28 Comments

  1. John

    I always found this particular setting odd.

    I know forks are set on the left. That’s basic table setting.

    Why are forks on the left when most people are right handed?

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to have forks on right?

    And I find it silly watching people hold forks on left and knives on the right.

    At almost every meal, they are holding a piece of food with fork while cutting a piece of food with the knife on the right, setting the knives down after the cut, they switch the fork from left hand to the right, eat, switch the fork back to left, grab the knife, and repeat.

    I find it MUCH simpler just to use the knife with my left hand with fork on my right. I just hold the food with the fork, cut the food with my knife on the left, then just eat. No juggling needed.

    I’m pretty sure I’m the one with bad manners but I find it too time consuming and too much effort keep switching the fork and knife back and forth.

    Is it REALLY bad to use fork with right and knife on the left entire meal?

    Thanks.

    • Country Girl

      You are a talented fellow to be able to use your knife with your left hand! As knife-work is an arguably more difficult task than holding food in place and/or lifting it to the mouth, the majority simply use the fork with the left hand, hence the traditional placement. However there is nothing incorrect or ill-mannered with using any combination of hand/utensil.

    • Jerry

      Yes, it is REALLY bad if you use the fork with the right and knife with the left hand. You might be able to get away with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right in certain situations if you’re comfortable eating English style. But most people lack the coordination to pull it off.

      If you eat incorrectly, people will think you that you are socially ignorant. And you will lose job and other opportunities. (I know that I never took a girl out on a second date if she proved she could not use a knife and fork on the first date on the theory that I couldn’t take her anywhere later on without her embarrassing me. Same thing with subordinates — if they couldn’t eat properly with me, how could I put them in front of a client?)

      Now, if you’re over 70 or independently wealthy, you can eat how you want. If neither of these apply, just follow the accepted convention.

      • Country Girl

        Accepted convention is to use your dominant hand to control your knife; otherwise left-handed folks would theoretically be fumbling around more trying to follow an arbitrary rule. John mentioned that he is more comfortable or able to use his knife in his left hand and fork in the right. Using whichever hand is most natural should come across as well-mannered.

        • Jerry

          Good grief, Country Girl. There are only two accepted conventions in this country. (See also Wikipedia.) Neither of these conventions allows the eater to use the knife in his left hand while simultaneously using the fork in his right hand.

          The first is called American zig-zag. This convention calls for the eater to use his dominate hand to control your knife when cutting his food and the other hand to control the food with your fork. Then, after cutting the food (normally only one to three pieces at a time), the eater puts the knife down, switches the fork to the dominate hand, and eats the food that he just cut.

          American zig-zag is by far the dominate convention in this country. Why? Because it is easy to master and requires very little skill by the eater. That is, it’s hard to make a mess — or look like you’re shoveling food into your mouth — using American zig-zag.

          The second acceptable convention is the English convention. In this style, the eater uses the knife (always in the right hand) and the fork (always in the left hand) simultaneously. There are a few challenges with the English convention. Most importantly, it’s potentially messy unless you’re very well practiced.

          Bottom line — you’re absolutely not coming off as well mannered in polite company if you keep the knife in the wrong hand.

    • Chocobo

      Goodness, how much cutting are you doing during a meal?

      The fork is on the left and the knife on the right so that when you pick them both up at the same time to start into that wonderful steak, they are already in the proper position to cut: the left hand holding a small bite in place with the fork while the right hand does the dirty work of cutting away the piece from the rest of the meat. Then the right hand puts the knife down on the plate and switches to the fork, which is still holding the small piece, and lifts it to the mouth, while the left hand retires to your lap, under the table. This is the correct way to eat, unless you are left-handed, in which case the process is reversed, although the knife is still placed to the right and the fork to the left of the plate at the start, out of convention.

