Life Skills Unlocked: Proper Etiquette

eating utensil etiquette american european

Something happened last weekend that blew my mind:

I realised that I have been eating incorrectly my entire life.

But Quinn, I hear you say, if you have been managing to successfully manoeuvre food from your plate to your mouth for the past three decades, how can you possibly say you have been eating incorrectly?

Well I’m glad you asked.

When I was a small child, mealtimes were incredibly stressful affairs. There were a few reasons for this – including the fact that I went on a self-imposed hunger-strike for about two years at the age of six for reasons unknown – but one of the main reasons was that my mother was an absolute stickler for etiquette. The rules for eating were harsh and exacting, and failure to comply led to frequent explosions of anger (on her part) and tears (on ours). Fork in left hand, knife in right. Cut your food. Swap hands. Turn the fork over and bring your food to your mouth with your right hand, tines pointing up. Do not pick up your food until you have put down your knife. Do not ever lift your fork from the plate with the tines pointing down. Hold it like a spoon when you move it from plate to mouth. I mean sure, it sounds simple now but when you’re a tiny child, all that fork-fiddling is very tricky to master.

…Skip along to last weekend, when I absent-mindedly asked Scrubs why he eats with the tines pointing down when it’s 1. wrong and 2. clearly more difficult.

He blinked at me.

“It’s proper etiquette.”

No. No, I said. You’re supposed to do this whole fork-knife-swapping rigmarole. Those are the rules.

He leaned back in his chair and tilted his head. “No, that’s wrong,” he said. “Proper etiquette dictates you eat with your fork pointing downwards.”

I grumbled, and then – as with all bones of contention – I turned to Google to assure me that I had not suffered through gruelling lessons in table manners for nothing, and this is when I learned two galling and frankly disturbing truths:

  1. There is no globally-accepted etiquette for the use of eating utensils.
  2. I have been eating incorrectly for my entire life.

For those of you thinking, “But that’s how I learned to use my knife and fork!” Well, yes. Let me explain. Back in the day, when the British were still enjoying being an empire, this was the proper way to eat using a knife and fork. Some of them sailed to America, settled there, and brought their old-timey etiquette with them to their high society functions in the New World.

Then, for reasons unknown, back in Europe etiquette changed. Someone, somewhere, decided it was too easy to scoop food up with the tines pointing upward and they were wasting too much time swapping hands, so they changed things. Suddenly the polite thing to do was to eat with your fork in your left hand at all times, tines facing down.

Bounce along a few generations, and you have my grandfather, piloting a Boeing across the ocean to New York, where he evidently picked up some new-fangled ideas about proper eating-utensil protocol and then rigorously enforced them at home, bringing us to my mother, who in turn taught us the table manners she had learned as a child.

And here I thought everyone else was just doing it wrong.

When I think about it now, it all makes sense to me. My grandfather – my Yayo – was born in a tiny village riddled with small, crooked houses on unpaved, dusty streets. When I visited as a child, the houses were still small and crooked, and the streets were still unpaved and dusty. It always seemed trapped in a time warp. Women sat outside their front doors on wooden stools dressed entirely in black, as if in mourning for a life that had passed them by. Their faces were nut-brown from the sun and deeply lined. I didn’t know this then but many of those lines were testaments to hardship. Many of those lines were evidence of unimaginable grief.

My Yayo signed up for the military as soon as he was able, and eventually worked his way up from dogsbody to mechanic to air force pilot. Later, he became a commercial pilot, at a time when flying was new and exotic. Short-haul flights became long-haul flights, and before long he was flying from Madrid to New York City.

Imagine the impression New York City’s glitziest five-star hotels must have made on a man who had come from a village in which traveling by donkey was the norm. He probably soaked up the etiquette there as gospel. After all, where would he learn more about high society than New York in the 1950s? At a time when pilots were highly admired and airline travel was considered a glamorous luxury, he learned a lot and he learned it fast. Then he traveled home, arms laden with clothes and jewellery and trinkets, and taught his growing family everything he knew.

And now here I am, with excellent training in American knife and fork etiquette.

… In Europe.

While I admire his efforts, I do wish somebody had mentioned it to me sooner. It is somewhat startling to realise that I have been eating ‘wrong’ at multiple formal occasions for my entire life so far. I suppose I should probably relearn my table manners; I imagine it will be a little easier now that I have adult levels of dexterity in my hands.

Still, after thinking about it, my foreign table manners make me feel very proud of my Yayo and his ambition for a better life. Maybe I’ll still use American etiquette every so often; a private, silent tribute to one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.

grandfather yayo airline pilot when do i get the manual




  1. Quinn, I loved your blog! I have three daughters and taught them at an early age about sitting at the dining table properly (feet on the ground,sitting straight and facing your plate). I also taught them how to eat the American way (naturally), but as time went on, my daughters on their own picked up the English was of eating with fork in the left hand and knife in the right-also keeping this position throughout the eating process except when they took a drink and laid their utensils down. Though I understand there is some question of putting the fork and knife down between bites. I tend to do this now because frankly, I get tired of poising my utensil in the air!
    So now, I tend to eat the English way. We Americans eat too fast in general- eating the English way slows down the process.
    A toast to us all for eating the ‘right’ way!

