RHYS: I write historical mysteries and when I try to recreate the past the one thing that always strikes me is the formality of life. People were never addressed by their first name, except among family and intimate friends--and even then Mr. and Mrs. Bennett never used first names to each other, did they? We have letters written to John's father by his mother when he was at school and she signs them, "Your affectionate mother, B.M. Quin-Harkin."
Manners were important until recently. There were rules to society and you were judged on how well you obeyed these rules. You didn't call without a calling card. You didn't speak to strange young men without an official introduction. Even after WWII you never went out without hat and gloves. Dinners were often four or five courses, all with the correct silverware. We have inherited lovely boxes of fish knives and forks, pastry forks, coffee spoons, all of which lie at the bottom of the hutch and never see the light of day.
When we read a book that takes place in another time, some of these formalities come across as silly to us. And yet I lament the fact that manners have all but disappeared from society. I don't know about you, but it annoys me when the twenty year old receptionist at my dentist calls me by my first name. It annoys me when I dress up to go to the opera and the person in the next seat is wearing jeans and an old T shirt.
So maybe I'm old fashioned, but manners matter to me. I expect someone to hold open the door for me when I am following and always do the same for them. Most of the time they sail through without saying thank you. I would still give up my seat on a bus to a pregnant woman or a frail older person. Most people look the other way. I always say please and thank you the way I was brought up to. I write thank you notes after dinner parties.
So how about you? Do manners matter to you? Do you lament the passing of formality? Which aspects of modern informality bug you?
JULIA: I am a HUGE bug about manners. Ross and I have been drilling our children since they were born. Sometimes it feels like swimming upstream against a great cultural tide, but let me tell you, nothing gives me as great a pleasure as another adult saying, "Your son/daughter has such nice manners." They address grown-ups as Ms. Harris or Mrs. Quin-Harkin, they know what bread-and-butter notes are, and they understand the underlying ideal of good manners: to show kindness and make others comfortable.
Rules and a certain level of formality actually makes for a more relaxed day-to-day experience. Sometimes physically, as in Rhys' example of people needing seats on a bus. Other time, it relieves anxiety - if everyone is following the dress code, for example, no one is going to feel awkward or embarrassed. And Rhys, I'm with you. It drives me mad when I go to the theatre (for which, we know, I have already paid too much) and see others in the audience schlumping around in ratty casual clothes. This is 21st Century America, folks, you can't convince me you spend SO much time dressed to the nines that you just HAVE to have a break from society's cruel constraints.
HANK: Our next door neighbors have two adorable daughters, three and five. The parents are vigilant--and its so rewarding to hear. "Look at Uncle Jonathan when you talk to him, honey. Remember to say thank you." And they do, and it's adorable. They can order food at a restaurant--why is it so charming to hear a five-year-old say: "May I have the chocolate chip pancakes, short stack, please? And chocolate milk, please?" And then she grins at her mother, saying: "Delicious, Mummy! But NOT nutritious!"
And what about air travel attire? Remember when it was an occasion? Yes, I know, it's now steerage and semi-torture, but ratty cut-offs and midriff-baring t-shirts don't make it any better.
Plus--may I just add: language? When did "suck" beocme okay? And P*ss? SO unpleasant.
DEB: I am one-hundred-percent with you on the manners. I know how to set a table. I hold open doors, even for men. I let other drivers merge in rush-hour traffic. I give up my seat on London buses and the Tube to those who are frail, elderly, or pregnant. I don't address people I don't know by their first names. (Our late neighbor lived to be a hundred-and-two, and although she asked me to use her given name, I could never bring myself to call her anything but "Mrs. Montgomery.") I dress up for the opera and the theatre, and though I will try to be comfortable on a miserable transatlantic flight, I still try to look presentable.
I must have done something right, because my grown daughter has lovely manners. She even says, "Yes, ma'am," and "Yes, sir," which I don't think I taught her! Such a nice Southern touch!
Where I have to admit I fall down is on the written thank-you notes. I always have good intentions but my organizational skills (or lack of) get the better of me . . .
Huge pet peeve? Getting email from readers with no salutation. I don't mind being addressed as "Dear Deborah." Or "Ms. Crombie." (I'm not "MRS." Crombie--Crombie is my ex-husband's name, so I'm a bit touchy on that one. "Ms." isn't perfect but it beats addressing women as "Mrs." when you don't know their marital status.) But by my lights email with no salutation is the virtual equivalent of "Hey you!" and is incredibly rude. Does that make me horribly old-fashioned?
ROBERTA: Maybe we all sound a little old-fashioned (I was going to say "like old farts", but that wouldn't be good manners, would it?), but I'm going to pile on with the manners. We were trained to stand up when adults came into the room, shake their hands, and call them Mr. and Mrs. I think our kids came out with pretty good manners overall--though lots of adults insist that kids call them by their first names. Now there's another subject--is that because they don't want to accept the responsibility of being a different generation and demanding some respect?
I'm not too good at dressing up for plane flights--it's such a miserable experience! But I do admire the people who look sharp with jewelry and heels etc. But in the end, elastic waistbands and as little underwear as decent will win out:--especially on the dreaded red-eye.
RHYS: No heels or jewelry for me on plane flights these days. You only have to take them on and off at security. I've even left a lovely scarf behind doing that. And I'm safety conscious too--in a fire panty-hose fuse to your legs. Synthetic fibers melt. I know that's paranoid but I tend to wear natural fibers but look professional (you never know, you might be upgraded).
HALLIE: I think that's a great motto: wear natural fibers, look professional... behave properly and smile like you mean it. Yes manners really matter, and I also think using them makes people around you behave better.
A big deal for us was getting our kids to behave well in restaurants, because eating out was not something I was about to give up just because I had a toddler in tow. Meltdowns in restaurants were rewarded with a one-way trip to the car. I still remember Molly sitting in a high chair at the restaurant, thoughtfully perusing the menu she'd been given even though she couldn't read, looking up at the waitress, and asking, "Excuse me, but do you have rice?" (A few years later it would have been... do you have squid?)
JAN: I think I love historical novels for that polite, repressed world they take us to. And I wish the whole world - including my children - had perfect table manners. But I've seen people very recently give up seats for a pregnant woman, and even some one offered his seta to a man who was holding a toddler (although the man turned it down.) But I also think along with that polite, repressed world, came class divisions people couldn't cross. And that despite a lack of formal manners, I've seen most people/strangers come through in a good way when someone needs a hand. (or a seat.)
RHYS: My goodness, aren't we Jungle Reds a civilized bunch? So do share your thoughts with us--do you wish we still lived in a society where manners mattered?