Some months ago, at a family gathering, my daughter asked a question at the dinner table that stopped everyone in their tracks.

It came from nowhere. There was a brief pause as we adjusted to her words. Had someone really just spoken them in the 2020s?

Her question was this: ‘Please may I leave the table?’ She is a woman in her 20s with a career and a car and a mortgage. Part of me thought she should know she can leave the table whenever she damn well pleases.

But a larger part of me was adrift in nostalgic reverie. I knew who put this archaic mealtime inquiry in her head and I had a good idea when it happened.

Common dinner table manners may be a thing of the past for Gen Z

Every year, during her primary school summer holidays, my daughter spent a fortnight with my mother and her husband in St Andrews. I don’t doubt my table manners stickler grandmother was present at some of their meals too.

Between the two of them, they would have been about their important work on my daughter’s dining etiquette just as they were with my brother and me a generation earlier.

It was a tough education for a hungry young chap. Everything I did seemed to be wrong.

‘Elbows off the table.’ ‘Don’t reach across. Ask for the butter to be passed.’ ‘Wait until your father has stopped speaking before asking for the butter.’

‘Put the knob of butter on the side of your plate and then spread some on your bread.’ ‘Cut the bread. You don’t put a slice that large to your mouth.’ Couldn’t they concentrate on their own meals instead of examining every detail of my consumption of mine?

Ritual

I was not to slurp. I was to tilt the soup bowl away from me to capture the last spoonfuls but towards me for desserts such as custard. And the reason for this was what, please? I have never known.

One did not commence one’s meal until the hostess lifted her cutlery to start hers. Yes, it was always a hostess in these days. Men poured wine and carved roasts. Our programming did not conceive of the male of the species cooking entire meals.

Sometimes, at dinner parties, when my mother rose from the table, I became aware of male guests of a certain vintage rising too. Not to go anywhere. They sat right back down again. What was that about?

This particular ritual was not covered in my childhood table manners syllabus yet, all those years later, I still wonder whether remaining in my seat in polite company when a lady rises from hers appears somewhat uncouth.

And I wonder how it would look if I did stand. Respectful? Chivalrous? Sexist?

Unreconstructed? Navigating the 21st century with 20th century wiring is truly a minefield.

Not that, when it comes to deportment at the dinner table, all my contemporaries see such problems crossing it. A survey of 2,000 diners by Censuswide finds that 54 per cent of Britons of all ages believe table manners are ‘a thing of the past’.

Unsurprisingly, Generation Z – the age group that my daughter is just youthful enough to sneak into – is even less interested in acknowledging the dos and donts which turned my mealtimes in the 1970s into decorum trials.

More than three quarters have no compunction about plonking their elbows on the table. Which way round you hold your knife and fork matters not to 60 per cent.

Almost 40 per cent admitted to using their mobile phones while eating.

Haphazard

I hesitate to label these people savages, not least because I am guilty of all of the above and more. The truth is mealtimes have changed in my lifetime from affairs which involved the whole family to haphazard refuelling sessions which are often best enjoyed alone.

I realised the pretty pass things had come to a decade or so ago when my vegetarian cohabitee at the time banished me from the room whenever she was eating.

‘This is my alone time,’ she would shriek if I attempted to enter, so I left her to the meal on her lap and Friends on the telly.

These days, I stop short of demanding solitude while I dine at the breakfast bar, but I do prefer it to be noted that I am not available for idle chit chat. I am eating. In all likelihood, I am also reading something on my phone or engrossed in an important episode. Look, now I’ve missed what he was saying.

Yes, if Generation Z do savagery at mealtimes then I am no better than they are

90 per cent of the time. My elbows go where I please, the butter goes from dish to knife to slice in a single flowing movement.

Sometimes – cover your peepers, Gran, if you’re up there watching – I hold the bread in my palm as I do the spreading.

I take no pride in these confessions. Families – and couples – almost always communicate better when they eat together. Eat apart and we become detached slaves to our appetite, our attention consumed by feeding and fending off distractions.

Manners fall by the wayside. Of course they do. If you are watching me while I eat, stop it.

Little wonder the etiquette coaching company Debrett’s worries that the majority who now fail to observe manners ‘look greedy, voracious or over-casual’. In the privacy of my own home, I am afraid I am all those things.

But where I part company with Generation Z is on the occasions when I am dining in company.

When they are required to, it turns out those dusty old table manners scrub up pretty well and one does tend to notice when others’ don’t.

They are rather like the steps to a dance – and knowing nothing about them is a lot like being clueless about the Gay Gordons at a ceilidh. You get away with it after a fashion but strongly suspect you are being silently judged.

Why does it matter to know which glass is for red and which is for white? Who really needs to know that, in multi-course meals, we start with the cutlery laid furthest away from our plates and work our way in?

Footering

They seem such footering formalities until, at the black-tie dinner, we get it wrong and splurge red into a champagne flute – or, at the restaurant, nhanlambangcap become aware of the Gen Z waiter reaching across you to deposit a fellow diner’s plate at their setting. You don’t say anything, of course, but you hope his boss does.

Perhaps these niceties are indeed archaic but I am happy to have made their acquaintance and charmed, I’m sure, that they are always with me when the occasion calls.

As Liz Wyse of Debrett’s reflects, the well-mannered soul comes across as ‘a considerate person who thinks about others before satisfying their own greed’.

It was greed, certainly, motivating my actions at the dinner table in the 1970s. I was taught how to hide it.

My daughter was given dispensation to leave the table, of course. And I appreciated her asking.

Even if it was just to check her phone.

j.brocklebank@dailymail.co.uk

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