Image: Italy, Public domain
by Victoria Khan
Every culture has different dining etiquette rules and norms. Before conducting business overseas, it’s always best to consult a multicultural business etiquette coach to make sure you understand the intricacies of the culture you will be visiting. But if you are tempted to Google information about the culture, be aware that there is a lot of misinformation about multicultural business dining etiquette out there on the web. One idea that has been floating around recently is that Europeans historically have held their wrists at the edge of the table with their hands visible to show that they have “come in peace.” Well, nothing could be further from the truth; here’s the real explanation, along with a little discussion about European dining etiquette.
Americans and Europeans have different styles when it comes to eating. In the European—or Continental—style, for right-handed people, the fork is always held in the left hand and the knife in the right. One never sets down the utensils for the entire duration of the meal. Most food is balanced on the back of the tines, and the fork must enter the mouth with the tines down. If the texture of the food is soft (for example, mashed potatoes), the tines of the fork face up and the knife is used to help push the food onto the fork—never the fingers. Eating in this manner is a real triumph of practice and grace. To become efficient and comfortable with using dining utensils in this fashion takes mental mapping, or sufficient repetition, to make it automatic, much like playing a musical instrument or driving.
The use of the fork in Europe was widespread during the seventeenth century, but it didn’t find common use in the United States until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The American dining style was actually adapted from the nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie. As an upcoming middle class, they employed a partially correct method of eating—cutting the food with the fork in their left hand and knife in their right—but they then transferred the fork to the right hand to convey their food to their mouth and set the knife down on the plate. In 1922, Emily Post somewhat derisively described this style as the “American dining style” or “zigzag style.” Europeans today consider this dining style awkward and lacking in social competence and assurance.
Although, the American dining style is not considered incorrect—at least when dining in the United States—it is certainly less efficient. Because of the extra steps needed to transfer the utensils from hand to hand to plate and back, it also looks much less graceful than the Continental style and can lead to etiquette faux pas such as dropping the utensils on the plate. Thinking about utensils as extensions of one’s hands, while cutting and eating food—and never touching food with one’s fingers—makes it easier to dine in style.
So, to return to the question of why Europeans hold their wrists at the edge of the table: well, it’s simply because their hands are constantly working, cutting and bringing food to their mouths. Because their hands are in use throughout the meal, Europeans don’t put their hands in their laps like Americans—who are instructed to set their utensils down in between bites—do. They keep their wrists on the table. So the idea that the custom refers to “coming in peace” is mistaken; this custom is simply an automatic outcome of the European dining style.
As a sidenote, the showing of one’s hands to display peace actually refers to the ritual of the handshake. The modern handshake ritual is derived from medieval European knights who would raise their armor upon meeting, extending their right hand to greet the other party while protecting their private parts with their left hand. This showed the others that they “came in peace” and weren’t hiding anything.
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