Martial Manners Or Why Proper Silverware Placement Can Save Your Life

Martial Manners


Why Proper Silverware Placement Can Save Your Life


                Many martial arts students have difficulty understanding what things like manners, what you eat and how you eat, and drinking have to do with martial arts.  As you go deeper into traditional martial arts, you find that diet is mentioned in everything from the Hogukare to Tai Chi manuals, as is etiquette.  So in this case, I will be discussing the importance of manners.


                Although the etiquette varies from school to school, or more appropriately, country to country, martial arts schools always have a particular etiquette of their own, and while this facilitates a smooth relationship between the students and instructor, and each other, and thus aids with the learning process, this is honestly the least important martial aspect of manners.  Warrior castes around the world have traditionally placed an emphasis on proper manners, and occasionally on how to have poor manners for the purpose of insulting your enemies.  Proper courtesy can prevent conflict and a warrior realizes that any combat whatsoever, even with an untrained person, has the potential for bringing about death, in themselves or others.


                One of my students, who is a PhD in psychology, has spent a lot of time doing sessions for trouble youth violent offenders, and one of the things he’s learned is that most of the time this behavior can be entirely solved and cured by simply teaching these kids manners, that oftentimes they will default to violence in any social situation where they don’t know how to respond, even when being complimented and told they have done a good job with something.


                When using chopsticks, there are proper ways to hold them which facilitate both being able to effectively eat with them, and being able to use them as a weapon, or for defense.  One should never point the chopsticks at the back of the throat.  In fact, generally speaking, anything that can lead to accidentally choking yourself can be turned into an attack by your opponent.  Likewise, holding a fork properly rather than the way a toddler holds one allows you to deflect or trap a knife, stab or slash an opponent, or just eat without looking like you’re shoveling your food, thus preventing embarrassing your host, or getting the crap beaten out of you by your parents.  One might also note that correct silverware placement for formal dining not only makes it very easy to determine which piece of silverware to use with which course, but it also makes it very easy to grab an appropriate implement to defend yourself with in case of attack. 


                Unfortunately, much of the humor, especially for kids, has traditionally revolved around people mistakenly doing things which are bad manners and thinking it’s good manners, but when people have not been taught proper manners, they end up not realizing that it’s a joke.   The most common example is when people stick out their pinky when drinking a champagne or tea or other drink.  This is never good manners, in any country, and is considered tacky, déclassé, and a sign of being ignorant and uncultured.  This has also contributed to the reputation for Americans abroad of being ignorant and uncultured, and should be avoided if you have any national pride whatsoever.  However, the martial implications are much more significant.  Certainly, if you were to drink tea this way around a medieval Japanese Zen master, it would have been viewed as appropriate to get your attention by cutting the finger off, but more realistically, the more frequent danger, even today, is that someone will grab your finger, pour your drink on you, and either put you in a joint lock or break the finger.  If you’re doing this in a public place like a restaurant, it could snag on the clothing of someone walking by, and you could find yourself on the floor covered in either your ice cold or boiling hot drink, with a broken finger while an unaware passerby walks away without even noticing.  So actually sticking your finger out like that is about as bright as sticking your arm out of the car to the side while riding a roller coaster.


                Always going to the right, with the exception of British cars, allows for free travel and keeps people from running into each other.  People who fight this create, essentially, foot traffic jams and are making things more difficult for themselves and others because they don’t know why they’re doing it.  Shaking hands is actually a way of demonstrating to the other person that you don’t have a weapon in that hand.  No, really, that is the origin.  A lot of people also use it to measure the confidence of a person.  There are also specific martial techniques to take advantage of a handshake, from Italian knife fighting to Judo, although a proper martial handshake of the type I teach my students will prevent most of those and allow you to match pressure with anyone you’re shaking hands with, without the danger of hurting them or being hurt yourself.  Some people go out of their way to just grab your fingers.  They’re just stupid pricks, and when that happens, I prepare myself to take them down in case they are trying to set up a joint lock.  Of course, real martial artists have a tendency to spend most of their time attempting to avoid conflict, which results in people who are minimally trained or untrained forgetting how dangerous they are, but it is that very ability to dispense death wholesale that leads to a more pacifistic attitude.


                The rules about wolfing down your food become very significant, or at least were very significant, if your food has gone bad or been poisoned.  If you eat slowly and chew thoroughly, one may detect by taste this type of hazard, or at least ingest such a small amount before you start to react that you realize and stop before it turns deadly.  It also increases your enjoyment of meals, enhances digestion and absorption of nutrients, and helps regulate the number of calories you ingest.  It is generally martially recommended that one eat until one is 2/3 full.  To be honest, when you’re really stuffed, it’s not just hard to defend yourself, it can be very hard to move at all.  I personally do not recommend getting into any situation where your most effective defense technique would be to throw up on your opponent.  When you are served an eight course meal, all the portions are very small, but they quickly add up.  It is especially important under these circumstances to eat slowly.  It is also especially difficult, especially if you are very hungry.  It is also especially difficult if you are a small child.  Nonetheless, wolfing your food under these circumstances leads to a number of undesirable side-effects, including getting smacked by your mother, the cute kid being laughed at by Happy Rockefeller, upsetting your stomach and not being able to eat later courses because you ate too fast, and getting a long lecture on the way home.  However, when you get older, no one thinks it’s funny or charming, and honestly the numerous adult jokes about how hungry the little kid is do get embarrassing. 



                There are of course many things related to manners which are location-specific and have no direct implication for martial arts, such as which direction you point your feet, whether or not you burp, or whether men or women stand on the inside when walking past buildings, and of course many manners are dependent on time-period and other factors, such as sanitation, transportation, etc.


                Knife safety procedures are just that.  The reasons for never pointing the point of a knife, or the blade of a knife, towards yourself, and always cutting away from you, and requiring people to say “thank you” before releasing a blade are all to prevent serious injury.  Frequently, untrained people will criticize this etiquette, but anyone who deals with blades on a regular basis knows that ignoring these rules eventually leads to injury, to themselves or others.  Real cooks, knife fighters, and Boy Scouts observe these rules for a reason.  Untrained people frequently think I should let go of the knife as soon as they grab it, without me having a way of knowing for sure whether they have it, but I would prefer them not to lose a finger, or have a knife sticking through their foot.  I have seen many injuries from knives, and while most were caused by people ignoring these rules, some injuries occurred in spite of these rules, so I continue to take them seriously.  While I am tempted to go into the strategy of where you want to cut an opponent and where you want to get cut, that is really another subject.


                In conclusion, while proper manners are essential for maintaining a happy social life and getting and keeping jobs, they are absolutely essential for maintaining martial safety. 


Copyright © 2012 Julian Thomas Reid III


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