I've heard that many a spy had their cover blown while living in a foreign country by simply switching their knife to the opposite hand. The reason this matters? The practice was not customary in the country in which they were inhabiting. To prevent this, spies were educated in the etiquette of the country to which they would live, while performing their duties of espianage. While I'm in no danger of committing a culinary offense that would bring me any legal ramifications, I wanted to ensure that I wasn't committing any eating etiquette punishable by dirty stares either!
The Continental Method:
Applicable in England and throughout European Countries, the Continental Method (or European Method) has the fork in the users left hand and the knife in the right throughout the entire meal. Push the tines of the fork into the food, while using the left hand to make a gentle sawing motion across the food. It is not acceptable to violently chop or wildly saw the food, most especially with a closed fist!
After cutting the food, the fork remains in the left hand and is used to put the cut food in the mouth. The knife remains in the right hand while eating. There is no passing of the fork from hand to hand and the tines of the fork are facing down. (Reverse hand placement if left-handed)
The American Method:
The American Method (or Zig Zap Method) is seen as inappropriate most anywhere outside of the United States, although it starts off as similar to the Continental Method. The fork is in the consumers left hand with the knife in the right hand. While pressing the tines of the fork into the food, the knife is used to gently cut the food. After each piece is cut, the knife is placed across the outer most right-hand side of the plate, cutting edge facing the food. The fork is then changed from the left hand to the right hand, and is used to bring the food to the diners mouth. (Again, reverse hand placement if left-handed)
Origination of the Difference:
The American Method was the standard way of eating in France and England until 1732, when a nobleman in King Louis XV's court made the decision that noblemen should eat differently than the townspeople. Hence, the Continental style of eating was born and used by the noblemen. When America was settled in the 1700's, the settlers wanted nothing to do with the ways of the King and continued the practice of eating the way in which they originally learned, the American Method.
In both methods, the tines are pointing down towards the food and the utencels should never be placed in a vice grip, with a wholly closed fist. Rather, its best to the handle of the fork running alongside the palm of your hand, with the pointer finger and thumb gripping and guiding the fork. The same handling goes for the knife. Even if eating meat, which has surely been appropriately handled and cooked before reaching your plate, there is no need to stab your food in a hawkish manner. Please!