Tuesday, February 06, 2007

When etiquette is not humbug

I was reminded by some of my erswhile comrades at a reunion dinner (a little over a week ago in Christchurch) that we newly arrived entrants to the Royal Military College, Duntroon were given etiquette lessons as part of our induction to the Corps of Staff Cadets. At the time, these lessons were widely ridiculed as unnecessary. But on mature reflection, I now realise that there was some merit in schooling uncouth ruffians in refined conduct.

One example will illustrate: we were told that if we paused in eating a meal, we should cross the knife and fork. This indicated to the server that the meal was not yet finished, and should therefore not be cleared away. A finished meal was indicated by leaving the knife and fork parallel to each other on the plate. At the reunion dinner, I noticed that this custom had survived intact for 40 years, and all present crossed cutlery when pausing, and placed cutlery side by side when finished.

In my own family, and when I was growing up, our custom was to stab the server in the back of the hand with our fork if he or she attempted to take our plate away before we were finished. The stabbing was sometimes accompanied by wolf-like growls and baring of teeth. While at one level this strategy certainly worked, there were often unintended consequences and bad feelings all around.

So, those apparently useless etiquette lessons of some 40 years ago enabled me to avoid embarrassment when dining in exalted company, and minimised injuries among the serving staff. Humbug! - Not!