There are just some people who are, as they say, “to the manner born.” Not only do they have the ability to look preternaturally fresh and moisturized at all times, always perfectly accessorized, never flustered, and always know the right thing to say.
These are the people who, as they say, have “breeding”—although this is obviously a colloquialism. Everyone has breeding. If their parents didn’t breed, they wouldn’t be here. Whether that was a good idea or not is a separate issue.
What people usually mean by “breeding” is whether their family is well-known and has had money for some time. If the family hasn’t had money for a long time, then having a great deal of it is an acceptable substitute.
But another popular aphorism, which goes, “money can’t buy breeding,” suggests that they might be talking about manners, another beast altogether.
“Manners” don’t have the best of connotations these days. It evokes the rigid and rather antiquated school of knowledge about knowing which fork to pick up, and working the Bishop of Norwich into the conversation should someone forget to pass the port.
But, does that not fall under the more structured body of knowledge called “etiquette”—social rules that vary from culture to culture, and from period to period? In Osaka, one stands on the right side of the escalator to allow people in a hurry to pass on the left. In Tokyo it’s the other way around.
What is the etiquette of pulling out a mobile phone during a dinner to show someone pictures of something that came up during the conversation, or to take down a book recommendation for an obscure Polish author whose name you know you’ll never remember otherwise?
Guides to etiquette have to be updated constantly—not just to accommodate new technologies such as the telephone, and, later, the mobile phone and the smartphone.
Changing social mores also means that practices are continually changing. Men don’t usually leave the women to smoke cigars anymore after dessert, though I’ve been to one dinner party where it was suggested. it was an enjoyable experience—partly because I picked out a very fine cigar at the insistence of our host, and because it forced the couples to break apart and then recirculate in a different seating when we rejoined, which is essential to good conversation, as well as to escape from bores.
I can think of no modern society whose etiquette suggests it’s all right to be rude to the waitstaff—although I disagree with the truism that when you’re out on a date, you can tell the measure of a man by how well he treats the waiter.
I know many men who are lovely to their waiters, or to their dogs, but beastly to their wives. But this doesn’t mean, of course, that loutish behavior on the part of the customer should be tolerated. This tendency to be rude to someone who can’t be rude back to you is exacerbated in the arena of fine dining, where the possibility of the role of the server and the client being reversed is much diminished.
In countries with greater social mobility and where college students often take up part-time jobs as waitstaff, you’d expect attitudes to be different—but from what I’ve seen this is not the case. Those who’ve made it feel entitled to take it out on those who haven’t, and in the coastal areas the waitstaff are often migrants.
Manners vs etiquette
The distinction between manners and etiquette is particularly important because anyone can learn etiquette by reading a book, while no one is born with manners. Manners are taught, but more often than not, they are learned—by watching parents and other adult figures.
But mostly good manners in a restaurant, as elsewhere in life, are a mindset. I, more than anyone else, can attest to how difficult it is to keep one’s cool when you reach a restaurant after spending hours in heavy traffic, and the staff are incompetent, indifferent, or rude.
In my experience, restaurant staff in the country are rarely rude directly, the way the Cantonese are. But they are rude in a passive-aggressive way. They will “lose” your order, pretend not to see you frantically signaling to them while looking at a spot directly behind your left ear, or deliberately embarrass you by telling the whole table that your card has been declined due to insufficient funds.
My wife and I dined out twice this weekend. The first was an omakase dinner at Nobu (at the invitation of the restaurant). Not only was the service flawless, but the waitstaff seemed to be genuinely happy to be there. You might sniff that one would expect so at this price point, but there’s plenty of impersonal service at the high end, especially at hotel dining outlets.
For those who are wondering, the omakase has moved away from the predictability of serving Nobu’s greatest hits—it’s really a seasonal menu now that changes from month to month.
The other meal came about because we had no food in the house on a Sunday, we had to brave the crowds at the mall. It was well past lunchtime, so the restaurant we went to had a few empty tables. The service was not just bad because they forgot our order several times, the tables were full of flies, and the food was badly cooked and had to be sent back. It was that they didn’t care.
But, in most cases, the kind of restaurant service that really gets my hackles up is indifferent service. This is evident in the case of chain restaurants—not fast food restaurants, whose playbooks make it almost impossible to screw up—but large-scale operations whose staff are rotated constantly among the various branches, and hire on a contractual basis.
A restaurant should ideally be like family. But the problem with family is that they look out for themselves, so they’ll end up stealing (or so the thinking goes) and the teams are constantly broken up and reassigned.
Perhaps the most difficult Lenten sacrifice to make is not to eat seafood—in fact, it’s something of a treat to eat seafood when the weather is as oppressive as it has been—but to keep one’s temper in the face of bumbling ineptitude or complete unconcern. The local practice is also to pool tips, so there are usually only one or two good workers on a team, while the rest sleepwalk through their shift.
That day, the service was so bad that my wife thought I was taking a long time to bite into my sandwich, but I was actually letting out a long, silent scream.
Patience is a virtue. Keeping one’s manners and remaining calm in the face of bad service at an overpriced restaurant may require an act of divine intervention. I won’t say which restaurant, because even if I fail at everything else, I have the wisdom to know it won’t make a difference. —CONTRIBUTED