A Matter of Manners
Years ago, I was dining with friends when a fly, which had been hovering over the serving dishes, landed on an ear of corn. Impulsively, I made a quick thrust with my fork. On the unlucky end of a million-to-one shot, the fly buzzed and writhed, impaled dead center. Happily surprised, I left the fork stuck in the cob and looked up hopefully to see if anyone had noticed.
Reaction around the table ranged from admiration (from a 10-year-old boy) to revulsion (from his mom), but everyone agreed on one thing: What I’d done hadn’t been polite.
My parents taught me beautiful manners. Even though I never used the full set, I have great respect for the value of what used to be called “common courtesy.”
In one of the Oz books, there’s a guy who carries a magic magnet that makes everyone he encounters love him instantly. Good manners work that way for children. The child who says “please” and “thank you” finds adults instantly prejudiced in his favor. (I’m old enough to remember when “please” and “thank you” were taken for granted, and it was the child who said “sir” and “ma’am” who had grownups throwing themselves at his feet.)
With my wife, Betsy, leading the way, our kids were taught that if they wanted any degree of service around here, they have to use the magic words.
At age 2, second-born Sally was taking etiquette in new directions. When we’d leave someone’s house, she would always remember to thank the hosts for their hospitality.
But she was equally grateful when dinner guests left our house. Sally would call after them, her clear, sharp, little voice piercing the night: “Thanks for the meat and the juice and the cookies” or whatever else we’d served. Sometimes she even thanked departing guests for any toilet paper she’d used during their visit.
Sally showed more than a polite interest in anyone who crossed her path. She saw supermarket checkout lines as social gatherings. Sally would say to the person ahead of us, “Hi, I’m Sally, who are you?”
From there, the interview could go in a variety of directions, but the end was the same. When her new best friend paid the cashier and began to leave, Sally would yell, “Hey! Where you going now?”
When someone was using the bathroom, Sally would crouch outside the door and ask, “Whatcha you doing in there?” and a vague answer would bring relentless follow-ups. When we told her that bathroom activities are supposed to be private, she didn’t get it.
Freshly toilet-trained, Sally was enormously proud of her new abilities. In fact, after Sally had performed, she liked to invite people in to admire the result, like Martha Stewart showing off a dazzling centerpiece. Sally couldn’t understand why other people weren’t as forthcoming.
Our older daughter, Marie, was more reserved and ladylike. At age 6 she went so far as to ask us not to use the word “nostril” in her presence.
Around that time she wanted to know, “Which is more disgusting: picking your nose or spitting?”
An excellent question, but it’s like asking who was the better artist, Van Gogh or Rembrandt?
I told her it would depend on the beholder. “What offends one person might not offend another quite as much,” I said.
But Betsy told her spitting was worse, provided it was done at someone. She was confusing rudeness with disgustingness. That’s just my opinion, but I never cross the warden in front of an inmate.
I’m no expert on etiquette, but I knew how I wanted my kids to turn out: gracious and thoughtful, but self-confident and unceremonious.
Although the girls did learn basic table manners and acquired the habit of “please” and “thank-you,” they turned out to be themselves.
Marie, at 23, is considerate and gentle. She never curses (unless she is talking about national politics). Sally, at 20, is still making her own rules. She’s bossy and earthy.
If a fly were to alight on the corn at an elegant dinner party, Marie would shoo it away. But Sally would call it a dirty name and take a stab at it — with or without the proper fork.
Rick Epstein can be reached at RickEpstein@yahoo.com.