    1. Hahaha thanks Victoria! Here’s to learning later in life!

  2. As usual, such a great insight into your inner thoughts, Quinn! I never really thought about eating etiquette in such a manner. You can be wrong just by eating a certain way!?

    Well, now that I think about it, the last time I took Fella somewhere to eat fried chicken, he used a fork and knife and of course, was made fun of by yours truly. But seriously, who eats fried chicken with anything but your hands??

    1. WHO KNEW??? But with fried chicken, always hands. ALWAYS. Tell Fella to put down the fork!

      1. I guess you can take the boy out of England, but England out of the boy… a little harder said than done. 🙂

  3. I never knew there was so much thought into how you used your cutlery, this is indeed an interesting post.

    1. Right? Who knew? (Not me, obviously!)

  4. I’m so confused now! How do I reconcile the proper use of a spork?

    1. Oof.

      That’s a doozy.

  5. I can’t tell you the scathing looks I got when I had the temerity to eat a burger with my hands at the Hard Rock Cafe in London some years ago. Seemingly everyone else in the place was intent on carving genteel little wedges with their knife and fork, which to an American is like watching someone drink beer through a straw.

    Tines up? Tines down? Sheesh. I’ll just strap on a feed bag if it comes down to that and bypass the whole issue. I mean, who cares. As long as there’s enough wine.

    On the other hand, your Yayo is exactly the kind of many I always wanted to be. For that matter, the kind of many my wife always wanted me to be (sorry, dear). What a guy!

    1. Er, “man”. One of my “many” typos….

    2. He was really something!

      And there really is a lot to be said for the feed bag idea….!

  6. I don’t have much of an issue with which direction the fork or spoon is held (up or down), but what bugs me is how my dad and brother hold the utensil in their hands. I usually use an underhand grip to hold the fork or spoon (and usually towards the end of the utensil, on the opposite end from what you use to eat). The grip that my dad and brother both use is an overhand grip that I can really only refer to as “caveman” style. It’s like they shovel the food into their mouths most of the time. I’ve pointed this out to them (but not criticized them for it), though it secretly does bug me…just a little bit.

    1. I actually just picked up a fork so I could act that out. Yes, yes I see why that would bug you. I feel like only starving cartoons eat that way!

  7. It’s a very interesting post, I like how you can write about something so basic yet manage to keep people reading until the end. You are a captivating writer Quinn.

    1. Thank you N! That’s a lovely compliment to receive!

  8. Nice Share at this time i Bookmark this post and read after sometime….

  9. I really love your writing style! Every time I open up one of your posts, I know it is going to be thoughtfully crafted and well written…and I will be educated and entertained! Happy Friday!

    1. Thank you! That’s such a compliment! I hope you have an amazing weekend, you and your owner!

  10. The thing I love about this is that I’ve always had an awful habit of swapping which hand I use my fork with. It drove my mother mad. Obviously I was inadvertently following American etiquette. I shall try and remember this in future.

    1. You were just unknowingly being foreign, that’s all!

  11. Interesting read. Yes, the European style is to hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. Once a bite-sized piece has been cut, it is conducted straight to the mouth by the left hand.

    1. I’m going to have to mindfully practice this from now on….

  12. My mom was more of the camp that as long as I didn’t use my fingers, and my food ended up in my mouth and not on my shirt, everything was fine and dandy.

    1. Oh she sounds very relaxing!

  13. Good manners have much to do with the emotions Quinn. To make them ring true, one must feel them, not merely exhibit them.

    1. I suppose that’s true too, I hadn’t thought about that aspect of it!

  14. i was taught the same way about eating. thanks for educating me!

    1. Haha delighted to spread the word!

  15. I wonder if you decide you would like children if you pass on a certain way of eating with a knife and fork, I always made sure my children used their knife and fork but they could use it in either hand. Who cares in the grand scale of things ( as long as they don’t bury their face in the plate it’s acceptable ) 😉 I love the way your mind works 😉

    1. Haha! I agree, in the grand scale of things it pales in significance! Thanks Rose Elaine!

      1. You can call me Elaine, Rose was my maiden name 😉 Have a great weekend 😊

  16. I was once eating with a group of Americans, politely chatting away, when about half way through the meal I realised none of them were eating – instead, they were all watching me eat with a sort of fascination which made me quite self conscious. Eventually, one of them asked me (in a tone of genuine awe!) what I was doing, and how was I doing it? I demonstrated, explained, and tried to hide my amusement as they all tried to copy me –
    with no success whatsoever….!

    1. Oh no. That does not bode well for me and my adult learning…

      1. It’s okay, they managed it in the end, but it looked like it took effort! It kinda felt a bit like having an incredibly pointless superpower…

        1. I feel like the whole fork pointing down and putting food on the hump is kind of counterintuitive, but I clearly have to start doing it! Did you try things their way?

