Table Talk

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TABLE TALK. All human societies take advantage of the fact that meals are physically necessary, normally frequent, and often eaten with others. They turn dinnertimes into opportunities to express and to practice "culture." Because talking is the primary mode of human communication, mealtimes commonly provide occasions for conversation. Every culture has its own ideas about the management of verbal interaction or of silence at meals.

When to Talk

Most of the time human beings who are sharing a meal prefer to eat without saying much. They simply concentrate on what they are doing, appreciating and enjoying their food. When talking takes place, it is often socially regulated, its timing clarified by rules. In some societies talk is completed before dinner. The meal then serves as a contented celebration of togetherness and agreement, after the discussions that have preceded it (Ortner, 1978; Fitzgerald, 1941). In others the eating comes first, and only when hunger is satisfied should talk break out (Chao, 1956). Formal meals might require silence, conversation being reserved for intimacy among family and friends (Toffin, 1977, ch. 4). In modern Europe and North America the opposite is the case. On formal occasions or when invited out, people should talk; it is rude not to. For this very reason eating together in "companionable" silence can be a sign of great intimacy. On the other hand, everybody eating without talking might be the expression of an oppressive tension.

The Japanese begin a banquet in silence but warm up as time goes on. Barriers fall, and discourse increases accordingly (Befu, 1974). Sometimes it is thought proper that only elders and important people should speak (Okere, 1983). Although it is commonly accepted that mealtimes are excellent opportunities for small children to learn to talk, in many places and times older children have been forbidden to speak during meals taken with adults. In the modern West, middle-class children are likely to be encouraged to talk during meals. Such family meals have even been described as "class[es] in oral expression" (Bossard and Boll, 1966, p. 141).

Until the early twentieth century in the United States and until the late twentieth century in Britain, it was thought proper at formal upper-class meals to send the women away from the dining room table into the drawing room, originally called a "withdrawing" room, owing to this practice. They took tea and engaged in conversation, leaving the men behind to move together around the table to drink port and discuss politics and other "male" subjects. (The men had been separated during the meal owing to "promiscuous" seating, men and women alternating around the table.) The host decided when the segregation should cease and then shepherded the men to "join the ladies" again (Post, 1922, pp. 223224).

Often entertainment is laid on, and then of course talking is minimal. Watching television during meals is a modern instance of an ancient tradition that includes entertainers dancing and juggling during pauses between courses (as in the medieval and Renaissance entremets), someone reading aloud as monks eat silently in the refectory, musicians performing, and even the host dancing, singing, or playing a musical instrument for his or her guests.

Drama and Dialogue

At aristocratic ancient Greek dinner parties, talk was mostly limited, during the actual eating, to reaching a decision about what subjects to discuss afterward. Later the wine drinking began, the symposion or "drinking together," and then people were expected to be able to sing in turn and to have something intelligent to say about the topics proposed. From this custom a literary genre developed in which an imaginary dialogue after dinner is reported by the author. Plato's Symposium (on the subject "What is love?"), Xenophon's Symposium, Plutarch's Symposiacs and Banquet of the Seven Sages, Macrobius's Saturnalia, and Athenaeus's fifteen-volume The Sophists at Dinner are surviving examples of the type. They are ancestors of collections of table talk or propos de table that have continued as a minor tradition of European and American belles lettres down the centuries.

Meals have often been the locus of drama, the eating companions filling the roles of both actors and audience. Every organized feast has a theatrical aspect, and what is said on the occasion is at least as memorable as what is eaten or what is done. Where it is that people sit (and therefore who will most easily talk to whom) is often decided by the host, the "producer" of the performance. In many cultures it is incumbent upon the host before, during, or after the meal to give a speech. Dramatic rituals requiring speech have often been inserted into mealtime festivity. One highly developed and still surviving custom in this class is that of drinking toasts with the eloquence traditionally required (Dickson, 1981). In medieval Europe a rich feast was incomplete without a nonpartaking audience looking on.

All religions include ritual eating events, usually with important speaking roles for those present. Examples are the Jewish seder (Quesnel et al., 1999, pt. 1) or the Javanese slametan (Geertz, 1960). During the last supper that Jesus ate with his friends, he instituted the Eucharist and asked that his disciples repeat his words and actions. In the course of the meal his betrayer was revealed. The discourses of Jesus during this meal are of central importance to Christian belief (John 1317; Luke 22). Prayer, either before meals, or after meals, or both, is common the world over.

