How do you chew?
A finger-licking, record-breaking 1,671 people complained about a KFC advert that showed women in a call centre eating with their mouths open. It’s the highest number of complaints ever received by the Advertising Standards Authority and, yippee, it’s not about sex or violence, but about manners. The vast majority of the people who contacted the ASA were, according to the judgment it issued this week, “parents who were trying to teach their children good manners and thought the commercial undermined their efforts”. The ASA disagreed, however, and decided it was a bit of fun.
So the complainants were not old fogeys, they were young parents. And whether they thought the ad funny or not, all parents understand that the table is one of the first places a child goes through the process of learning how to be an adult and how to behave around other people. In other words, tables maketh manners.
And we have long had a taboo about eating with our mouths full. In an anthropological sense, it’s a hostile act to show teeth which are potential weapons and with which you will, if you’re a caveman or pre-knife eater, then tear apart the meat. The main thing with eating together is not to confuse the guests with either the food or the enemy – don’t eat them and don’t kill them. The KFC girls metaphorically broke that rule. They showed their teeth.
Through the centuries, western cultures have built up another big taboo – over bodily functions. Early books about manners happily put pissing and farting next to items about eating and talking. We are more squeamish and often because of technological advances. Sewers eventually made the privy private and the discovery of the TB bacillus warned us of the health risk of spitting. Gradually we came to give approval to the idea of delicacy. But we successfully build taboos around many acts that we see as anti-social. Which is why the people’s disapproval works better than the government’s. Even at riotous parties we happily enforce the rule against drink driving. And smoking is coming up fast behind.
With a record number of complaints from young parents about table manners, perhaps politeness is the new rock’n’roll. “Please” and “thank you” might even be the new black.
· Simon Fanshawe’s The Done Thing – negotiating the minefield of modern manners is published by Century today.
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