When I was a kid, my siblings and I would get booted from the dinner table for etiquette infractions, both minor (chewing with an open mouth) and major (criticizing my mom’s food). A year into the pandemic, and 40 years removed from the dinner disruptions of my youth, I am a bit concerned about the lack of decorum in my own household.
It’s just my husband and me hunkered down together these days. (Our table manners admittedly were better when my mom moved in temporarily in the fall.) We scarf down dinner in minutes. Crumbs get stuck in my husband’s goatee. Sauce dribbles onto his sweatshirt, which desperately needs a wash after having been worn three days in a row. I’ve watched him discover stale tortilla chips between sofa cushions and toss them into his mouth without a second thought. He matter-of-factly likens himself to the family dog. Actually, we don’t have a family dog.
I’m not faring much better. My appearance only can be classified as pathetic. I wash the same load of work-ercise clothes every week. The waist of my yoga pants is wider than a year ago; I blame the snack shelf, which is a mere 5 feet from the kitchen counter that doubles as my desk. During this new era of elastic waistband comfort, I’ve birthed a muffin top baby. Zipper pants, button shirts and belts are up for adoption.
We aren’t the only family whose standards have fallen.
“With COVID, everyone has reverted to sweatpants, eating on the couch in front of the TV, wiping on their sleeves instead of using a napkin,” said Natalie Aide, mother of three daughters, ages 13, 10 and 3. During the pandemic, she and husband Michael have watched their eldest daughter’s “not great” table manners worsen.
“I needed to get her table manners under control,” she said.
Aide looked around for a professional Miss Manners, and landed on Peggy Newfield, president and founder of the 40-year-old Atlanta-based American School of Protocol. Newfield agreed to come to the family’s home in Buckhead and give them a lesson in dining etiquette.
In preparation for the formal, four-course dinner, the family set the table with fine china and crystal. They scattered flower petals across the tablecloth. They dressed up. During the three-hour lesson, Newfield aided the Aides in dining like civilized humans.
“Peggy helped everybody be more aware,” Aide said, adding that it’s really about keeping things under control, “so you can enjoy the conversation and your family. We’re not just shoving food in our face. It’s more of an event: Take a pause from the day, sit down together as a unit, and connect with each other in a beautiful way, with sweetness and refinement and elegance. I think some people are ready to have a sense of elegance back in their life. Being homebound, people want some refinement and beauty.”
I think about the burps and farts that my husband and I emit with alarming frequency these days, and how they more often are followed by a snigger or a snort, rather than an “excuse me.”
Elegance, refinement and beauty — oh, how I miss them!
Restaurants, especially ones of the fine-dining variety, are where we used to at least attempt a show of politesse. We haven’t eaten at a restaurant in more than a year. What will we be like when we finally do? Will we be the most socially awkward couple on the reservations list?
“Not at all,” Jordan Cattie assured me. “We are all going to have discomfort in that re-entry.”
Cattie is a clinical psychologist with Emory Brain Health Center, and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. She specializes in treating people with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.
“The pandemic has included tons of different anxiety triggers for a lot of folks,” Cattie said, citing fears among OCD patients about contamination, getting sick with COVID-19, or infecting someone else. Individuals with social anxieties have struggled with virtual school or Zoom meetings, because of the “camera in your face experience,” she said.
Cattie projects that plenty of people will go through an adjustment phase when they first return to restaurants, and that it will be more acute for those who have remained largely confined to home, limited in-person group interactions, and adhered to social distancing and mask-wearing.
“All the things that were automatic, aren’t,” she said. “We are going to put on makeup, weird, and just be rusty and so excited to see each other. We’re going to be such weirdos in conversation, because we’re so excited to do stuff. Even funnier, I think we’re all going to feel so weird for being nervous. We’re going to feel like it’s just us, but it’s everybody. We’re going to think twice about things we didn’t before, wondering if we are overdressed or underdressed. We’re going to overthink things.”
In Cattie’s line of work, they call it anticipatory anxiety. It’s the fear-arousing, what-if mind games we play prior to an event. “The beforehand is probably the worst part,” she said. “The night before, we are thinking 35 scenarios that might be a challenge.”
When the real moment happens, “usually it goes better than we expect,” Cattie said.
Folks who’ve been uber-cautious during the pandemic, and whose “comfort level went down because our world contracted, won’t feel back into the swing until we have practice,” she told me.
I suffer from such anticipatory anxiety that I rang a few folks in the restaurant industry to learn whether the current clientele is, in short, acting weird.
Nope, said Gerry Klaskala, chef-owner of Aria in Atlanta. More than anything, Klaskala said, his guests have been very considerate. Similar to what Cattie noted, he has observed that “there is an acclimation of getting back in the swing of things,” but he assured me that I would be fine.
“You would snap right back,” he said.
Over at Tiny Lou’s in the Hotel Clermont in Atlanta, Executive Chef Jon Novak hasn’t noticed the odd behavior that Cattie said some of us are scared we might display when we finally emerge from our dens. However, newly transplanted from a tenure in Napa Valley, Novak has picked up on Atlanta’s chill attitude toward attire.
“Every night, I see a swath of people dressing differently,” Novak said. “There are guys in ties and slacks, but, at the same time, I could see a woman in yoga pants and a T-shirt.”
I think about how I will dress that first night out. Restaurant consultant David Abes told me that his wife, Julie, said she doesn’t even know how to wear heels anymore. I’ve been pregnant with the muffin top, so my feet are too swollen to squeeze into 2- or 3-inch heels.
Cattie gave me permission to do what I please upon post-pandemic re-entry. “I think we are going to re-examine things and say, ‘How often do I want to do this? Are we more casual? Heels seem like a lot.’ “
Heels are too much for the Big Night Out, but I can manage a shower. I’ll use soap, shampoo my hair. Maybe, even the family dog will get a bath.