Rules of Behavior

Modern Western societies make talking an important component of a formal meal and of many other eating events as well. (These very societies have rigid requirements about eating silently, with mouths shut. The necessity of nevertheless talking constitutes the kind of complication that is typical of manners in general.) Where people talk, everybody should do so. Not talking is not joining in, where conviviality is the aim. The silence of one individual in these cultures and in others can be interpreted as hostility, incompetence, or even greed, a plot to take advantage of the others' conversation in order to eat more than anybody else.

It is forbidden at a dining room table to reach past people, and especially across their plates, for what one might need. It is therefore necessary to ask and then to thank the neighbor who obliges. Before helping himself or herself to more food, the polite diner first asks others whether they want some more. Such simple exchanges, made mandatory by table manners, create a ready-made, basic fabric of verbal interaction with others.

Since all have the duty, all should also have the opportunity to talk. Politeness therefore commonly demands, to varying degrees in different cultures, no drowning out of others' words by shouting and no interrupting. All the manners governing conversation may apply even more strictly than is usual. Where the guests are seated around a table, on view to all those present, it is bad manners to talk, whisper, and laugh with one companion to the exclusion and possible covert ridicule of others. A guest should not be singled out and so closely questioned that he or she has no time to eat the food.

It is rude, the etiquette books repeatedly remind their readers, to upset people with descriptions of what might disgust them or shock them (the last thing people want while eating is to be perturbed or "put off their food"). Dinnertime conversationalists are often advised against controversial or overly important subjects like politics or religion. Talking shop is frowned upon and also long-winded technical explanations nobody wants to hear. There should be no holding forth so that only one person is heard from. The host in particular is enjoined not to praise the culinary excellence of the meal or otherwise to put himself or herself forward. He or she should concentrate instead on encouraging the guests to shine (Morel, 1977; Staffe, 1899).

At a Japanese cha no yu or tea ceremony, the host goes to great trouble to make the dining space beautiful with flower arrangements and utensils chosen to express appreciation for the season of the year. The host might deliberately and delicately absent himself at a certain point to give guests the opportunity to comment, without embarrassing the host with too much praise, on the tea bowls, their beauty and their perfect taste, and the room and its furnishings. Contemplation, heightened sensitivity, and admiration are the aim of the ceremony. Spoken expression of people's responses is an essential aspect of the experience (Kondo, 1985).

Wit, Creativity, Social Bonding

Among people prosperous enough to eat in company for pleasure and entertainment, meals have often been occasions for the display of wit. Brilliant conversation was what writers of "table talk" attempted to recapture. Table talk is different with every gathering; it is on each occasion the group's own improvised creation. The conversation may range from the boring or unpleasant to a memorable art form, as may the preparation of the meal itself. At times dinnertime discourse can become artificial and competitive and even part of power struggles, since being invited to the right dinner parties and so consorting with important people has often been essential to an ambitious career. Dinner guests invited in order to dazzle others with their famous wit have frequently prepared themselves with stories ready to insert into the conversation, have sharpened their sallies in advance, and have polished their bons mots and their paradoxes.

Dinnertime conversation of course takes time. This has often meant that it was, as a social skill, highly developed only among people with money, leisure, and servants as well as verbal polish. In modern society, where time is money or "at a premium," table conversation may be forced into a minor role in people's lives. Yet it is often still customary for people to make time for talking at meals. Conversation after dinner is an institution in Hispanic cultures, with its own name, hacer la sobremesa, "doing the over-the-table" or "doing the tablecloth." The dishes are removed for this part of the event. Such conversations knit families and groups of friends together, ensuring contact, constant negotiation, and understanding. They are important occasions for identity building and for self-expression.

"It's not what's on the table that matters but what's on the chairs." The adage expresses what has been an almost universal insistence among human beings, that we people should strive not to let the material necessities dominate our their lives, that the food should not be the only attraction when we people sit down to eat together.

See also Etiquette and Eating Habits ; Greece, Ancient .


