The table manners under threat from Gen Z – and why we shouldn’t give them up

phone on table
phone on table

Elbows off the table was a reflex drilled into me by my grandmother. Even mid-conversation or while ladling out gravy, she had a preternatural ability to detect a joint grazing the tablecloth and would mete out her stern warning instantly.

It appears generations following hers aren’t so punctilious. New research finds table manners are a thing of the past. In a survey of British people, conducted by pizza restaurant chain Prezzo, 73 per cent said table manners were less important today than in the past. A separate poll by Censuswide showed 60 per cent of those between 12 and 27 thought old-fashioned table manners were irrelevant.

As might be clear to anyone who has dined out lately, those suspicions proved accurate. The under-30s cohort in the Prezzo survey admitted to answering calls or texts at the table (46 per cent), starting to eat before companions’ food arrived (31 per cent) and chewing with open mouths (29 per cent).

To be fair to Gen Z, in my experience they are far from the only ones to have forgotten their table manners. At a dinner I attended this week, a professional woman in her fifties lunged across the table to grab a second helping of the shared dessert before half of us had our first. I suspect people baulk at good etiquette because it can seem to exist in order to trip up those who don’t know the difference between a soup spoon and a dessert spoon.

“There are traditional table etiquette elements where it’s all about different types of cutlery and place settings and what you do with your napkin and that kind of thing,” admits Liz Wyse, an etiquette expert at Debrett’s, the professional coaching company which arguably invented, or at least codified, the concept of dining etiquette.

“Those are beginning to break down. That’s part of a general informality coming to all areas of life. I see why people think that sort of thing is irrelevant to their lives.”

Are good manners a thing of the past? Read on for the main changes to our dining habits and the golden rules that remain.

The table manners under threat

No phone on the table

Putting your phone on the table communicates to the people you're dining with that you're not interested in them
Putting your phone on the table communicates to the people you're dining with that you're not interested in them - Andrew Crowley

According to Prezzo’s research the most commonly forgotten bit of table etiquette is not using your phone at the table.

“When you plonk your phone on the table, or keep having a quick look under the table, it’s rude,” says Wyse. “It communicates to the people you’re dining with that you’re not interested in them.”

In a world where 24/7 connection is often expected, a phone at the table is occasionally truly necessary and in those cases, there is one proper way to do it. “Announce at the start of your meal that you may need to check your phone and ask them to excuse you,” says Wyse. However, this tactic should only be deployed “if you’re expecting a truly important phone call,” adds Wyse. “Otherwise phones should never make an appearance.”

Elbows off the table

The origin of 'elbows off the table' dates back to medieval times
The origin of 'elbows off the table' dates back to medieval times - Andrew Crowley

77 per cent of people saw “elbows off the table” as outdated. To be fair, it might be, says William Hanson, etiquette coach and director of The English Manner, and author of forthcoming book Just Good Manners (September 12, Penguin). “It goes back to medieval times when tables were sheets of wood laid across trestles, so if you put your elbows on them, they’d tip,” he explains. “Today, I’d say keep your elbows off the table while eating to make room, but at the end of a supper or kitchen party you can put your elbows on the table, especially if your host is doing so.”

Cutlery held correctly

Fork in the left, knife in the right is traditional, but nowadays the knife might be held in the dominant hand - Andrew Crowley

The survey also found 60 per cent didn’t care which way around to hold a knife and fork (fork in the left, knife in the right is traditional.) “This is a key thing which has changed,” says Hanson. “Left-handed people traditionally were considered stupid and religiously the left hand was considered unclean. Now we’re more enlightened so now you simply hold your knife in the dominant hand and your fork in the other.”

The only modern rule is that swapping cutlery around is the job of the diner, not their host – table settings should be kept with the fork on the left and knife on the right.

77 per cent of Gen Z said they didn’t care about which knives, forks, and spoons were used. But while cutlery might look confusing, it’s simple, says Wyse. “Don’t be daunted: if you’re faced with an array of cutlery, work from the outside in,” she says. “If the table has been made properly, you’ll always have the right utensil if you move inwards.”

Wait for others to be served first

Wait for others to be served first
Wait for everyone to be served before starting, and don't steal the last morsel - Andrew Crowley

Other commonly forgotten manners are not waiting for food to arrive before starting. An exception to this is “tapas, sushi, or ‘concept restaurants’ where it all comes out when it’s ready from the kitchen rather than all being served at once,” says Hanson. “In those cases, eat it as it arrives, that’s the nature of the meal. But if you’re ordering service á la russe where everything comes sequentially, then you must wait for everyone.”

At the end of the meal, meanwhile, an unwritten rule remains that it is very bad manners to take the last morsel from a sharing plate without asking others first.

The golden rules

Though dining habits have changed and informality has crept into modern dining, plenty of the traditional etiquette rules still stand.

Pass the salt

“Salt and pepper travel together” is an important rule. “Pass them both at the same time, one in each hand,” says Hanson. “Usually people want them both. Never use them before you have tasted the food, however. Assuming food is under-seasoned is rude. If you’re at someone’s house and you can’t see salt and pepper on the table, don’t ask for it.”

Using napkins

“Napkins belong on the lap and are to be dabbed, not wiped with, but it’s quite an American thing to fuss about which direction the crease goes,” says Hanson. “Just don’t leave it on the table and only put it under your collar if you’re eating lobster.”

