Future Reflections                                                                                                      Fall 2001

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Please Pass the Manners

by Barbara Pierce

Barbara Pierce
Barbara Pierce

Editor’s Note: If you’ve been to an NFB National Convention, then the name Barbara Pierce probably rings a bell. Despite her busy schedule – Mrs. Pierce is editor of the Braille Monitor, president of the NFB of Ohio, and serves as the NFB Public Relations Chairman – she has, year after year, conducted workshops for parents at the convention on the topic of social skills. And every year parents tell us to “Do it again – Mrs. Pierce is great!” After the 2001 workshops – which, again, were packed – Barbara was inspired to put some of her thoughts about social skills on paper. Here is what she has to say about table manners:

 

Introduction

My earliest recollections of conversation at the dinner table include a periodic but continual commentary by my mother: “Hold your fork properly.” “Keep your other hand in your lap.” “Take the first piece you touch.” “Sit up straight and bring the fork to your mouth.” “Chew with your mouth closed.”

I suspect that most adults have similar memories. But I am not at all certain that people who were blind as children have the same set of memories. Blind people certainly miss the chance to observe other people’s behavior at the table in order to model our own on what we see.

The result is unfortunate. With real distress a sighted friend told me of having lunch with a young blind professional whose table manners were so disgusting that my friend entirely lost her appetite. I might have disregarded such a story as the reaction of a finicky observer if I had not remembered Eva. When I was in high school, one of my best friends moved away. She and I had eaten lunch together for years, so she called me in some distress shortly after the new school year had begun. She found a blind student in her class, so her instinct was to see if they might become friends. She noticed immediately that Eva sat alone at lunch. She soon discovered why. The girl’s table manners were so appalling that no one wanted to sit across the table from her while she was eating. High school students are not known for the delicacy of their manners, so the mind boggles at trying to conceive of the behavior that would revolt kids that completely.

One wonders how such situations come to pass. I suspect that the answer is that a combination of influences shaped these two people and thousands more like them. Obviously, good parents don’t want their blind children to be socially unacceptable, but they don’t have any good way to teach the child how to do things correctly when “Do it like this” is an insufficient instruction.

Anyone who has ever spoon‑fed a baby knows what a messy business that can be. But we rapidly get used to the process and the mess. As most children get older, the extent of the disaster area gradually shrinks, and eventually civilization dawns. But the parents of a blind child may never quite notice that other kids of the same age are making substantially less of a mess. These parents are so happy to have the child begin to use a spoon that they forget to insist on graduating to a fork. They assume that fingers are the only way for the child to recognize the contents of the plate or bowl or get difficult items to stay on the utensil. If the child huddles over the plate, much less food falls onto the table or floor. And there you are.

Then there is the matter of time. It is easier and faster to cut the child’s meat than to insist upon and struggle through an unwanted lesson on how to do the job for himself.

I don’t know that I have any particular light to shed on the subject of table manners specifically or social skills for blind people in general. I do know that this subject keeps coming up and people ask me to talk about the subject. So I have decided to see what happens if I try to organize the things parents and I have talked about in the hope that it may be of some encouragement to other parents and their children. I have no lock on the right way to do things. I have found some tricks and techniques, but others probably work just as well or better. Look around and observe the blind people you spend time with at NFB functions. Choose someone who handles himself or herself well in social situations or at meals and ask that person questions about how to assist your child. Federationists are usually happy to help.

Making Distinctions

Before you can effectively help your child to become a poised, confident adult in all sorts of social situations, you must learn to distinguish between arbitrary social conventions, which should not be imposed on people for whom they are meaningless, and behavior that avoids offending or distracting other people. Consider the general rule that one looks at the person speaking or to whom one is speaking. Even totally blind people find it valuable to adhere to this convention because sighted people find it difficult to pay attention to what a person is saying when he or she is looking in some other direction or has lowered his or her head.

On the other hand, the convention of slicing a loaf of bread beginning at the end nearer the slicer’s dominant hand seems to me completely arbitrary. I am right‑handed, but I cut from the left end of the loaf so that I can guide the path of the knife with my left hand. When I cut bread at a restaurant table, people sometimes comment that I am doing it backwards, but I see no reason to develop another technique since nothing about my method is offensive or distracting. Perhaps I do some things that are distasteful to sighted people watching, but no one has mentioned anything like that to me since I was about twelve. And that is the kind of honest feedback blind people count on good friends to give them in private. It is certainly a service you can always provide your blind child, assuming that you balance tact and honesty to fit the circumstances—dinners in public are no time to call reminders down the table to an older blind child.

Mapping the Place Setting

I am a great believer in teaching a blind child to set the table. If he or she can arrange the flatware, napkin, glasses, butter plate, and cup and saucer correctly, the child is already well on the way to managing a complicated place setting in an elegant restaurant, at Great Aunt Sue’s Christmas dinner, or at your boss’s wedding reception buffet.