Anonymous. The Rules and Orders of the Coffee-House. 1684. Published in Colin Clair, Kitchen and Table. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1964.

Befu, Harumi. "An Ethnography of Dinner Entertainment in Japan." Arctic Anthropology 11, (Supplement, (1974): 196203.

Bossard, James H. S., and Eleanor Stoker Boll. "Family Table Talk." In The Sociology of Child Development. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

Chao, Buwei Yang. How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. London: Faber and Faber, 1956.

Chesterfield, Lord. The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1777). Edited by Bonamy Dobrée. Six vols. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode: 1932. Vol. 6, Letters to His Godson. Number 141.

Dickson, Paul. Toasts: The Complete Book of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, Curses, and Graces. New York: Delacorte, 1981.

Fitzgerald, C. P. The Tower of Five Glories. Chapter 9. London: Crescent Books, 1941.

Furnivall, Frederick James. The Babees' Book, edited by Edith Rickert. London: Chatto and Windus, 1908.

Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960.

Kondo, D. "The Way of Tea: A Symbolic Analysis." Man 20 (1985): 287306.

Morel, J. "La Politesse à table au XVIIe siècle" [Politeness at Table in the Seventeenth Century]. Marseille 109 (1977): 9398; 96.

Okere, L. C. Anthropology of Food in Rural Igboland, Nigeria. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983.

Ortner, Sherry B. Sherpas through Their Rituals. Chapter 4. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Plutarch, Symposiacs [Table-Talk]. Plutarch's Moralia, vols. VIII and IX. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Post, Emily. Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1922.

Quesnel, Michel, Yves-Marie Blanchard, and Claude Tassin. Nourriture et repas dans les milieux juifs et chrétiens de l'antiquité: Mélanges offerts au Professeur Charles Perrot [Food and Meals in Jewish and Christian Circles in Antiquity: Collected Essays in Honor of Professor Charles Perrot]. Paris: Cerf, 1999.

Staffe, Baronne. Usages du monde [Manners in Polite Society]. Paris: G. Havard Fils, 1899.

Toffin, G. Pyangaon, communauté newar de la vallée de Kathmandou: La vie matérielle [Pyangaon, a Newar Community in the Katmandu Valley: The Materials of Everyday Life]. Chapter 4. Paris: CNRS, 1977.

Visser, Margaret. The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners. New York: Grove Wiedenfield, 1991.

Margaret Visser

Good Manners

Let Noise of lewd Disputes be quite forborn,
No Maudlin Lovers here in Corners Mourn,
But all be Brisk, and Talk, but not too much.
On Sacred things, Let none presume to touch,
Nor Profane Scripture, or sawcily wrong
Affairs of State with an Irreverent Tongue.
Let Mirth be Innocent, and each man see
That all his Jests without Reflection be.
(The Rules and Orders of the Coffee House, 1674)

The turning of the table is accomplished by the hostess, who merely turns from the gentleman (on her left probably) with whom she has been talking through the soup and the fish course, to the one on her right. As she turns, the lady to whom the "right" gentleman has been talking, turns to the gentleman further on, and in a moment everyone at table is talking to a new neighbor. [To refuse to change partners is to cause the whole table to be blocked,] leaving one lady and one gentleman on either side of the block, staring alone at their plates. At this point the hostess has to come to the rescue by attracting the blocking lady's attention and saying, "Sally, you cannot talk to Professor Bugge any longer! Mr. Smith has been trying his best to attract your attention." (Emily Post, 1922, p. 221)

I knew a man who had a story about a Gun, which he thought a good one and that he told it very well; he tryed all means in the world to turn the conversation upon Gunsbut if he failed in his attempt, he started in his chair, and said he heard a Gun fired, but when the company assured him that they heard no such thing, he answered, perhaps then I am mistaken, but however, since we are talking of Guns,and then told his story, to the great indignation of the company. (Lord Chesterfield, Letter to his Godson, no. 141)

Plutarch's Symposiacs

Examples of subjects for discussion at a symposium:

  • "Whether the host should arrange the placing of his guests or leave it to the guests themselves."
  • "Why men become hungrier in autumn."
  • "Why we take pleasure in hearing actors represent anger and pain but not in seeing people actually experience those emotions."