Is etiquette more than snobbery? Is the egalitarianism of the present, the informality, any more inclusive, or is it just a pose, asks Michael Snyder
The last time I really fought with my older brother was back in March 2016, in a tiny restaurant somewhere in Provence where we—he and I and our younger sister and our parents—had gathered on one of our increasingly rare family vacations. The evening was raw and damp in the way that early springtime tends to be in temperate climates, but inside the restaurant was cosily anachronistic: ochre walls, wooden beams, smooth table linen, tiny glasses of purple blossoms scattered among flickering candles; there was white asparagus and red wine and not an exposed brick or Edison bulb in sight. If we hadn’t had the restaurant entirely to ourselves (the joys of low season), we would have been in breach of every rule of etiquette as voices and tension rose—ironically, since etiquette was precisely what we were arguing about.
The gist of the argument was something like this: My brother, a Washingtonian through and through, possessed of all that city’s preoccupations with propriety, felt that restaurants had become too casual, that people, on the whole, had stopped bothering to dress up for nice meals and that that ruined the experience for everyone else. Having cut my teeth in New York in the early-aughts, when the Brooklynisaton of fine dining was just beginning (but before the inanities of Angeleno wellness culture had made their way east), I naturally disagreed. No city, I argued, needs more than a couple of old-school, white-tablecloth places. Making things more casual and eliminating some of the more baroque rules of decorum removed a barrier to entry and, in effect, democratised fine dining (we were both obviously wrong, on which more later).
My brother, getting louder, said it’s disrespectful to turn up at a nice place in jeans and a t-shirt, while I, getting haughtier, asked to whom? To chefs? I know chefs, I said, and I can guarantee you that they don’t care, so why should I? What right do I have to care? What does one paying client owe to another? What is etiquette even for?
In his 1996 essay on grammar, titled “Authority and American Usage”, David Foster Wallace wrote about The Usage Wars, which, to put it schematically, were/are fought between two camps of grammarians: conservative prescriptivists, who believe that there is a right and a wrong way to use the English language, and liberal descriptivists, who believe all spoken language is equally valid and correct. Predictably, Wallace comes down between the two camps, going through extraordinarily funny and jarringly elegant intellectual contortions to explicate his own ambivalence. In the process, he describes some of grammar’s most important uses. First, he says, there are the rules that “serve clarity and precision”. Then there are the rules we employ because, “as we sometimes also say about elements of fashion and etiquette, the way you use English ‘makes a statement’ or ‘sends a message’.” It’s no mistake that, early in the essay, Wallace uses “short forks for salads” as his analogy for grammatical archaisms. Etiquette is, in essence, the grammar of social interaction.
Some rules of etiquette have utilitarian roots—eat to your left, drink to your right saves considerable confusion at Western dinner tables; the injunction against using your left hand at Indian tables has, over the millennia, likely prevented many cases of typhoid—but others are about as useful today as corsets and bustles. Keeping your elbows off the table is no less absurd than performing verbal acrobatics to keep your prepositions tucked tidily into the interiors of your sentences. These rules are arbitrary. They’re uncomfortable. They exist to allow a certain kind of person to prove that he knows them, to demonstrate that he’s civilised (or at least appropriately socialised). They certainly don’t do anything to “serve clarity and precision”. Your elbows don’t prevent me from enjoying my meal. Neither do your cargo shorts (though I may question the sartorial wisdom of wearing them).
In American culture, which has long pretended to a kind of anti-class consciousness, we use etiquette unashamedly to read social status even as we all go around claiming to be middle class. You knew what that fork was for? You knew not to mix wasabi into your soy sauce? You knew not to wear jeans here? Very good: you’ve done this before. (The equivalent in classical music is knowing not to clap between movements, a rule that, despite my feelings about dress code, I’m extremely stuffy about; snobbishness invites hypocrisy.) The converse—to use the wrong utensil, to eat something the wrong way, to show up wearing the wrong thing—is to shatter an ugly but precious illusion that restaurants allow us to cultivate, guilt-free, at least for the time we’re there: that we live in a world populated by People Like Us.
