Saturday, January 4, 2014


You should break up your bread roll with your fingers, rather than cutting into it with a knife. Why? Who knows? It's just a code, designed to make it easier to spot the social origins of those with whom you are sharing a table.

When eating soup, it is acceptable to tip the soup bowl away from you in order to retrieve the final spoonfuls. Just don't ever tip it the other way. Why? We can make up some explanation about not wanting to splash our shirt front, but again it's just a code. ''Ah, good, he's one of ours.''

Real etiquette, of course, is pretty much the opposite of all this. It's about making people feel more comfortable, not less. It's about holding the ladder up against the wall, and helping someone over, rather than pushing it away.

The BBC broadcaster Sandi Toksvig tells a great story about true etiquette in her native Denmark. The photographer (and British aristocrat) Patrick Lichfield had been invited to dinner with Denmark's King Frederick IX. At the time, a gentleman wore a shirt with no collar, on top of which was placed a separate stiff shirt front, with detachable collar and cuffs. Lichfield, short of funds, lacked a fresh shirt, so simply wore the shirt front assembly, all tucked beneath his formal jacket. With the jacket buttoned up, no one could tell the difference.

Alas, after dinner, the party shifted to the terrace and the king removed his jacket, causing all the other men to follow the royal lead. Mortified, Lichfield removed his own jacket, revealing both his nakedness and his lack of funds.

The king glanced up, said ''what a splendid idea'', and immediately removed his own shirt. Again everyone followed suit, and soon the whole party was happily bare-chested around the royal table.

The king's motivation was a desire that his guest not feel socially awkward - an example of true good manners, of which there are less examples every day. Sorry, I think I meant fewer. I hope you weren't about to correct me.

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