When I sit down at a restaurant table, I begin with discreet exploration of my setting. Finding the napkin can be an adventure. I check to see whether the silverware is rolled up in the napkin, laid out in a group on one side, or actually lying with forks to the left and knives and spoons to the right. If I have not found the napkin to the left or wrapped around the silver, I begin an inconspicuous search for it while reorganizing the utensils. While adjusting these, I make sure that the sharp edge of the knife faces the plate. I check the service plate, if there is one, for the missing napkin. If it isn’t there, it might be on the butter plate or fanned out on the table above the service plate. When all else fails, I check the water glass.

All this reconnoitering should be done as inconspicuously as possible. I keep my hands low and adjust the plates, glasses, and implements just a bit even if they do not require repositioning. This is the time to check the size and number of glasses. A child can move wine glasses back so as to avoid picking up an empty glass when hoping to find water or milk. Teach your child always to notice the weight and temperature of any glass to confirm that it holds what the blind person expects to sip.

Surveying the Plate

I gather from what people report to me that far too many parents through the years have allowed their blind children to establish the location of food on a plate by touching it. This is a hard habit to break, so you would do better never to allow your child to begin. The fork makes a fine divining rod. I admit to having little patience with finicky eaters who refuse to eat anything they don’t care for. Blind people are far better off if they are not indulged in preferences not to have two foods touch each other or to insist on eating all of one food before beginning the next. I recognize that insisting on mature behavior in this respect may open you to some battles, but teaching a young child to behave graciously will pay off in the long run.

By and large a blind person can figure out what is on the plate without receiving a clock‑face description. I firmly refuse this rigmarole from well meaning wait staff. After all, I ordered the meal, so I know what should be on the plate. Experience will guide an adult in identifying lemon wedges, orange slices, or other partially inedible garnishes. But I do think it is appropriate and sporting to mention to a blind child that a lemon wedge is at eleven o’clock or parsley is at six. One can then either use the lemon, eat it when it arrives at the lips, or set it aside on the butter plate.

As for identifying which food is where, a quick circuit with the fork will usually identify large things like baked potatoes, small vegetables like peas, and firm things like chops or slices of meat. Mashed potatoes and vegetable purees have a slushy feel that cannot be confused with firmer objects. I survey and begin tasting the things that are clearly easy to pick up on the fork. One taste confirms the accuracy of my conclusions about what I have found. I then note that location: one thing identified. I make my way around the plate, tasting and probing with the fork. At a restaurant, or anywhere I may expect garnishes or other efforts to present food beautifully, I keep in mind that something unexpected may appear on my fork. I am not above asking a sighted companion what I have captured before I raise it to my lips, if the weight and balance of the fork suggest that a nasty shock may be in store for me.

Barbara Pierce demonstrates that cutting a piece of meat isn't complex - it just takes practice.
Barbara Pierce demonstrates that cutting a piece of meat isn't complex - it just takes practice.

Learning to cut meat is not difficult, but it does take practice, so trying to master the skill should not be undertaken in public. To begin with, a blind person must learn what a bite of appropriate size feels like on a fork or spoon. (I encourage you to insist on your child’s using a spoon only for soups, sauces, ice cream, and the like; too many blind people arrive at adulthood without having mastered the fork. With practice the fork is actually easier to use than a spoon for most things.) With practice your child will learn how a forkful of the correct size feels. Your job is giving impartial feedback: that bite was too big.

All blind people occasionally bring an empty fork to the lips, especially when the weight of the fork is unfamiliar or the food is hard to spear. In my view such mistakes should be ignored. The blind person knows perfectly well what has happened and certainly has no motivation to repeat the error. So the less notice you take of the occurrence the better, unless you can make a constructive suggestion. Such advice should be given in a low voice in public or at home.

The secret to cutting meat is to find an edge or an end and insert the tines of the fork at a bite-size distance from the edge in order to cut the bite. The knife can then be laid along the back of the tines so that the fork provides a directional guide for cutting. When the cut is complete, the knife is laid across the back of the plate and the fork switched to the dominant hand. This is the moment to lift the fork slightly to determine the weight and balance of the piece cut. If it is too large, pick up the knife again, reposition the fork by holding down the piece with the point of the knife to release and reposition the fork if necessary and make a second cut. All this sounds simple, and it becomes second nature, but it takes practice. Tough meat is always a struggle, and chops, steaks with bones, and small poultry are particularly tricky. I don’t know any blind adult who hears with delight the news that cornish game hen is on the menu.

Here are some suggestions that you may find helpful in assisting your child to master this important skill. Begin with meat that she likes and that is fairly easy to cut: ham, turkey, fish filets, pot roast. All these have no bones and should not be tough. Be sure that your child is hungry when you begin. If he is having trouble cutting the meat, leave the potatoes and vegetable off the plate till he can cope with the meat alone. You can try cutting your meat with sleepshades on and provide a running commentary on how well you are doing. Let your other children try to cut their meat without peeking. The object is not to demonstrate that mastering this skill is impossible. It should give family members an appreciation of the challenge and may help you suggest useful techniques.

