If you’ve been in public in the past year or so, chances are you’ve noticed someone breaking dining etiquette that would seem second-nature to any adult. Vloggers loudly chew or smack their lips (go to the 8:40 mark to see for yourself). A fellow shopper at the Whole Foods buffet samples the ingredients with their bare hands. The couple next to you at a restaurant’s communal dining table arrives from the gym, radiating a sweat corona.
“Personally, I’ve seen some pretty disgusting things taking place in restaurants lately, from people blowing their noses at the table to cleaning their fingernails with toothpicks and forks!” said Lisa Godley, co-host of the “Mind Over Manners” podcast.
Even outside of restaurants, you can encounter similarly gross dining behavior. I recently witnessed a well-dressed patron exit a nice restaurant in the trendy downtown district of our town, then proceed to enthusiastically lick her fingers as she walked down the street. Of course, she used those fingers to open the door to another shop.
These are the things that happen when people stop being polite. But why does our dining etiquette seem to be at an all-time low right now?
“Overall, there’s much less feeling about a common good, which means caring about your neighbor — whether at home or in a restaurant,” said Steven Petrow, Digital Life columnist for USA Today. “The mantra of the day is ‛Me, me, me,’ which means traditional rules don’t apply to ‛me.’”
From Petrow’s point of view, the most common offenses when dining out are things like not showing up for a reservation, demanding many modifications to a dish and treating servers poorly.
Nothing conveys the “me” culture quite like the use of cellphones at the table. While a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent of those surveyed thought it was acceptable to use their phones while dining out, the increasing prevalence of cellphone bans in restaurants signals that restaurants aren’t having it.
However, some look to the ubiquity of cellphones as a sign that manners evolve alongside our society.
“Manners change,” said the server/writer behind The Salty Waitress, a dining etiquette column at the food site The Takeout.
“Back not so long ago when cellphones were a new thing, leaving yours on the table would have made you a total ratbag,” she told HuffPost. “Now, hardly anyone bats an eyelash at buzzing, beeping phones on tables. … It’s not so much that we’re becoming more or less rude, just that what we consider rude isn’t set in stone.” She points out the other “rules” that have since become old-fashioned in our era, like saying “Sir” and “Ma’am,” as proof of this evolution.
And that brings us to the effect of what’s on those smartphone screens: social media. “Many people today take their etiquette cues from what they see on social media, particularly from celebrities and other newsmakers,” said Carla McDonald, founder of the entertaining site The Salonniere.
“If they see a celebrity they admire wearing workout gear to a really nice restaurant, they think it’s acceptable to do the same thing,” she said. “It’s almost as though social media is becoming the new manual of manners.”
Though etiquette courses like New York’s Beaumont Etiquette have seen an increase in enrollment from young professionals, lives lived online take social cues from what’s happening on screen. “People like to SAY that manners aren’t a thing anymore, but it’s just that new sets of manners are important,” said Travis McElroy, co-host of the “Shmanners” podcast. “As different things become important to different generations, what manners people care about changes. Trust me, ask any teenager about group chat etiquette and you’ll see what I mean.”
Yes, traditional manners are yet another thing being redefined by youth. “Younger people are growing up in a world with more flexible rules, and this extends to the dining table,” said Daniel Levine, director of global trends consultancy The Avant-Guide Institute.
Levine adds that even higher-end restaurants have to adapt: “These days, fewer people want stiff service, and stuffiness is no longer associated with being high class.”
Whether you prefer high-end restaurants or a fast-casual meal, the biggest factor behind the decline of manners may just be a numbers game.
“I believe there is more opportunity to commit dining faux pas because we have more options available to go out and eat,” said Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “Years ago, people stayed home and sat around the family table. Today, there are more people in the workforce, which contributes to more expendable income to spend on socializing and eating out. With new opportunity comes the potential for more dining disasters.”