Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mind Your Manners, Please

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?


  1. A thousand apologies for chiming in late - the handwritten note will be arriving anon.
    What can I say...I try. Certain things always bug me and others I don't seem to notice. Not holding the door for me when you're a big strong guy and I'm loaded down with packages could get you a cheery but, sarcastic "thank you." I do my best on the handwritten notes but these days I'm afraid an email sometimes has to suffice. And I'll admit to having have a terribly hard time keeping my elbows off the table.
    But I try not to look too awful on flights and enjoy dressing up for the opera. The theatre dress code has gotten a lot looser. I'll wear jeans if I'm wearing a jacket and nice shoes.

    Depending on how well I know the listener, I can occasionally unleash potty mouth. But even then, I will say Please, go f*%# yourself.

  2. Wonderful topic! I certainly struggled trying to instill manners in two sons. During son #1's "difficult" years (11-13), he sometimes resorted to stuffing food into his mouth with his hands. At the dinner table. To which I resorted to saying, "If you're going to eat like an animal, you can just go eat outside with the horses." Not that we had horses. Of course, sometimes he would then go eat outside, but at least I didn't have to look at it.

    I'm grateful that now they both are in their 20s, they seem to have retained excellent mannerly habits, because it's too late for Mom to fix anything.

    Hallie, your Molly must have been a delight!


  3. A friend and I enjoy going to symphony together, and just this last Friday we went to the ballet. I was pleasantly surprised how many were dressed up, the last few times we've been out together.

    Catholic schools taught manners, and I've tried to pass them onto my children. The oldest and her husband have spent a lot of time teaching their son, now six. They were at a hotel in Miami recently, and my grandson struck up a conversation with a hotel employee, at the end of which he offered his hand for a shake, and said "It's been very nice talking to you, Hector. I read your nametag!" Kid cracks me up.

    We used to judge our girls' friends by whether or not they said "thank you" when we gave them a ride, or they spent the night, etc. Surprising how few of them thought to do so. Which I always pointed out, of course.

  4. Oh, dear. I flashbacked to the dreaded Cotillion Sundays when I was growing up. Replete with short white gloves (we were 12-14 year olds and young misses did NOT wear long gloves until their debut!), dresses and petticoats, and learning to balance both a glass plate of tea sandwiches and a cup of punch.

    The girls learned to set a table. The boys learned how to use the utensils, and we all learned how to dance--waltz, cha-cha, and foxtrot.

    Jiminy cricket, I AM older than dirt. I admit, I rather despaired for my daughter until she became engaged. Then she turned into a Good Manners Nazi. The transformation was stunning, and one that kept her father and I laughing hysterically when she wasn't around to notice.

    Lovely topic today, ladies.

  5. Another problem with the loss of manners, aka common courtesy - when the bar is set so low and young people want to rebel with a little "bad behavior", there are not a lot of options for them this side of illegal.

  6. I miss mannered people also, but especially regarding most blogs. People today use words like suck, glam and nummy—words that either offend me or are shortened versions of words, or words that make no sense because they aren’t real words and have no meaning to me. OK, instead of okay, drive me up a wall in novels. I know this is due to the Internet.

    I loved dressing up with gloves, hat and shoes that were color coordinated, but now that I’m semi-handicapped, I confess I don’t miss dressing up at all these days.

    I tried to teach my kids manners and am not sure at times that I’ve succeeded. They come to visit and watch TV, toss silverware in the middle of the table and eat like they’ve missed a few meals. They will hold the door open for you, clear the table, and kiss me hello and goodbye. They do the casual dress thing 90-95% of the time. They were always well behaved in the car.

    However, I still remember with pleasure the day a woman stopped me leaving the local Chinese restaurant with my children ages 1 1/2, 2 1/2, and 3 1/2 while Hubby paid the bill.

    “I just had to tell you,” she said. “My mother told me all through dinner that you have three little kids at your table. I couldn’t believe her. I just did not believe three little kids could be so quiet. You have lovely, adorable and well-behaved children.”

    Why did they behave so well out? They liked to go out to dinner and knew if they didn’t behave, we wouldn’t go.

  7. I sometimes wonder if you went back to the early 19th century, if you'd heard people complaining how young people had no manners, too.

    Judging from my own kids, who are now in their early twenties, manners are still important -- critically.

    Maybe just some of the accepted manners change

  8. "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"

    Usually attributed to Plato

  9. I've solved the thank you note issue. If one of my nieces/nephews does not send a note after receiving a gift, no gift appears on the next occasion. It's amazing how quickly they learn.