Etiquette books insist that we never discuss politics during a meal. In Table Talk: Building Democracy One Meal at a Time, Janet A. Flammang offers a polite rebuttal, presenting vivid firsthand accounts of people’s lives at the table to show how mealtimes can teach us the conversational give-and-take foundational to democracy.
Delving into the ground rules about listening, sharing, and respect that we obey when we break bread, Flammang shows how conversations and table activities represent occasions for developing our civil selves. If there are cultural differences over practices—who should speak, what behavior is acceptable, what topics are off limits, how to resolve conflict—our exposure to the making, enforcement, and breaking of these rules offers a daily dose of political awareness and growth. Political table talk provides a forum to practice the conversational skills upon which civil society depends. It also ignites the feelings of respect, trust, and empathy that undergird the idea of a common good that is fundamental to the democratic process.
Flammang has much to tell us about what happens at the table. She also explores how workplace demands have made gathering the family for dinner difficult, and in some milieus impossible. What does the next generation miss in the inhumane, uber-interconnected world of today’s super-heated capitalism? Flammang:
At the family table, children hear stories from older generations, both relatives and non-relatives. They learn about family, cultural identity, and how loved ones have met life’s challenges. Teenagers sometimes think they are the only ones who have experienced injustice, been disrespected, or had their hearts broken. They can learn about resilience from older generations who have been down similar roads. The vice-president of Ancestry.com, the largest family history Web site, said that many Americans lack basic information about their personal histories. “A lot of kids don’t connect to their history because they are not sitting down together at the table. The family dinner is the number one place where most of this information usually gets passed on.”
As we have seen, researchers at Emory University’s Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life have found that sharing personal histories builds children’s self-esteem and resilience, in part because it provides a larger context for their immediate lives. “It teaches them that there is more than just their few years. There are people who came before them; there are people who are connected to them, experiences that belong to them because they belong to their family’s story. These narratives give us a sense of consistency and continuity, and even when things are bad, Grandpa will tell you ‘it was bad before and we got through it.’” Their “Do You Know” game asks children questions about how their parents and grandparents met and where they grew up; what was going on in the world when they were born; the source of their name; the person in their family they look and act most like; their family’s national background; when and how their family emigrated to this country; the jobs their parents had when they were young; and things that happened to their parents when they were in school. When relatives and old family friends are invited to dinner, kids can hear embarrassing stories, laugh, and make family history.