain niceties which come only after long experience—and it is with a view of helping the ambitious diner-out to master these more complex details, that I suggest that he study carefully the following “unwritten laws” which govern every dinner party.

In the first place, a guest is supposed tacitly to consent to the menu which the hostess has arranged, and the diner-out who makes a habit of saying “Squab, you know, never agrees with me—I wonder if I might have a couple of poached eggs,” is apt to find that such squeamishness does not pay in the long run.

Practical jokes are never countenanced at a formal affair of this sort. I do not mean that a certain amount of good-natured fun is out of place, but such “stunts” as pulling the hostess' chair out from under her—or gleefully kicking the shins of your neighbor under the table and shouting “Guess who?”—are decidedly among the “non-ests” of correct modern dinner-table behaviour.

Then, too, it is now distinctly bad form to practise legerdemain or feats of sleight-of-hand at a dinner party. Time was when it was considered correct for a young man who could do card or other tricks to add to the gayety of the party by displaying his skill, but that time is past, and the guest of today, who thinks to make a “hit” by pulling a live rabbit or a potted plant from the back of the mystified hostess or one of the butlers, is in reality only making a “fool” of himself if he only knew it. The same “taboo” also holds good as concerns feats of juggling and no hostess of today will, I am sure, ever issue a second invitation to a young man who has attempted to enliven her evening by balancing, on his nose, a knife, a radish, a plate of soup and a lighted candle. “Cleverness” is a valuable asset but only up to a certain point, and I know of one unfortunately “clever” young chap who almost completely ruined a promising social career by the unexpected failure of one of his pet juggling tricks and the consequent dumping of a large dish of mashed potatoes on the head of a vice-president of the Equitable Trust Company. Besides, people almost always distrust “clever” persons.

It does not “do,” either, to “ride your hobby” at a dinner party, and the real truth as to the cause of the sudden social ostracism of young Freddie H——, a New York clubman of some years ago (now happily deceased), is that on one occasion this young fellow, who had developed a craze for marksmanship amounting almost to a mania, very nearly ruined a dinner party given by a prominent Boston society matron by attempting to shoot the whiskers off a certain elderly gentleman, who happened to be a direct descendant of John Smith and Priscilla Alden.

It might also be remarked that the possession of certain physical gifts—such as the ability to wriggle one's ears or do the “splits”—is in itself no “open sesame” to lasting social success. “Slow and sure” is a good rule for the young man to follow, and although he may somewhat enviously watch his more brilliant colleagues as they gain momentary applause by their ability to throw their thumbs out of joint or squirt water through a hole in their front teeth, yet he may console himself with the thought that “the race is not always to the swift” and that “Rome was not built in a day.” The gifts of this world have been distributed fairly equally, and you may be sure that the young girl who has been born a ventriloquist very likely is totally unable to spell difficult words correctly or carry even a simple tune. Ventriloquism, by the way, is also passing out as a form of dinner party diversion, and it is no longer considered a priceless accomplishment to be able to make a dog bark or a baby cry under the hostess's chair.

Conversation at Dinner

Gradually, however, conversation—real conversation—is coming into its own as the favorite pastime of dinner guests, and the young man or lady who can keep the conversational “ball” rolling is coming more and more into demand. Good conversationalists are, I fear, born and not made—but by study and practise any ambitious young man can probably acquire the technique, and, with time, mould himself into the kind of person upon whom hostesses depend for the success of their party. As an aid in this direction I have prepared the following chart which I would advise all my readers to cut out and paste in some convenient place so that at their next dinner party it can be readily consulted.

Stewart's Lightning Calculator of Dinner Table Conversation

This chart divides the dinner into its various courses, and under each course is given what I call an “opening sentence,” together with your partner's probable reply and the topic which is then introduced for discussion. And, most valuable of all, under each such topic I have listed certain helpful facts which will enable you to prolong the conversation along those lines until the arrival of the next course, and the consequent opening of another field for discussion. The chart follows:

I. Cocktails.

You say to the partner on your right: “What terrible gin!” She (he) replies: “Perfectly ghastly.” This leads to a discussion of: Some Aspects of Alcohol. Helpful Facts:

1. An oyster soaked in alcohol becomes quite rigid in eleven minutes.
2. Senator Volstead was born Sept. 4, 1869.
3. Alcohol, if taken in too great quantities, often produces internal disorders.

II. Oysters.

You say to the partner on your right: “Think of being an oyster!”
She (he) replies: “How perfectly ghastly.”
This leads to a discussion of: Home Life of Oysters.

Helpful Facts:

1. The average life of an oyster is 38 days, 11 hours.
2. Polygamy is practised among certain classes of oysters.
3. The first oyster was eaten by Ossip Gatch, a Pole (d. 1783).

III. Fish.

You say to the partner at your right: “Do you enjoy fish?”
She (he) replies: “I simply adore fish.”
This leads to a discussion of: Fish—Then, and Now.

Helpful Facts:

1. Fish make notoriously bad pets, whereas seals can be taught to do many novel tricks.
2. Gloucester (Mass.) smells badly in summer.
3. Gloucester (Mass.) smells badly in winter.

IV. Meat. You say to the partner at your right: “Have you ever been through the Stock-Yards?”
She (he) replies: “No.” (“Yes.”)
This leads to a discussion of: “The Meat Industry in America.”

Helpful Facts:

1. Every time a street car goes over the Brooklyn Bridge, a steer is killed in Chicago—and oftener.
2. Raw beefsteak in quantities is harmful to children under two years of age.
3. A man died recently in Topeka, Kansas, weighing 312 pounds.
4. Many prominent people live on the North Side of Chicago.

V. Salad.

You say to the partner at your right: “What is your favorite salad?”
She (he) replies: “I don't know, what's yours?”
This leads to a discussion of: Favorite Things.

Helpful Facts:

1. Richard Barthelmess is married.
2. B. V. D. stands for “Best Value Delivered.”
3. Amy Lowell is fond of cigars.

VI. Dessert.

You say to the partner at your right: “I love ice cream.”
She (he) replies: “So do I.”
This leads to a discussion of: Love.

Helpful Facts:

1. New York is the hardest state in which to get a divorce in America.
2. Dr. Sigmund Freud is now living in Vienna, Austria.
3. D. H. Lawrence has a black beard.

Illustration by Ralph Barton

This is an admirable picture with which to test the “kiddies'” knowledge of good manners at a dinner table. It will also keep them occupied as a puzzle picture since the “faux pas” illustrated herewith will probably not be apparent to the little ones except after careful examination. If, however, they have been conscientiously trained it will not be long, before the brighter ones discover that the spoon has been incorrectly left standing in the cup, that the coffee is being served from the right instead of the left side, and that the lettering of the motto on the wall too nearly resembles the German style to be quite “au fait” in the home of any red-blooded American citizen.

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