I have a tremor, which varies in intensity. I recently ordered a sandwich at a restaurant, which was pretty easy to eat, but I gave up trying to eat the salad, because I was unable to do so with a fork. If I had been at home, I would have used my fingers to help get the lettuce on the fork (pushing the food with the fork, using my other hand as a backstop) or just picked up the leaves. I am not able to control a knife well enough to use that to push the salad on to the fork.

Is this appropriate to do in public, or should I not eat anything unless I can do so reasonably politely?

I am middle-aged and have no other visible disabilities (which I mention since that might affect people's perceptions). I live in an urban area in the United States. If I am eating with another person, they would either already know of my tremor or I would tell them. Of course, I order foods that are relatively easy to eat (sandwiches, not soup), and I've started looking into adaptive silverware. I tip well and even more when I've been messy.


There is no need to suggest tools or technology to help me eat neatly, although I appreciate the desire to be helpful. I have access to information about such products.

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    Please don't write answers in comments. it lowers quality control because people cannot downvote on potential answers here, only upvotes (and those upvotes do not earn you reputation), please feel free to make an answer for this question and see how it fares. Otherwise, this comment will potentially be deleted as it doesn't ask for clarification on the question. – ElizB Aug 3 at 15:56
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    How formal are the public situations you describe? – Mast Aug 4 at 18:12
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    @Mast I'm thinking of casual dining, not fancy restaurants or formal banquets. – San Franciscan Aug 5 at 16:30
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    Does your tremor affect both of your arms (directly or indirectly)? – Hawker65 Aug 6 at 15:45
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    What is your own attitude ? How do you react, e.g. to children crying or displaying any other typical children's behaviour (they do that even if supervised and they can't help themselves)? I'm asking because I would consider your own attitude relevant to this question. – Marianne013 Aug 7 at 9:42

14 Answers 14

Can you violate table manners in public? Of course you can. Everyone can. In fact until someone learns them it's likely that they will be unintentionally violating them.

Table manners are just codified expectations of behavior, normally considered part of "polite society". This is a reciprocal expectation. You can't hold someone's poor manners against them if you aren't acting politely yourself. It is an incredible breach of manners to expect of someone something that they are incapable of doing. Because of this there is an expectation that people will make reasonable accommodations for people's differences.

While you may be violating codified expectations about table manners, because you're incapable of meeting that standard and are making reasonable accommodations for your tremor (Choosing foods that are easier to eat, tipping extra when you make a mess), good manners dictate that your failure to abide by the specific expectations of fine dining should be treated as a non issue.

  • "Table manners are just codified expectations"—do you mind providing a link to where they are codified? – Infiltrator Aug 6 at 6:22
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    @Infiltrator One famous example would be Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home – Alex bGoode Aug 6 at 8:57
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    @Infiltrator There are many different standards for table manners. It's not actually important to the question to reference a particular standard. – sphennings Aug 6 at 20:04
  • This answer seems to assume that observers will know that the person is incapable (as opposed to a capable slob). But it sounds like the OP is primarily concerned about bystanders, not dining companions, so how would they know? Could you edit to address this? – Monica Cellio Aug 12 at 19:56

Yes. In fact, "table manners" are a matter of circumstance, as anyone with a background in etiquette should tell you.

It is not physically possible for you to conform to my manner of eating, so I would be obliged to either conform to yours, or to politely ignore yours, depending on the specific nature of the issue. For anyone beyond the confines of your table to make a face or to say anything would be the height of rudeness, especially if you were sharing a meal with someone else who was not bothered by your behavior.

Honestly, it doesn't sound like it creates a spectacle, even on a small scale. I doubt I'd notice if I were sitting 3 feet from you at another table, unless I was a nosy neighbor, and then any offense I might feel would really be on me and not you.

"Table manners" is just one small subset of overall "good manners". One hallmark of good manners is patience and respect, and a desire to make others comfortable in your presence.

Someone displaying good manners would not, for example, comment on your disability unless you brought it up yourself. They may appear not to even notice your tremor or your use of your hands while eating, and indeed would treat you like they would any other table companion.

