There’s a “dating” column in the Guardian (UK) weekend magazine in which two single people meet up for a meal to assess each other and decide whether to pursue a relationship–or at least a second date. The Boston (US) Globe, and no doubt many Sunday magazines around the US, has a similar column, but with a critical difference to its English counterpart.
In the dating column in the Guardian, table manners, good or bad, are a key criterion for the decision on a second date. Yes, really! Table manners!
Table manners just aren’t that important in the US. If one’s dining companion butters a roll with the handle of a spoon, noisily slurps his or her soup, eats from his or her companion’s plate, or is rude to the waiter, that would be something up with which one would not put, to quote Winston Churchill when he was asked about how to deal with a dangling participle. But in general, table manners are not something that are noticed in the US unless they are extremely egregious.
Au contraire in England, at least among the chattering classes.
When I lived in New York, I once had a boss, a native New Jerseyan and the head of a division of a major New York book publisher, whose mealtime behavior involved trying to shovel as much food as possible into his mouth in the least possible amount of time, talking all the while. It was not a pleasant sight. He always ended up with food on his tie despite the fact that in all other ways he was extremely natty.
But when it came to traveling to, and dining in, London, he must have somehow sensed the inadequacy of his table manners, because he brought me with him on a business trip for the sole purpose of showing him how to behave in the company of English people.
Throughout our numerous breakfasts, lunches, teas, and dinners with English publishers, editors, and authors, he devoted himself to watching my table manners (which aren’t anything to write home about, believe me) and copying everything I did. From his point of view, it was a most successful trip; he’d learned so much that the next time he went to London, he left me back in New York. Unfortunately, in New York, he reverted to his usual behavior.
When it comes to the US and the UK, there is a distinct difference in how one communicates with one’s waiter. Here’s a typical request at a UK moderate- to high-end restaurant:
Looking directly at the waiter, an English person says, “May I please have a pot of tea, please?” (and yes, two “pleases” in one sentence are not unknown). When the tea arrives, it’s “Thank you ever so much.”
The American equivalent:
“I’ll have a Coke,” said most often with no eye contact at all. This is sometimes, but not always, followed by, “Thanks,” when the drink arrives.
In the UK, a request to a waiter to repeat an oral mention of a “special” on the menu is rendered thusly:
“Would you be so kind as to remind me how the pheasant is prepared?”
In the US: “What was that about the steak?”
Manners–and not just table manners–matter quite a lot in the UK. You’ll still find people saying “sorry” when you accidentally bump into them on the street. In the UK I have yet to hear the phrase, “Watch out, jerk,” or words to that effect, that I’d occasionally hear in New York and sometimes in Boston, too, though in fairness to Boston I must say that they stand for pregnant women on the subway there, but in New York I was offered a seat on the subway only once, and that was when I was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant.
So, the message is, do what you want on your first dinner date in the US, but if you want to get a second date in the UK, you might want to brush up on your table manners.