      It really isn’t that inconvenient, since most foods really shouldn’t need to be cut once they are on the plate. Most foods can or should be edible simply by “cutting” with the side of the fork (no knife needed) or are already prepared bite-sized. Normally you shouldn’t have to saw whole carrots in half in your plate, and baked potatoes are so soft, they require no knife at all. Green beans are small enough to simply stuff into the mouth, and salads should never have lettuce or vegetables in them that are too large to put in the mouth alone. Of everything on your plate, only the meat really needs any additional serious modifications before you eat it, and that’s just one very small part of the meal. So perhaps you have more of a food preparation problem than a food eating problem, if it’s very bothersome.

      But if you really can’t bring yourself to switch back and forth between knife and a fork, please at least put the knife down when you are not using it, instead of letting it loll around in your left hand. It gives the impression you are warding off others from your plate by brandishing a knife, and it is almost impossible not to hunch over your meal with both your hands constantly above the table.

  2. The style of eating where one holds the fork in the left hand and knife in the right is called the Continental style of eating. It actually is a smoother method of using tableware in that the utensils do not change hands through-out the meal. American style is holding the fork in the left hand, the knife in the right to cut a bit of food, then place the knife on the edge of the plate and switch the fork to the right hand in order to take the bite. If you are left handed, reverse the order. Neither style is incorrect, however, consistency through-out the meal is key. Regardless of the style used, it is considered appropriate to cut only one bite at a time, and taking small bites allows for conversation.

    As a side note, the American style of eating is used only in the U.S.; all other countries consider the Continental style to be correct.

    In reality, you are welcome to hold the utensils and eat in any manner you wish. The question is, does it matter how others perceive you? At home, or with friends, you may not care, but if you are dining with an employer, a client, or a date, then yes, it will have a tremendous impact on your future.

    • Chocobo

      While “Continental” style is indeed used abroad, the American style of eating is the original. Americans adopted it from the Europeans during the last century and have kept it as convention, while the Europeans again changed to brandishing their knives while holding their forks, for whatever reason.

      I beg to differ that either way is correct: not so. Continental style may be considered appropriate outside the United States, but if John is American, he should be using American etiquette and therefore, the American “zig-zag” style of eating. It doesn’t matter how others eat abroad.

      • Hi Chocobo,

        As a graduate of The Protocol School of Washington, I learned — and instruct — that either style is correct.

        Letitia Baldrige’s New Complete Guide to Executive Manners says “It’s wise to learn how to eat in the continental rather than the American style, because it is much more widely used around the world, more elegant, quieter and vastly more practical.”

        Emily Post’s The Etiquette Advantage In Business states “There are two styles for handling the knife and fork while dining: the American style and the Continental … Is one more proper than the other? Certainly not.”

        and according to Emily Post’s Etiquette 18th Edition “Both are equally correct. … whichever way is more comfortable or fits the type of food you are eating.”

        The Continental style of eating is alive and well here in the U.S., and for good reason. Not only is it perfectly acceptable, but it is also much more efficient, smoother, and more polished in appearance. But again, it comes down to personal preference.

        • Winifred Rosenburg

          Actually, Miss Manners says that the Continental method is only correct if you are in Europe or originally from Europe.

        • Chocobo

          I’m afraid I must disagree with you and side with your fellow Washingtonian, Judith Martin. I very much agree with her that the American “zig-zag” style is both the original European tradition, although it is not anymore, and the current proper way to eat in the United States. As for efficiency, I see very little connection with efficiency and elegance, especially when it comes to food.

        • Jerry

          Moreover, John didn’t describe the Continental style — he described a reverse version of the Continental style, which is not proper.

  3. John

    wow

    I got far more reply that I expected…

    so basic point is that yes it’s bad manner to use knife on left hand while cutting food but it’s good manner to use fork on the right hand while eating?

    one of the post brought up a point where food you eat doesn’t require a knife…if you don’t use a knife, then holding fork on the right hand while eating is still considered good manner…

    but soon as you hold knife on left hand, it suddenly becomes bad manner…as long as you are constantly holding it…

    so even if you use left hand to use the knife to cut, make few small cuts of food, put the knife down, eat, and use the knife again?

    this is why I still don’t get why forks are on the left when vast majority will use it on right hand…

    • Winifred Rosenburg

      First of all, you have to realize that etiquette is not about efficiency. Many times there are reasons for rules in etiquette but not always. Some time customs develop that are not really better than other options except that it allows for everyone to be on the same page. Sometimes there was a reason for the rule when it originally evolved but the reason no longer exists yet the rule still does. There is nothing wrong with that; it’s just the nature of etiquette.