There are a number of resources that help teach "disability etiquette", with simple guidelines such as:

  • Find commonalities before thinking about differences.
  • Don’t assume they see their disability as a tragedy.
  • Ask if he or she needs assistance before providing it.

and various others. Again, many of these are simple common sense to someone with good manners.

The point of all this is that anyone who does seem offended by your "table manners" are themselves displaying a general lack of "good manners". It's likely the irony will go over their heads; still, there's no reason you yourself shouldn't be polite. If need be, offer a brief explanation, perhaps something like:

I'm sorry, I have a neurological tremor and can't hold my fork steady when I eat.

You should never feel as if you yourself did anything wrong, since it is their lack of good manners that is the issue. You are simply compensating for that by helping them feel more at ease.

I have a close family member who had that problem (until he got a brain pacemaker, which is a whole other story...). The worst were coffee cups, especially when the tremor got so bad that the content started flying.

Judging from that, you have your hands full with other problems anyways, and manners or the impression you leave should be the least of your worries. From that experience, I know that it is very obvious to people around you what is going on. It's not like you're coming across as a rebel or someone who has not learned manners. Nobody without that disability would try to ingest the food in that manner. I.e., you are not likely to get confused with, say, an adolescent who does it that way out of spite.

If you wish to make it even more clears, then the most you could do, in my opinion, would be to keep the rest of the manners (not related to your hands) in good working conditions. I.e., good body position, proper chewing sounds, using the correct implements at the correct time, and so on.

Also, obviously, if your tremor is related at all to your body tension, focus on relaxing - especially relax about what others may think about you. If they think bad about someone with a bodily, involuntary disability, then you don't want to care that much about their opinion, I believe.

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    "From that experience, I know that it is very obvious to people around you what is going on. It's not like you're coming across as a rebel or someone who has not learned manners". Exactly (+1). This is probably the core of the answers (and a way for you to relax). – WoJ Aug 3 at 6:51

Others have already given comprehensive answers, but I'll weigh in anyway.

I've always been rather partial to the phrase

"Those who matter won't mind, and those who mind don't matter"

Ultimately table-manners may be disregarded as much or little as you like, it's just a convention, one that comes after your own needs. Do what you can, disregard what you can't.
If you need to drop the utensils and use your hands, do it with confidence.

If you aim to come across as more well-mannered though, then taking visible steps like using a napkin on your lap/tucked into your collar will make your behaviour appear more conscientious, and if dining with someone who wasn't previously aware of your needs you might benefit from saying something like

"Please excuse my use of fingers, my hands tend to shake too much for a fork"

Notice the phrasing isn't an apology there. I wouldn't even try to apologise if you find yourself compelled to explain.
There's no shame in it and nothing to defend.

Manners are ultimately a matter of protecting the right of some people to not be bothered by other people. On the scale of human rights, I weigh manners as fairly low priority. What seems of vastly higher priority is the right of each of us to fully participate in life.

Perhaps this can be made clear by considering what you would want of others in a similar situation... Consider a person with a breathing difficulty, that made eating slightly noisier than most. Not excessively so, but with more lip smacking and the occasional grunt. Would you want this person to be able to go out and eat in public, understanding that it might be distracting if they sat next to you some day? Or would you want them to stay out of public restaurants and not risk bothering you?

I'm hoping you would consider that a minor issue and would want that person to be able to enjoy a restaurant like anyone else. If so, consider that what you describe is even less distracting than this. There are only a few types of people who would be bothered by someone with a tremor eating with their fingers... Those of low empathy or low mental capacity who don't yet understand the frailty of our human condition. And those with extreme selfishness who feel that their wish for a specific kind of envoronment while eating should override another person's ability to live freely and normally.

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    Thank you. I had really been thinking that the polite thing was to eat at home. – San Franciscan Aug 3 at 3:23
  • While it says all the things the other answers say, I really like the perspective of this answer. I'm glad it helped you too OP. While hard to implement in practice, do your best to focus on you, and enjoy what you can. – Mad Physicist Aug 7 at 16:38

I would say absolutely. Manners like this are small social rules and don't really impact anyone but yourself. Things like elbows on the table, using phones at the table, eating with your hands, etc. Most people will not care, and the people that will care may not be the people who you are about appeasing, if that makes sense.

