Monday, September 21, 2009

Miss-ing Manners

“Rosie, Rosie, young and able keep your elbows off the table…”

RO: I confess despite having heard that a couple of hundred times when I was a kid - why is it I remember that and not…say…all of the kings and queens of England which I also used to know? - anyway…despite the many times I heard that little ditty, I still find my elbows on the table every once in a while. Perhaps it’s not as important to me as it was to my mother. Times change, but do manners always change with them? Should they?

I’m not talking about men walking on the outside so that when the horses pass they don’t splash mud on the women’s dresses, but at the risk of sounding like a geezer, when was the last time you heard someone under the age of twenty say "you're welcome" instead of "no problem"? Or “Excuse me” when they bump into you? (I’m reminded of Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life…. "excuse me, excuse me…”)

These days I don’t really expect it so I rarely miss it, but every once in a while I have to wonder if some of the basic civilities that used to be drilled into kids – by parents, relatives and teachers shouldn’t be resurrected. Has their disappearance (or to be optimistic, erosion) made it okay for us to be less civil to each other? Is this lack of civility what makes a tennis player think she can threaten a lineswoman? Or a congressman think it's appropriate to yell “you lie!” at the president?

What old school behavior or habit would you resurrect if you could? What new behavior would you institute?

JAN: I'm happy to report that both my kids (20 and 22) take a lot of pride in being polite, and they aren't unique. Rude teenagers have a way of turning into nice adults. But I still agree with you Ro, I think in general, our culture doesn't just excuse but exalts bad behavior. There isn't the same pressure to be civil -- and since we're all sheep, we need that pressure.
Not that I'm without sin, but I'd like to return to a time where only the mentally insane dared use the F-word in public. And where everyone thought about a more intellectual and precise way to express their frustrations.

My brother used to have a theory that people in Georgia were more polite drivers because they knew at least half the other drivers on the road were packing shotguns! So maybe we should resurrect duels--- you know real, life-and-death show downs over silly, mindless insults!! At this point, that might be the only way you'd get people to clean up their language.

RO: Duels..I can't say I expected that one to come up. They would certainly keep me in line.

HALLIE: Do you think it might have anything to do with the blurring of the line between public and private that's taking place, too? People blog/blurt the most personal things to the world. What's inside just spews. Isn't that what happens when people are rude, call names, swear at other people? Sadly, the question, "Tell me what you really think," so rarely needs to be asked. And it's not as if there are negative consequences -- bad behavior is rewarded with headlines and talk show appearances.

ROBERTA: I'm going to join the old fart chorus too! Your post immediately made me think of one of my favorite books as a child, "The Goops."

"The Goops they lick their fingers, The Goops they lick their knives, They spill their broth on the tablecloth, Oh, they lead disgusting lives!"

And so on. Hysterical drawings too. In fact I just looked it up on Amazon and it's been reprinted so I ordered a copy for my nephews. My stepkids are very polite--we used to tell them they'd need these table manners when they had dinner at the White House. And they have strong handshakes too--nothing worse than a limp fish in your paw.

RO: Omigosh...The Goops! That book was a riot!

ROBERTA: We were taught growing up to stand when an adult entered the room. And hold doors for people--that seems to have dropped by the wayside. And wait to dive into dinner until everyone was seated. I think anything that helps kids realize there are other people in their space who should be acknowledged and considered is a good thing.

Speaking of Serena's outburst, it was kind of funny to listen to John McEnroe sheepishly participate in the discussion of how she should be penalized. I was at the tennis match years ago in which he became so outraged by a line call that he literally threw a TV camera to the ground. He didn't have much of a leg to stand on discussing Serena!

RO: Yup, that was an awkward moment! How about the latest exhibition of bad manners..Kanye West? Someone just emailed me that Kanye West interrupted Patrick Swayze's funeral to say that Michael Jackson's was better. :-)

HANK: Oh, just raced in to join the conversation. Late. That's something that's gone by the boards--"late" is hardly noticed these days. People show up when they show up. When did that start to be acceptable? And they always carry coffee. When did they have time to get the coffee?
And ever driven in Boston? The say a yellow traffic light means go, a red

traffic light means go really fast, and a green light means stop--because the other guy is going through the red light.