Bread, Butter, and Backstops

The rule for everyone is that bread should be broken and buttered bit by bit as it is eaten. At home this usually means taking a roll or slice of bread and putting it on the edge of the dinner plate unless you are using butter plates. If the blind child has set the table, he or she will know whether butter plates are present and whether each person has a butter knife. Usually the family passes a stick of butter or container of spread. The common butter knife is passed with it, or each person is expected to use a personal butter or dinner knife. Help your child anticipate what is being done at the meal. As an adult she will have to learn to draw her own conclusions, but you can help to guide this learning process by asking leading questions or providing information directly.

A tub of spread is easiest to use, but do not do so always, or your child will gain no experience with a stick of cold butter. Restaurants make this process particularly challenging because one never knows whether wrapped pats of butter, unwrapped pats, a large shaped block, or a bowl of soft spread is coming. Here is where I break my own rule of never touching. I take the container in my non‑dominant hand, just touching the butter with the edge of my thumb so as to determine what I am dealing with. Then I use my butter knife with my dominant hand, making sure to include the part I have touched in the portion I take. Obviously, if I contact paper wrapper with my thumb, I just take one pat and pass the rest immediately.

I use the same sort of maneuver to butter the bread. I hold the piece I have broken off and am preparing to eat in my left hand and move it so that the edge of my thumb is just touching the butter on the plate. I can tell pretty precisely how much butter I am putting on my knife without obviously measuring it with my finger. Once the butter is on the knife, it is fairly easy to transfer it to the bread. Spreading it to the edges is a matter of practice and the temperature of the butter. I suggest that you begin with soft spread and progress to pats and sticks of butter. The suggestions for having the family help your child to learn to cut meat work as well for bread- and roll-buttering.

One of the hardest things for your child to learn to do efficiently will be to clean his plate. The temptation to use that non‑dominant hand as a backstop is nearly irresistible. A piece of bread solves this problem very neatly. Even if he does not then eat the bread, it has provided an acceptable wall to gather food with the fork and push against.

Salads, Desserts, and Sauces

I have never conducted a survey, but I would guess that most blind adults with good table manners would report that salads have provided a large number of their most embarrassing moments. Being a lady, I will refrain from saying what I think of people who use very large salad-green leaves, over‑size cherry tomatoes or tomato wedges, and large onion rings to compose their salads. But your child will have to learn to cope with such hazards. If I can do so conveniently, I remove onion rings. I don’t particularly like them, so avoiding them is no disappointment to me. If I liked them or when I cannot remove them to a butter plate before beginning the salad, I handle them as I do large lettuce leaves: I cut across the salad several times before beginning to eat. (This is my solution to eating long pasta as well.) If I manage to spear a cherry tomato, I can usually decide by its weight if it is going to be too big to fit into my mouth. Having it on my fork already makes it easy to cut. Olives, croutons, radishes, and other rolly or skittery salad items are easier to deal with in a bowl than on a flat plate. You might start salad-eating lessons with the easy things and build up your child’s skills to cope with the more difficult.

Salad dressing is like syrup, sauces, or cream. When possible I prefer to serve it with a spoon or use a small packet of the liquid. I think it is fair to say that without a ladle or other way of measuring the liquid, there is no reliable way for a person with no useable sight to serve a liquid like this without touching the stream. That is what I would do if I were faced with the necessity. I drink my coffee black, and I often eat a salad undressed if I cannot control the dressing or have it served in a cup on the side. A weight-watcher trick works well for blind people who don’t want to use all the dressing provided by most restaurants. Ask for the dressing on the side. Dipping the tines of the fork into the dressing before spearing a bite of salad provides a little dressing, but not too much.

What I have already said applies as well to desserts. Using the fork, one can usually locate the point of the pie slice or the shallow end of a piece of layer cake. Perhaps the biggest challenge with an unknown dessert is to decide whether to pick up a fork or spoon before beginning. One must learn to check for dessert fork or spoon across the top of the place setting or on the plate. I will admit frankly that angel food cake and sponges are very hard to cut; they mash flat and lose all their volume before I can get a piece to my mouth. I don’t serve them. Maybe someone else has mastered these cakes, but I avoid them. Your son or daughter will learn to make such judgments if you help him or her understand the importance of managing food gracefully and competently. People who can eat most foods neatly usually prefer to dodge the ones they cannot, and that is how it should be.

Conclusion

I have not bothered to talk about using low vision in eating. I was a low‑vision child, and it got me nothing but trouble until I learned to ignore what I thought I was seeing. As with so much else in mastering the skills of blindness, children are better off learning how to manage dining without vision so that, if the lighting is not good or the color contrast is not great enough to allow for accurate use of vision, the child is not rendered helpless or foolish. Leaning over to inspect the plate looks strange to other people and can result in gravy in the hair or on a tie or necklace. The child who depends on seeing the plate will find it hard to sit up straight or keep his or her head up for conversation between bites.

Dining is essentially a small part of all social interaction. The blind person who puts off other people with poor manners or bizarre contortions in order to see what is on the plate or serving dish will eat alone or only with those too gauche to object. In short, it is never too early to begin teaching your child the techniques of gracious dining, and it is never too late to begin breaking bad habits.

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