You went to that restaurant and paid good money for a meal, and a disability prevents you from keeping up with some minor social constructs. You deserve to enjoy that meal as much as anybody else, and it doesn't matter how you have to get the job done.

If someone makes a comment about it or criticizes you, well, I can recommend two words and a hand gesture that will make them mind their own manners...

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    No, I'm saying people with disabilities are allowed to eat in public without shame. – Jay Speidell Aug 4 at 20:11

Joning the other people here, I would say that you do what you have to do to enjoy your meal.

However, I'd like to offer a twist: you could use a piece of bread, as suggested above, or even a napkin as you help yourself to hold on to the salad.

This will show anyone who happen to notice that you're not just casually grabbing your food with your fingers - you obviously put some thought into this.

Of course, expressing any opinion on your fellow diner's difficulties is in itself a height of impoliteness, as noted in other answers. But you using another tool to help yourself would help your fellows avoid such rudeness.

  • @Sumyrda agree, it's what I suggested in my answer. Forks are silverware so their use is precisely that :) – DarkCygnus Aug 6 at 18:54

So, a lot of the answers look at your specific circumstance, I thought I would approach it from the general stance.

Can you ignore good manners due to a disability? The real answer to me is no, but with the caveat that those good manners are a social contract, meant for a circumstance, time, and place.

Let's use another example. Here in Florida, is it considered pretty poor manners to hold the door to someone's house or business open if the next person entering is not doing so immediately. Other parts of the country would find this odd. But the reason this exists here is that it's hot and humid. If your paying a $350 electric bill, you don't really want someone standing with the door wide open for a few moments. You want the door open and shut.

Another example would be prayer. It's polite to stand for prayers when everyone else is, even if you don't believe. But no one expects that someone wheelchair-bound will stand.

However, there are times with disabilities do pose a "manners problem". For example, it is considered rude to listen to your laptop so loudly that it disturbs those around you. It would still be considered rude even if the listener was using a higher volume due to hearing issues.

Likewise, it is considered rude to yell in a restaurant. And would still be rude even if you were yelling at someone that was hard of hearing.

The key to good manners is to remember your impact on those around you. If the impact is none or small then breaking the "manners rule" just doesn't matter, if you're doing so because you are disabled. If you are just breaking the rule because your lazy, that is when it is considered rude.

If, however, the impact on others is large, then it is probably still considered rude.

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    Thank you for the general answer. Could you please apply it to my situation? – San Franciscan Aug 4 at 17:54
  • I started an edit, but really the other answers cover specific examples. IMO you're fine so long as your not disturbing others, which given your example I don't see how you could be. I suppose a negative example could be, shaking soup so badly it dumps on your tablemates. That would be rude, just remember fault and responsibility are not the same things. – coteyr Aug 7 at 17:15

Ultimately, your comfort with table manners is your own decision. May you violate table manners in public due to your disability? Yes. You may violate them even without a disability. There is no law against it.

If you are worried about the diner owner kicking your out, talk to them. They'll appreciate it.

If you are worried about strangers' sideways glances, I cannot assure you that seeing you eat with your hands will not bother anyone. It will probably bother some. But you know your reasons. If said stranger has nothing better to do than to dwell on the normal-looking person next table who seems to be helping themselves with their hands, let them dwell on it.

When you order your meal, ask the server for extra napkins, saying something like:

I'm sorry, but I have a problem with my hands that makes it difficult for me to eat neatly, may I have some extra napkins?

This lets the server, and the staff in general by extrapolation, know that there is a sympathetic reason why you are eating differently.

(You will have to come up with a different small request if you are at the type of restaurant that has a napkin dispenser at each table. Perhaps a few slices of bread to help contain the food, as another answer suggested. You can also ask the server for suggestions about what foods can be most easily eaten with unsteady hands. "is this sandwich easy to eat neatly? I've got some trouble with my hands.")

This transforms you from "weird person breaking social norms and perhaps going to do something disruptive or dangerous" to "disabled person who we should at least pretend to accept."