      Basically the table setting was designed under the assumption that you would be eating meat and you would want to use your dominant hand for cutting because holding a fork still is a task more easily handled by non-dominant hands.

      • Jodi Blackwood

        Such an interesting discussion — thank you!

        The word efficient is used only in that there is no repeated picking up and putting down of utensils, which can lead to all sorts of clanging and dropping if one is not careful.

        Clearly, etiquette authorities disagree, and with due respect to Miss Manners, I personally prefer the side that believes that either style is correct as it puts no one in the wrong. You might find this interesting —

        “Listen to Letitia Baldrige, the renowned author of eight etiquette books, who says: “Social manners have changed dramatically. Kids today and for the last 20 years have held the fork and knife in unbelievable ways. They hold the fork with a fist and the knife like a saw and they shovel it in. It doesn’t matter to them which way they hold their knife and fork. They eat every which way. I’m amazed they get food into their mouths at all.”

        As for Baldrige’s personal preference, she’s on my side and prefers the labor-efficient continental approach.

        “It is a much easier way to eat. It is much neater and there is no banging of flatware. Eating American-style, you put the knife down and clang. Continental is silent and efficient.

        “But some people think it is faddish and elitist. We’re the only people in the world who eat this way, putting the knife down and changing the fork from the left to the right hand.”

        Why do we do it? An explanation is offered by Dorothea Johnson, founder/director of the Protocol School of Washington, which trains ambassadors and business executives on how to behave in foreign lands.

        “The custom of American eating was the way everyone ate until about 1840. In 1852 it came out in a French etiquette book that if you wanted to eat in a high-class manner, you would not switch the fork to the other hand. Before long, Europeans of all classes started using that style.”Johnson tries to explain that to her clients.

        “In certain business sectors, if you don’t eat continental-style, you look as if you just got off the cabbage truck.”

        A strong believer in the American style is Judith Martin, who has written the Miss Manners column since 1978 and is author of four Miss Manners books.

        “For Americans, it is more proper to eat American-style and it looks silly to eat European-style if you were not born in Europe. I’m a firm believer, for which I get a great deal of hate mail, that the American style is more dignified, slower, more complicated, as opposed to a quick shove-it-in method.”

        from When Even The Experts Are Divided http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1996-03-27/news/9603250222_1_fork-french-etiquette-book-knife

        I suppose we should be glad that people are using utensils at all!

        • Jerry

          (You realize that John didn’t describe the Continental style, though, right? Re-read what he’s doing and see if you still think he’s right.)

          • Jodi Blackwood

            Actually, Jerry, John is describing the Continental style of eating, if he is left handed, and that is perfectly acceptable. However, as he did not inform us as to which is his dominant hand, I was choosing to address the two different styles of eating as they had become a part of the conversation.

          • Jerry

            Actually, he did not because the Continental style does not account for hand dominance. (You may want to take some continuing education courses to supplement your protocol certification that you brag about.) But, assuming arguendo that the Continental style allowed for the knife in the left hand (which it does not) John ‘s posting strongly suggested he was right handed. Otherwise, he would not have complained that the set up of a fork on the left side of the place setting was inconvenient for right handed people.

        • Winifred Rosenburg

          How interesting! I sometimes wonder how etiquette experts determine when a rule has changed. It seems that some have decided this one has changed and some that it hasn’t. Personally, I haven’t picked a side. (Not that I’m an expert.) :)

        • Chocobo

          It came out in a French etiquette book that… you would not switch the fork to the other hand.”
          “In certain business sectors… you look as if you just got off the cabbage truck.”