          1. No because their way is wrong 😛

            Yes, I did. Chopping food up before eating it, and scooping it up using the fork feels deeply wrong, somehow. When I was growing up my Father would take a similar approach to table manners, his standard statement was “yes, but what if you ever had to have lunch with the Queen?”, which we all thought was utter nonsense, of course.

            One day in 2009 when we were actually having lunch with the Queen (long story, and we were way, way down the other end of the table, I might add!) he looked at the way I was handling my cutlery, leaned over and quietly muttered “see? I told you so…”

            Twenty years, he waited to deliver that punchline…

          2. In Dad years though that’s just a flicker.

            I wish I could give him a fist bump for that one. I hope you gave him the standard deadpan dad-you’re-not-funny son look.

          3. Well, yeah, obviously 😛

  17. Table manners matter but I think some parents seriously need to cool it when they impart them. I don’t think it’s right to make your kid cry and dread mealtime just because you don’t like how they’re holding their fork.

    1. Yes, table manners matter but I definitely would have preferred a more laid back approach!

  18. Darn, my kids rarely use knives. I keep meaning to impart that bit… I was raised strictly to use both, but when we are just home together, we rarely do. Just use the fork to cut whatever needs cutting. I wonder if they’ve been out in the streets embarrassing me with their forkless ways? I need to have a talk with them. Thanks, Quinn, for this cool piece of knowledge. And thank goodness for Google.

    1. Hahaha! I’ve never cut anything but pie with a fork, but now I’m curious… what food do you actually NEED a knife for?

      1. Steak. That is all I can think of.

  19. You should just start eating the ‘Murican way: unhinge jaw, and shovel in all of the food.

    1. That’s an option I often consider when dessert is on the table…

  20. It’s really fascinating how the unique etiquette you picked up can be connected to your grandfather’s life journey! In my home, we use chopsticks a bit more often than we use forks, and there’s a particular set of etiquette connected to them that I don’t remember very well, haha. This was a lovely read 🙂

  21. I’m wondering why Scrubs never questioned why You were eating wrong, haha! The American way is much easier!
    My mother was strict about table manners too, sometimes I feel awkward now if I sit and eat in front of the TV and I check no one is looking before I pick up a slice of pizza with my hands!
    Your Grandfather sounds like an incredible man! Loved this post!

    1. I asked him that and he said he never really gave it much thought! He loves his food so he was probably distracted!

      I really think pizza tastes better when you eat it with your hands…

      1. I used to love going to my Indian friends house for dinner when I was young! They just put piles of food on the table and it was a free for all, no knifes and forks just dive straight in with a papadum or naan!

        1. Yummmm

  22. INTERESTING! I have been doing it wrong all along 😎 I have totally enjoyed reading this

  23. My mom was a stickler for dinner time proper etiquette….that’s why I preferred eating at my aunt’s house….lol

  24. Quinn, As you know, I adore your ability to tell a story, make me laugh, cry, manipulate my emotions, etc. I just nominated you for the Awesome Blogger Award…

    1. Ah thanks Lane! 😊 Thank you!

  25. When I spent a month in Germany last year I realized I looked like an idiot eating the American way and not really knowing how to properly use a knife and fork (I didn’t really know the American etiquette either). In the year before I move there, I’ve been trying to reteach myself how to eat “European style” with the knife in the right-hand fork in the left. I am glad I’m not the only one that noticed and was bothered by it!

    1. Now that I’m used to it I find it so much easier and more comfortable to just eat everything with a fork and knife.

  26. How interesting… hopefully not many people care about etiquette xx

  27. There is a lot to be said for eating soup ! Great post Quinn 🙂

  28. I find this so interesting! I often notice how people use their knife and fork differently from me. I have recently met a few people (who are right handed) who use their fork in their right hand and their knife in their left! Watching them cut food was priceless!
    Brilliant post! 🙂

  29. He looks like a total badass I have to say. And as for eating etiquette, at least 30% of the world’s population (my estimate) eats with their hands so don’t stress the proper utensil usage. The grimier your hands, the better the food tastes 😀

  30. […] Bonus Points: Life Skills Unlocked: Proper Etiquette […]

  31. I doubt people are judging you for your table manners… they’re probably just (gasp) mistaking you for an American. Better change habits, quick.

  32. Who needs knives and forks – go native and use your hands !

    1. I definitely do this sometimes….!

  33. I’ve considered often what fun it would be run a modern day etiquette “finishing” school for adults… it’s so rare these days that any of us know true “etiquette” due to learning from our parents/families. I’m a small city east coast Canadian girl… from a lovely middle class family… that did NOT prepare me for champagne in the members box at the races in Windsor, UK. Life has thrown me into very posh circumestances and I felt like a bumbling circus bear within them all. LOL. Fake it until you make it, I say! If I start my etiquette school, you should come speak regarding proper fork etiquette.
    Kiss Kiss (hehehe)


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