Don’t clink your glasses

Hanson’s pet peeve is clinking glasses. “Historically you’d do it with a tankard to promise you hadn’t poisoned your neighbour,” he laughs. “People think it’s the height of sophistication, but you’re really saying ‘I’m checking you haven’t poisoned me’. However, I would grudgingly admit it would also be bad manners to retract your glass when everyone else is clinking.”

How to indicate you’re finished eating

A few things vary according to geography. The correct way to indicate you’ve finished eating is to place your knife and fork side by side on the plate. In the UK, we tend to do so vertically with the points at 12-6, but in America it is diagonal at 10-4, while some European countries prefer horizontal.

Leaving discards and food

Keep discarded items – lemon rinds, fish bones, mussel shells – on the top of your plate, to make it easier for waiters to collect your dish at the end of the meal. “It was traditional that the left was the discard pile, but that doesn’t matter anymore,” says Hanson.

It used to be considered proper to leave a bit of food on your plate, as a sign that your host had offered a generous portion. However, this etiquette waxes and wanes. “When rationing came in, it stopped being considered good manners because you didn’t want to waste food,” says Hanson. Decide for yourself how the cost of living crisis has affected that. Hanson advises not overthinking it: “if you’ve served yourself from a buffet, finish everything. If you’ve been served by someone else, you can leave a bit.”

The table manners that have changed

Eating soup

“There used to be more fuss about having the right sort of spoons and tilting your soup bowl away from you to spoon it up – those things are less frowned upon now,” says Wyse. As for the tradition of spooning soup away from oneself towards the centre of the table, this “goes back to when soup spoons in the Edwardian era were huge,” explains Hanson, and soup was served in soup plates. “You couldn’t fit [the spoons] in your mouth like you would a conventional spoon so you had to scoop away and then tip in.” It has become less of an issue since we’ve started using bowls to serve soup.

Soup can be spooned up in whatever direction you choose
Spooning soup away from you harks back to Edwardian times when spoons were larger - Andrew Crowley

Eating ice cream with a fork

A lot of the more arcane rules have gone the way of the dinosaurs too. For example, some would argue that the only proper way to eat ice cream is with a fork. “That goes back to the ice cream fork – a utensil no one uses anymore,” says Hanson. “It was basically a spork, unless that is offered, a spoon is fine.”

Eating ice cream with a fork is now quaintly old-fashioned
Eating ice cream with a fork is now quaintly old-fashioned - Andrew Crowley

Don’t cut a salad

Some also think it improper to cut lettuce with a knife. “Knives used to be made from silver which would react with a vinaigrette, eroding the knife and making the lettuce taste unpleasant,” says Hanson. “Remember, in the past salads were completely different: leaves torn up into tiny pieces with a thin vinaigrette. Modern tuna Nicoise, cobb salad, Caesar salads would be alien.”

Use your bread to mop up your soup

One change which Wyse thinks stands out is how we use bread. “We were always taught never to use bread to mop up soup or sauce,” she says. “Traditionally that was considered bad manners but because we’re putting more value on bread, with our seeded loaves and sourdoughs and what have you, people are using bread more thoroughly.” Even now, bread should never be cut with a knife. Tear off bite-sized pieces and butter them individually before eating.

Putting gravy on your roast

“Traditionally you’d only put gravy or a jus on the meat or fish, but it’s acceptable to put gravy on your roast potatoes or Yorkshire puddings now,” says Hanson. “Context matters so I wouldn’t do that in a formal environment but at the pub it’s fine. One other thing about gravy is that it should be ladled rather than poured, but again, that doesn’t seem to be important nowadays.”

Why manners matter

Good manners are more than a cudgel to beat those who don’t “get it”. These “rules” are all based on the fundamental goal of doing right by other people.

“I would refute the idea that table manners are irrelevant,” says Wyse. “The point of all manners is two-fold; they stop you from making a spectacle of yourself, and they allow you to avoid discomforting the people around you.”

Chewing with a closed mouth isn’t about enforcing a certain way of eating. It’s simply that the sight of a half-masticated lamb chop slopping around the inside of your mouth is stomach-churning for the person opposite.

“Putting water into your wine glass isn’t boorish for no reason,” adds Wyse, “it means that when your waiter comes around with the wine, he has nowhere to pour and needs to waste time fetching another glass.”

If your host has just invested in delicate crystalware, they’ll thank you for not risking chipping them with a clinking “cheers”. Keeping the tines of your fork down ensures no one risks having their eye out if the conversation becomes animated. Even the arcane “rules” like using correct cutlery are essentially about making tidying up easier for your host or waiter.

That doesn’t mean you have to behave like you’re a guest at Downton Abbey at every meal. “Etiquette should reflect life as it is today, there’s no point blindly following rules set in Edwardian Britain because life is so different now,” says Hanson.

“When a lot of the traditional etiquette books were written, we didn’t have rice, ramen, sushi, curries, pizza, or burgers so things have changed,” Hanson continues. “In the past, you’d only eat oysters, asparagus, globe artichokes and soft fruits with your fingers, nowadays burgers and pizzas are fair game.”

Even so, Hanson says, “learning traditional etiquette is a good place to start. If you can do formal dining then you can eat a burger. Start at the top and scale it down.”

Manners, as they say, maketh man.