Bethanne Patrick has attempted to lasso together a huge subject: how man has civilized himself through manners, aka rules of engagement, at the table and elsewhere. She is author of An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You’ve been studying courtesy. Most of us think we know what it means, but what did you find?

Bethanne Patrick Bethanne Patrick (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)

Bethanne Patrick: The thing that I found about courtesy is that we have different rules about it and we call those rules “manners.” But basic courtesy is really the same almost everywhere: It’s about how you treat others. It’s about thinking about other people before you think of yourself, thinking of their comfort before you consider your own comfort. I’m not an anthropologist, I’m not a sociologist, but in everything that I researched, that’s what I found. The Golden Rule is not something that is only Judeo-Christian; there have been versions of it all around the world for thousands of years.

LRK: You write in your book that many different parts of the world have something they traditionally say when they sit down to a meal -- and we don’t.

BP: I don’t know why we simply do not say “good appetite,” because that’s what the other cultures say. Of course, we all know from our beloved Julia Child here in the U.S. that the French say “bon appetit.” In Germany they say “guten appetit” and people say “gleichfalls,” meaning “likewise.” “Buen provecho” is something that’s often spoken in Latin American and Spanish-speaking countries. All over the world, people will say at the beginning of a meal, “Eat well; have a good appetite.”

Maybe we’re a little bit shy about saying that as English-speakers. It could be because England and France have been in a rivalry, both formal and informal, for hundreds of years. It could be because we just found it to be a little old-fashioned. But it’s a shame, because I think it’s wonderful to say to your fellow companions and diners that you want them to eat well and heartily.

LRK: It is odd that we don’t do that. What are some of the most striking food customs that you found?

An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy

BP: There's a Burmese custom that has to do with saying “you’re welcome.” I’m really interested in this because we say “you’re welcome” -- it’s simply a phrase. But in certain parts of Burma, when you send an invitation to, say, the celebration of a baby’s birth or to a wedding, the houses in the village that accept the invitation will then receive a delivery from the person who invited them: a pickled tea leaf salad, known as “lahpet,” though the spelling varies. It’s something that the person doing the invite sends out to say, “Thank you so much for accepting my invitation.” It’s a sort of “you’re welcome” gift. That was one that I absolutely loved.

Another one that I think is really fun is why our bread knives are blunt. That actually has a couple of different interpretations. It’s the same time period -- 17th-century France. Some people say that was because the king didn’t want fighting with pointed objects at the table, and of course that makes a certain amount of sense. But there’s also another story: Cardinal Richelieu, who is quite well known in history, decided too many of the people at the court were picking their teeth with their knives. He decided that the blunt ends would make people look a little less savage while they were at the table. He was trying to make things a little bit more refined.

LRK: What about gifts?

BP: Japan has etiquette that is really very formalized. Now I use “etiquette” rather than “manners” because etiquette, which is a word from the French from the 17th century, is how you treat people in a hierarchy. In Japan, you have different rules for the kind of gift you would give to your boss than to the kind of gift you would give to a family member.

Let’s say you’re invited to a business dinner in Japan. An American might say, “I’m going to go out and buy one of those funny little packs of cocktail napkins with a joke on them and that’ll be a lovely gift.” Not so if you’re going to a dinner party in Kyoto. You really are probably best off going to a department store where they have a section for gifts for hostesses. In Japan, the presentation is far more important than the gift. You can give something very lovely, a good bottle of Scotch or a set of lovely linen dinner napkins, but the way it’s wrapped and the way that the wrapping is presented is more important than whatever is inside.

One of the things that I like about this is that they also have a tradition -- although the wrapping may seem very elaborate and you’re thinking, “Why bother?” -- often that elaborate wrapping is reusable. The Japanese have one kind of wrapping called “furoshiki” and those are oblongs of cloth; they can be really beautiful, anything from a humble print to a gorgeous piece of silk. The way that the furoshiki is tied often has messages and symbolism. You can say congratulations with one kind of knot and condolences with another.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.