In a meeting the other day, I was there when a supervisor-type dug a plastic container of body lotion out of her purse, and applied to it to her elbows and knees. IN THE MEETING. Ahhh. I can barely tell you about it. Emily Post, we're so sorry.


  1. I seem to have been left out of this discussion! Google swallowed my post, obviously.
    What I had said was that where I live lack of manners comes with that sense of yuppy entitlement. I make more money than you so I can push in front of you, not say Thank You etc.
    I'm delighted to say that both my daughters are very hot on manners with their kids. The children are not allowed to interrupt adults, have always had to say please and thank you and as a result are a joy to have around.

  2. Maybe it's manners with meaning vs manners as rules. The kids at cub scouts were very good at saying thank you for the candy 'cause that was the rule, but they swarmed like locusts and grabbed all they could hold so those at the back got none. I wonder if it's the kids that said thank you or the ones who'd been taught not to push who grew up with better manners.

  3. The Goops! That book was a big part of my childhood. Raising my own sons, when particularly unmannerly table habits started creeping in, I'd say, "Tonight we're going to pretend we're eating with the Queen and use our best manners." It made it more fun (and this was in Massachusetts, mind you!). When they later started to be interested in girls, I'd say, "When you start going out with a girl, that's really going to gross her out, so practice now!" It all seems to have sunk in, since they both have become polite and thoughtful young men (at least around me...).

    The other day, after a man let me into a LONG line of cars before a toll booth, I paid his toll for him. ;)


  4. Oh, Maxwriter, I love your toll story. And they say no good deed goes unpunished!

    My friend Patricia throws tea parties for her little grandchildren to teach them table manners. They love it.

  5. This idea seems to be taking over . . . which is a good thing! I started a new blog about it a week ago--urging people to "lead with nice"--and I've just started a 21-Day challenge to be nice especially when it's not my first inclination.

    Check it out:

  6. I'm Hallie's friend (and Roberta's and Hank's too) who gives tea parties for practical good-manners practice. This is very pleasant with the girls. The boys, sigh, need more focused instruction. "Always flush" probably doesn't need any more explanation, but believe me is a required reminder for eight-year old males. "No bare bottoms" is another practical tip. For some reason, boys think mooning is hysterical. Grandmothers, however, are appalled and terrified that this behavior will be repeated in a more public venue resulting in old ladies fainting in shock. I could go on...

  7. Hi Pat! it's a treat to see you here! oh Hank, the story about rubbing goop on elbows and knees is priceless.

    Though, ahem, I do apply lip balm and hand sanitizer in public...

  8. The other day I watched someone clipping her toenails on the subway. All together now: Eeeeww.

    Hey Pat! And "Always flush!" is sound advice throughout life.

  9. I recall the days when one brought gifts to someone's house when they invited you to dinner, and you followed up with a written thank-you. And, a reciprocal invitation.

    Now, people can't be bothered to RSVP to invitations, much less say thanks afterward. That's just plain rude.

  10. I'm in shock over the toenails, although I used to see men cut their nails on the subway. Revolting. As it happens I just started to read Can't Wait to Get to Heaven by Fannie Flagg. I love her writing...don't know how I missed this one. Anyway there's a character who is constantly appalled by the bad behavior of the others around her, and the bad taste, and the bad aluminum siding...very funny. Very apropos.

  11. I blush to admit that I own a copy of Tiffany's Table Manners for Teenagers, and once won a contest on coordinating my china, silver and glassware (which actually paid $200!). Oh, and I have a copy of Emily Post, in case I want to match my footmen's uniforms to my napery (that's actually in there).

    There's a certain ambivalent arrogance in our current society: whatever we want to do, we can, but at the same time, nobody is supposed to notice or complain. I often wonder how the Japanese manage, with so much less space per person.

  12. I think, that like language, manners probably change and evolve with the culture, and not all of it is bad.

    But I think that's why books set in earlier years (like Rhys' books) are so appealing. We all yearn for that world of better behavior and a day when people actually suppressed a thought or two.