          Those two phrases are exactly why insisting that Americans should use the Continental style at home, in America, is insulting. How is it that Americans should be so ashamed of their own nationality and customs as to believe that adopting foreign customs is an automatically superior and more elegant choice? The idea that we should imitate other countries because their ways are inherently superior to our supposedly bumpkin, “cabbage-truck” traditions is the very definition of pretension. Rather, we should not feel ashamed to learn and to use our own cultural traditions. Advertising makes good use of this erroneous presumption by slapping French and Italian words onto food products with fancy labels and marking up the prices of average merchandise.

          It may be useful to learn Continental style should one expect to be dining abroad with those where it is more widely used, although I do not see such effort being put forth by Europeans who visit the United States to adopt our eating habits while in our country. However, expecting Americans to eat like foreigners in their own country for no other reason than Europeans do it is ridiculous and insulting, and does begin to look very much like elitism.

          • Jodi Blackwood

            Chocobo, you clearly are of the mind that the American style is most appropriate, and you are certainly entitled to your opinion; I have no wish to argue with you. As I said, I prefer to look at that both styles are correct, and that is my opinion. Given that I have a European father and was raised using the Continental style (as did my American mother), it is the style I personally use. Nowhere in my comments have I insisted that Americans should use the Continental style. I have endeavored to share information relating to the opinions of etiquette authorities in my postings and that is all. If you are to take their words literally, you have the option of looking silly and undignified, or faddish and elitist. Clearly, one cannot win, regardless of the style chosen. That, in itself, is silly.

  4. Jodi Blackwood

    How sad that rudeness is so prevalent on an etiquette site.

    Jerry, it has not been my intention to “brag” about my protocol certification in any way, shape or form, and I find it interesting that your reaction to a difference of opinion on this string, and many other conversations, is to attack. One might accuse you of bragging of your background and professional knowledge through your repeated use of legal terms.

    For the record, I have done my research, and the Continental style of dining does allow for the knife in the left hand, should one be left handed. There are numerous sitings and fellow etiquette authorities that agree with me, including Jacqueline Whitmore, in her book Business Class: Etiquette Essentials For Success At Work. http://books.google.com/books?id=xAj2RW8SLyIC&pg=PA91&lpg=PA91&dq=American+vs.+Continental+dining+style+left+hand&source=bl&ots=YeHp5bsUr6&sig=HyoS4-P07Zzxfw70yKnBgIiqJlE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=BDnnULHqKsGUiAKNsYGABQ&ved=0CE0Q6AEwBDgK#v=onepage&q=American%20vs.%20Continental%20dining%20style%20left%20hand&f=false

    As I have absolutely no wish to debate this any further, I wish you good day.

    • Jerry

      Yes, Jodi, it is sad. While I will certainly assert myself when challenged, I am not so insecure to try to score points by pointing to my [X] degrees from [Y] schools. That’s not a basis for discussion, and it asks others to buy into a logical fallacy.

  5. Brockwest

    Jodi, I apologize that you were not treated with the etiquette you deserve.
    We mavens of manners should practice etiquette here.

  6. Sarah

    I eat left-handed Continental style (fork always in right, knife always in left). I’ve read that if you are left-handed, you should eat right handed anyway. However, I also know that that doesn’t always happen. (I’ll now confess that I’m not left-handed. How I grew up this way is a bit of a mystery. I think I don’t spend that much time cutting meat. I mostly use my fork and just use the knife to help place things on the fork, etc.) Here’s the thing: whatever hand you naturally favor isn’t an issue in sports. You can throw right handed, hit left handed, drive right handed, put left handed, whatever as long as you get the job done. Is it possible that we might adopt that model in eating with the caveat being that “getting the job done” is being graceful and polite?

    • Elizabeth

      I agree with you. I would never even notice if my tablemate was eating continental or otherwise. I would be too focused on the conversation, or on my own food. For me, it’s a matter of custom and personal preference.

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