Lately, though, as I mark my calendar for a vaccination appointment, the idea of eating inside a favorite restaurant has become less abstract, and I’m hit with another sensation: self-doubt.
Do I … even know how to do that anymore? After all, I’ve spent the past year and change clad in leggings, with my husband, who loves me unconditionally, as my only dining companion. Without the civilizing influence of strangers’ gazes and the presence of multiple forks (or, often, utensils of any kind — a quesadilla is finger food, no?), I worry that I’ve somehow gone feral.
I can barely remember that old ease I once felt in restaurants — locating with a quick sweep of an arm the hook under the bar to hang my coat, gauging in an instant how busy my server is so I know how chatty to be, or deftly reaching across the table to spear a floret of fried cauliflower from a shared plate.
Now, those moves seem as unfamiliar as zippered pants. And the most basic of table manners? I confess that even at dinners where my husband and I break out our cloth napkins and candles, I’m still likely to sit cross-legged, and I often prop my elbows on the table. Sometimes, I let my cat sit on my lap during meals. Will I ever be fit to venture into polite society again?
At least I know I’m not alone. “I’m just going to get drunk and weird,” one friend fretted, thinking about her own return to restaurants.
Figuring we can’t be the only ones harboring such apprehension, I asked a panel of experts to be the Professor Higgins to our Eliza Doolittle. That is, to teach us how to behave and to help us navigate our reentry into the realm of public eating. Here’s their advice.
It’s okay to feel weird
Feeling uncertain about returning to normal situations is, well, normal. That’s partly because one of the biggest producers of anxiety is avoidance, notes Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist and author of “How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.” Avoidance has pretty much been the name of most people’s dining game for the past year.
“Reentry into life, or into restaurants, will feel weird and wrong because it’s counter to what we’ve been doing for so long,” Hendriksen says. “If we feel off or anxious or tentative, it makes perfect sense.”
She reminded me that the feeling many are having, like we’re moles emerging from our subterranean tunnels, blinking into the sun, isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, it’s a sign of progress, she says: “That wobbly feeling means you’re on your way. People who live with anxiety think anxiety is wrong or bad, but that means you’re actually doing the thing you were worried about.”
Don’t sweat the small stuff
I called Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette doyenne Emily Post and co-president of the Emily Post Institute, thinking she would offer up a primer on things we might have forgotten about dining around other humans, like which utensils to use when or what to do with those lovely napkins.
Instead, she had a much simpler, and more reassuring, message: Whatever you knew, it will all come back to you. “It will snap back, really,” she says. “I have faith in all of us.”
That’s because she thinks of manners as something far more fundamental than a nitpicky code governing the proper use of finger bowls. “It’s a way of recognizing and acknowledging the world around you and the way your behavior affects it,” she says. In other words, we’re polite because we care about our fellow man, she explains, and as long as we focus on that, the old muscle memory that prompted us to say “please” and “thank you” will return.
If you really do need a cheat sheet, she points to resources available in books and on emilypost.com. There, I was reminded to “avoid slouching and don’t place your elbows on the table while eating (though it is okay to prop your elbows on the table while conversing between courses).” Although the guidance does not specifically address the subject of whether it’s also okay to sing to your cat during dinner, I figure that part is covered by the more universal (and helpful) advice to “bring your best self to the meal.”
However excited you might be to return to your favorite bistro or bar, remember that things won’t be exactly as they were. Tiffanie Barriere, a longtime bartender and a bar and brand consultant in Atlanta, notes many restaurants have imposed new requirements for employees, so they’re balancing more hand-washing and sanitation tasks with serving customers. Some places will be short-staffed, too.
“As excited as we are to see you, it’s just going to be slower,” Barriere says. “People should have patience, first and foremost.”
Except for places where requirements are lifted, servers will still be masked (and so will patrons when they’re not eating or drinking), making communication a little harder. So project and speak clearly when you order, she advises, to avoid miscommunication. And don’t expect to be welcomed back with open arms — at least not literally.
“We want to high-five and hug, but we can’t do that,” she says. “So there’s a sense of compassion and a virtual hug that has to happen instead.”
Don’t drink away the anxiety
While we’re still feeling awkward, it might be easy to become entranced by the novelty of all those fancy cocktails and craft beers. But try not to overdo it. A little imbibing is understandable, Hendriksen says, because every meal out will feel like a celebration or a reward. She points to research showing that for every alcoholic drink we ingest, our social anxiety reduces by 4 percent.
“In the short term, I get it,” she says. “But it’s best to have a drink because you choose to, not because you need it. You should drink to celebrate, not to conceal your anxiety.”
Instead, if you’re feeling clumsy, stop thinking about yourself and focus on your dining companions, she counsels. Socially anxious moments are driven by perfectionism, she says, when we’re giving ourselves report cards in real time. “We’re thinking ‘I have to be funny, or to be cool.’ Or I’m worried about what to do with my hands,” she says. “We aren’t in the moment — so if you try to focus attention outward, that counterintuitively frees up your bandwidth.”
The new normal might look different
Bear in mind that the pandemic might have permanently altered some of the ways we act in public.
Post says her company has long studied how far apart people typically stand during everyday conversations. That distance for most Americans has been about 18 inches, she notes, but our year-plus of social distancing could stretch it permanently. And she wonders whether our standards of dress might change after a year of nonstop athleisure.
Hendriksen agrees that our year of living — and dressing — for ourselves might mean the rules are changing. In the past 12 months, we might have gone to the mailbox or the grocery store in slippers. We saw colleagues eat cereal during Zoom meetings. In the end, none of that mattered.
“Because we gave each other that grace, there’s now a wider range of acceptable behaviors,” Hendriksen says. “For some people, they might be so delighted to be out of sweatpants that the pendulum swings entirely — now, maybe you’ll see someone in bedroom slippers next to someone dressed to the nines.”
So it seems even the pros think getting weird might be just fine after all, and the new rule of dining out might be: Come as you are.
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