When we travel, dialects of etiquette become whole new language systems, full of untranslatable idioms of politesse. In my final months living in India—I’d been in Bombay for more than four years at that point—friends came to visit from Paris. These were not your average parochial Parisians (a real and infuriating breed of snob with analogues in New York and London and most other big occidental cities: the kind of people who see the rest of the world as a hypothetical). They’re both chefs, one Franco-American, the other Taiwanese-American, both with stints at multiple Michelin-starred restaurants under their belts. They’ve spent their entire adult lives in kitchens, which means they know people and food from all over the world, South Asia included.
In the course of a couple weeks I took them for pani puri on the streets of a small town in Madhya Pradesh, for liver sukke at a sidewalk joint in Shivaji Park and for pasande in the back alleys of Old Bhopal—all of which they ate with gusto. On their first day in town, though, I decided to go easy on them. We went to Rama Nayak’s, my favourite Bombay Udupi, where the food is delicately spiced and unimpeachably clean. When they left town, though, they had one suggestion for my next crop of visitors: “Maybe, food-wise, don’t throw them in the deep end on their first day.”
I was confounded. I’d started us with the easiest, lightest food I could think of, but I hadn’t considered etiquette. I’d forgotten that Rama Nayak’s provided no utensils, that they gave you maybe 20 minutes to eat and all but actively discouraged interaction with your fellow diners. I’d forgotten about the time several years earlier when I’d been scolded for bringing reading material for a solo lunch and how humiliating that experience was. My friends felt conspicuous because their hands hadn’t acquired the complex gestural vocabulary of Indian etiquette. Still, the stakes, ultimately, were low. Mistakes made by outsiders are the stuff of broad comedy: the Brit who has no clue how to eat rice with his hands, the American who can’t figure out chopsticks, or—with an ugly, racist inflection—the Indian who can’t use a fork and knife. But breaches of conduct can have deeper significances and darker consequences.
Even a place like Rama Nayak’s, which, in its openness and inclusivity represents the best of Bombay’s character, is still undergirded by India’s complex preoccupation with cleanliness, both physical and metaphysical. When the first restauranteurs called their places Udupis, they were gesturing none too subtly at the ritual cleanliness of the temple town’s celebrated Brahmin kitchens. The oldest Udupis, opened in Chennai in the 1920s, were segregated by caste. In Udupi itself—as in temples all over India—all the old rules remain in place. Which dining hall you have access to depends principally on caste. How and what you eat is ritually ordained. It is a sustaining rite of a world order that promises so long as like stays with like, everyone will be fed.
If the rigidity of that order seems to have broken down in cities like Bombay, that’s primarily because money, the neo-liberal rationalist’s favourite justification for injustice, makes such a convenient stand-in for caste. Wherever you look—city or countryside, America or India or even enlightened old Europe—the ancient rules remain intact, whether subtly or explicitly, sometimes with deadly effect. A Dalit walks into a temple, a black guy walks into a white neighbourhood, a trans woman walks into a ladies room. What happens next? What happens when we break the contract of politeness and force people to confront the reality that there are other worlds, other rules, that don’t quite conform to theirs?
Etiquette may be arbitrary, but it’s not innocuous.
Like silence, etiquette is, above all, a steady friend to the status quo. There’s a reason, linguistically, that we “obey” the rules of etiquette rather than, say, “manifest” or even “execute” them. Etiquette is not about agency or specific choices about how to behave, it’s about passively accepting boundaries designed to keep us from making other people uncomfortable, whatever idiocies or horrors their comfort may be built upon. We like to pretend that etiquette serves the purposes of respect and civility, but the line between civility and servility is very fine indeed.
Thirty, forty, fifty years ago it was uncouth to talk politics at the dinner table, a great way for a more conservative older generation to keep “the youth” in line, or for suburban dinner parties composed of wealthy Reaganite white folks and wealthy progressive white folks to maintain their respective illusions about their own moral-political superiority without offending their companions. This has changed in the 21st century. In the age of Trump, politics is perhaps the inevitable subject—not because our rules of etiquette have become more flexible, not because we’re more comfortable making each other uncomfortable, but because we’ve finally succeeded in neutering political discourse through ideological segregation. My brother and I argue about etiquette because we haven’t got much else to argue about.