Source of advice: faded memory of someone bringing in a disabled child when I was working food service.

Added:

I had an incident last night that might provide some extra guidance.

In my area public libraries are used extensively as community workspaces -- people come in with their laptops and phones and take advantage of free WiFi, air conditioning, convenient restrooms, etc. Like a coffee shop without the coffee.

I was doing some collaboration with a friend with a physical issue; I was sitting in a chair and he was lying on the carpet with his feet up on a chair. A librarian came by and told him that chairs were for sitting and that he needed to change position. Before he could answer I simply said "he has a bad back" and the librarian quietly said "oh" and walked away.

Just the hint of presenting it as a disability issue was enough to take the pressure off.

Is this appropriate to do in public, or should I not eat anything unless I can do so reasonably politely?

I don't see a problem in doing so. Surely it isn't Royalty-dinner manners but not offensive or impolite to do when in public.

However... there is no need to violate manners here... The appropriate and practical thing to do would be to use a knife to help you get the salad into the fork. If you are in a restaurant surely you can ask for one, or well you can bring one from home.

You can then use the knife in a similar way you use your fingers or napkin (as suggested in other answer). No need to handle the knife like a surgeon, just use it to push the salad to the fork so you can pinch it easily.

That way you won't have to use your fingers to do so, display good manners, and be able to enjoy your meal without worries.

I think about other approach:

Use a dedicated tool (like some sugar pliers)

Well, I am typical older large white man (no asian and nothing asian about me), but i just like use chopsticks to eat. I bring my chopsticks with me, go to reastaurant (or anyway else), order, cut the meat with fork and knife to small pieces, eat soup with spoon and eat the meal mainly with chopsticks, sometimes switching to for/knife as convenient for me. (I eat this way not only rise, but also potatoes, spaghetty, steaks, sausages, cucumber, pea, carrots, salad, onion ... you name it, just cutted to one-bite size)

I may get sometimes curious looks (yes, it IS unusual), but did not get negative reaction in my whole life.

So I may image, that chopstics are hard to handle for you, but having something like (oversized?) sugar pliers may work for you as well - you can give it a lot of tries to catch a piece and when succesfull give it hard grip, so it does not fall down. Your tool may have small "teeths" on the end to grip food even better. You may buy something in shop, or have it made customary, you may have nice case/sheat for it and without any explanation you will look like someone a little extravagant, but acceptable for nearly anyone. And if anybody ask, why you are not using just ordinary fork/knife combination, you can explain, that medical condition make it hard for you and the other option would be eating with bare hands, which is not as "pleasant both for you and others" as using little unusual tool.


Edit: as @Lord Farquaad commented, the question is if it is acceptable violate table manners and as many others answered, it is OK to do so, if necessary, but it is better to state somehow, that you are violating them for medical conditions, not because you "just ignore/do not know/had not learned them".

I wanted to suggest, how change "violating them with announced good reason" to "not violate them after all, just be excentric" by thinking out of the box and finding alternative approaches, if possible and convenient.

And to share my experience, that using something else, than just plain spoon+fork+knife is usually accepted as "not violation" under normal conditions (well, having dinner with Queen of England is other case)

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    I'm afraid this answer doesn't really address OP's question: "Is it acceptable to violate table manners in public due to my disability?" In addition, they finished up with a note: There is no need to suggest tools or technology to help me eat neatly, although I appreciate the desire to be helpful. I have access to information about such products. – Lord Farquaad Aug 8 at 13:23
  • appended my answer – gilhad Aug 8 at 14:17

Since when should a protocol of good behavior get in the way of a basic human function: eating? Manners are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Babies cry during sermons, and people sneeze at the opera. To the OP, it is quite considerate of you to look out for the waitstaff, and even more considerate to consider your fellow diners. However, your deviation from the norms is by description a minimal deviation. You are not doing something that would be considered repulsive. I think your concern while dining is misplaced, and you should focus on your meal and your company. The rules of etiquette are guidelines, not chiseled into rock tablet. Enjoy your meal, your company, and the tolerance of the world around you.

The only assistance tool that you need, you already have, and it lies between your ears.

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