Monday, January 2, 2017

Book Review - Table Manners: How To Behave In The Modern World & Why Bother

It was not until the final page of Jeremiah Tower’s Table Manners: How To Behave In the Modern World And Why Bother that the need for this slim, but engaging book on etiquette was necessary. As Tower writes, “The more you think about those around you and the less you think about yourself, the more likely you are to behave well.” As a culture renowned for its self-centeredness and narcissism, and, at least in some quarters, its rudeness, Americans are particularly in need of basic rules of the road when it comes to the simple act of manners. 

Of course, we all understand what manners are, it is why we instinctively ask someone to pass the salt or pepper when it is out of reach (per Tower, whenever either is more than a forearm’s distance and will require you to extend your arm further; if the “passer,” send over both to avoid a second request) or bring a bottle of wine when invited to a friend’s house for dinner (a tradition Tower disfavors based on its simplicity and discomfort it gives the host, who must decide whether to serve, reserve, or discreetly regift at a later date). 

But because manners require that the interests of others be considered before our own, most Americans surely find these rules stilted and prescriptive. What Tower does is provide answers in nice little bite-sized portions, perfect for a culture now hooked on BuzzFeed “listicles” and articles that rarely extend past 500 words (admit it, you’re ready to bail already, right?) Be it dinner parties or nights out on the town, Tower has you covered - from how to graciously exit dull conversation (offer to get the group another round of drinks) to when requesting a doggie bag is appropriate (in all instances other than a formal or business dinner) and he does it all in a tidy 135 pages, most of which are spaced generously and can be read in large chunks without much effort. 

Of particular relevance is the chapter on technology. It is remarkable to think that 10 years ago, smart phones did not exist and today a whole lingua franca, not to mention set of rules have cropped up in their wake, but be it whether to Instagram your food (ok if done quickly and not with offense to others) or take a call at the table (a definite no no), these practical tips are themselves worth the price of admission.

You can imagine Tower is the kind of person whom you would want hosting a dinner party or attending as one of your guests. No, it is not because he knows how to devour an artichoke (leaves pulled off one-by-one and eaten by hand) or that he admonishes against acting like the grammar police in casual conversation (no one cares that you know whether “and I” or “and me” is correct), but because his writing reflects a bit of the raconteur - this is a man who can tell a great story *and* pick the right bottle of wine. His humor is droll and a bit ribald, the type of person who knows how to read a room and its sensibilities while enlivening it without offending. 

We should all aspire to this level of etiquette and civilization, but even if we cannot reach Tower’s level of sophistication, his book is a valuable guide and a recommended addition to your book collection.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 


  1. Oh, I need this book. *Off to Amazon*

  2. One need only read the questions printed in Judith Martin's (Miss Manners') advice column to realize how necessary "stilted and prescriptive" rules-for-conduct are in America, or more to the point, the subsets of America we live in.

    For years, I tut tutted the various offenses reported in her column. Not having confronted many of those, I imagined that I lived in a civilized state, town, neighbor, bubble. Then it happened, my son told me of a birthday party to which he'd accepted an invitation. He then hit me up for the admission fee.

    (NO! Not here! Not in my little world!)

    I objected, advised him that it was not a classy move on the part of his host's parents, then coughed up the booty.

    Back on this particular book. About twenty years ago, I was with colleagues and consultants at lunch, when my first-ever company-mandated "flip-phone" (as we now call them) rang. It looked important, so with apologies to the others I answered, then turned away and spoke quietly. When the call was finished one of my companions noted how polite I was to not disturb them - a compliment I thought unusual, but which foreshadowed future indifferent cell-phone behavior, whatever the "smartness" level.

    To pick a nit - I regret that Tower disfavors guests bringing libations due to the supposed "discomfort" it may cause. I don't know her advice for guests but for hosts the redoutable Ms. Martin prescribes that they should thank the guest and optionally put the wine aside and proceed with the planned series of libations - of course if such a plan is in force. It seems such contingencies are part of a host's arsenal.

    Of course a guest should not expect any gift to be suddenly included with her host's plans.

    Anyway, thanks for this notice - said book is now on my list.