So what were we arguing about that night? My brother’s objection to shifting dress codes really had nothing to do with disrespect or some grand conspiracy to undermine the rules of decency. What he objected to was a changing dialect of good behaviour, like middle-aged people frustrated by new slang, or old white people scared of immigration. Meanwhile my argument that the newish permissiveness vis-à-vis dress code had made restaurants more democratic was totally disingenuous.
Wear a jacket and tie to a cool restaurant in New York—or even DC, the stodgiest town in America—and you’ll, at best, seem quaintly old-fashioned. At worst, you’ll look like a Republican. Most of these restaurants remain unaffordable to the vast majority of Americans and unwelcoming to the uninitiated. We can dress etiquette up—or down, as the case may be—however we want, but it’s still coded to weed out difference, to identify danger with winks and nods and cold, stiff smiles, which are worse, in the end, than any pointing finger.
But so what are the rules now if not elbows off the table, and use your utensils from the outside in? What are the rules in wealthy urban India if the ritual anxieties of caste have been—at least in fashionable dining rooms, at least in theory—neutralised by cash? What’s beneath all the casual conviviality that has become the universal language of urbane sophistication in the post-recession world? Clearly none of these changes principally serve the purposes of clarity and precision. So what message are we trying to send?
With the new regime of ease, as with our collective obsession with the sustainable and the local and the vegetable-forward, we congratulate ourselves on how advanced we are, how far we’ve come since the days of dinner jackets and bells on the tables and liveried servants. We can smirk all we want at the overdressed out-of-towner, or giggle at the people who don’t know the difference between natural and biodynamic wines, or look down our noses at those who still observe the old niceties of conduct, bending over backwards not to offend anyone else’s sensibilities. We can pat ourselves on our casually slouched backs while picking nonchalantly at the last bits of food on the hand-thrown ceramic plates in the middle of our butcher-block tables. But knowing the name of the farm that raised your cauliflower isn’t the same as dining with the farmer.
Somewhere in the latter half of his essay, Wallace makes an all-out assault on political correctness, which he argues is its own kind of censorship, based on a “core fallacy—that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes”. If etiquette has changed, it’s that it, too, has adopted that fallacy, allowing us to disguise the same old elitism in righteous clothing. Calling people economically disadvantaged, Wallace rightly says, won’t make it easier for them to pay the bills. Allowing people to wear jeans to a Michelin-starred restaurant won’t make it any more accessible (see: the $700+ price tag at René Redzepi’s beachside Noma pop-up in Tulum, Mexico).
Sitting by as people happily set off lightning-bright flashes in dining rooms and make their companions wait to eat until they’ve gotten the perfect snap of their impeccably offhand mise en place, it would be easy to believe that manners are, indeed, finally dead. (Instagram, not clothing, poses the greatest existential threat to contemporary restaurant culture; these days, it’s more important for food to look good than to taste good.) And yet, in some sense, the age of social media has brought etiquette to its apotheosis as our respective social feeds make it ever more efficient to calcify our “discourse communities” into fortified ideological compounds. The stuffier codes of decorum have fallen away not because we’re more open to difference, but because we need them less and less to protect ourselves from it.
Like everything else, etiquette gets more global every day; situations like the one I put my friends in that day in Bombay are increasingly rare. Our restaurants and their menus look more and more alike, as does our righteous commitment to saving the world one grain bowl at a time. The changing rules nod knowingly to the world we think we want to live in, while doing little to actually instantiate it. We may not need to sit upright or dress up anymore, but that doesn’t mean etiquette has fallen by the wayside, or even, ultimately, that its goals have changed.
My brother, the prescriptivist, and I, the descriptivist, were both wrong that night in Provence, even as we allowed our manners—or, if you prefer, etiquette—to finally pull us back from the brink of bloodshed (death by soup spoon is a messy way to go). The rules we have now aren’t tools for shaping the world or mirrors we hold up to it. They are, as ever, an effect: the flattering light, the perfect angle, the practised pout that shows us to be precisely what we always imagined.
This essay was published in the July-September issue of the Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue is “Class”.
Illustration: Medha Srivastava