Saturday, November 06, 2010

Manners maketh Man

LPC may have opened a can of worms with her post on manners. Or it may be the fact that I started to read, last night before bed, for the the umpteenth time, Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, with a marvelous new introduction by Zoe Heller, that got me thinking about this topic.

We (*us English gals* she says drily) were brought up with the Wykehamist motto "Manners Maketh Man," which provided for us an easy framework to live by.  English children are taught from a very early age to say "please" and "thank you" and "sorry," to think of others always before oneself (and often in spite of oneself), and most importantly to sing for one's supper.

I'm reminded of a Thelwell cartoon (I grew up in a house with a Thelwell book in each loo) of a little girl offering her fat pony a lick of her ice cream. The caption read "Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself."

this isn't it, i'm afraid

LPC goes into the science of protocol with some excellent venn diagrams here,  And she's right to do so, because this whole thing is far, far more complicated than one would imagine.  You see LPC is a proud American WASP and therefore considers or allows that most WASPs behave the way that she does.  It's rather like driving. If everyone follows the same set of rules, we'll all be safe and we'll all be happy.

But I don't think it works like that in a multi-cultural society.  Each culture and tradition is so nuanced that, as I found out when I first moved to Los Angeles, one's own set of rules, tried and true and learned or just absorbed through one's genes, didn't always work.  For example, the English way of talking around a point in order present it gently, is considered quite outrageously rude by the Israelis (this was explained to me very patiently by an Israeli friend). In Israel, not to speak the truth in the most direct way, is the height of bad manners.  Similarly, my husband's father's family is Lebanese, and the men greet each other with enormous hugs, something my family doesn't do. Now, however, when I see my husband and my son embrace, it makes me enormously happy to see such a sweet display of love.

And kissing. How many do you do? One, two, three? A hug? And for how long? Or the hideous, reprehensible shoulder to shoulder to tap? I despise that with every fibre of my being. I'd rather shake your hand or rub the tip of my nose against yours.

I must mention hostess gifts, a custom I love even though it's taken me twenty years to get used to the idea, which is, of course, ridiculous of me.  American dinner party guests not only bring wine, or heavenly flowers (note to future guests: I LOVE flowers) but elaborate, lovely presents wrapped in gorgeously be-ribboned paper -- books, little pictures, candles, jams, Heath Ceramics tea pots, tea towels, artisanal salt, scent; are some of the things I've recently received.  It's a splendid thing. As far as I remember, in England you bring a present if you're staying for the weekend at someone's house, but not usually for dinner. But please, English friends, do weigh in here.

There is a certain type of American gentility that considers gushing sappiness to be the height of good manners.  This still nauseates me only for its dis-ingenuousness.  Surely the point of good manners is to be truthful, to express one's gratitude with honesty? One is reminded of the fawning of eighteenth century French courtiers, the fine art of blowing smoke. Idle flattery is not the same as good manners. Or is it idyll flattery? Idol flattery?  I do like a bit of witty flattery though. Who doesn't?  That rather sweet, verging on the sarcastic, slightly flirty thing that confident, erudite people can do. The kind of thing that puts one completely at ease in a fraught situation.

We can agree on a few things, I hope:
  • Able young men (and women) should give up their seats on a bus for older, less mobile people. 
  • Don't take the last sausage.
  • If someone pushes past you in a queue, give him enough space to fall flat on his face, or pinch him hard on the bottom while whistling innocently and looking the other way.
  • If staring at the salt for long enough doesn't automatically, telepathically suggest that the person in front of it pass it to you, you may ask (don't stretch).
  • If you're a child and an adult you know asks you a kindly question, a kindly answer is in order. If he appears to be a pedophile, alert your parents.
  • If you're invited to supper at someone's house, it's actually good manners to comment positively on the food and to call or email or write the next day to thank them.
  • At dinner, it is your job to make conversation with the person to the left and right of you, however dull you may find them. You will be surprised at how people light up when asked about themselves.
  • Speak about people as if they're there -- ask yourself when gossiping, would I like to be spoken about this way? (At least, this is what I tell my children. I'm not sure I always practice what I preach.)
  • Don't bring horrible bottles of wine to dinner parties thinking people won't notice. They will and you'll be a marked man!
  • Be kind.
  • Be grateful.
  • Laugh.

Which brings me to an unfortunate and highly antisocial man I met on Halloween (I've been dying to get this story out and this provides the perfect opportunity), not a friend of my hosts, per se, but dragged in by another parent of a 4th grader.  This man was perfectly pleasant looking, although I was slightly suspicious as I stood in line for the paella, when he dashed in front of me to fill his already dirty plate (I'd not yet eaten) with a great pile of the stuff, picking out as many shrimp as he could.  I forgave him this. Halloween is hungry work, afterall, especially with 4th graders.  And the finishing off of the salad.  This too I forgave. But later on, as we were discussing a movie, he turned around and walked away as I was speaking, literally mid-sentence. I tried not to look agog. I tried to pick my jaw up off the floor.  I smiled and I said.  "Oh dear, it was rather a dull story, wasn't it? But I hadn't quite finished."

This is the point, dear reader, when you assume that I am a dull raconteur and that my musings on the film "Monsters" may have bored the poor chap to tears. And you may well be right. There is no doubt.  However, let us imagine that all that is true; is it all right, really, wherever you are in the world, whatever culture you come from to turn your back on a fellow guest at a party and walk deliberately in the other direction?

The good news is, the Maharishi and I laughed and laughed and laughed about this.  What a sweet sheltered life I live that such an event could gobsmack me so. I should love to have a photograph of the expression on my face.

I'm reminded of my elegant, sweet-natured mother who, on entering the drawing room and finding my seventeen year-old self and some of my less desirable seventeen year-old friends lolling about, went up to the first chap, took his hand warmly and literally pulled him out of the chair and to his feet (where he should have been when a woman entered the room), while announcing cheerfully "Bente Ward. How do you do?"  Oh those kooky Norwegians.

And one more thing.  If you are a parent of children, please teach them well.  One of the single most important things you can give them in life, apart from a love of learning, are the tools to be an engaging, charming listener and conversationalist. This starts with two things: learning the words "please" and "thank you."  Poor, unfortunate smalls who don't learn these things will have a hard time of it.  They will struggle.  There is no doubt that a handful of good manners, will bring the world to you.  Good manners and of course a witty pirate joke... (I've got a few of those.)

Hugh Massingberd (who died in 2007) commented after suffering a heart attack:
"It was quite salutary, really. One felt that nothing mattered beyond kindness, good manners and humour."


Tania Kindersley said...

Yes yes yes yes yes yes YES.

Was talking only yesterday of politeness. It was in a discussion on morality. I said: most morality is just good manners. Which is a little glib but not entirely untrue.

I am obsessive about manners, esp please and thank you and offering to help. Also the singing for you supper, I so agree: better recite the ABC than sit silent at the dinner table.

Wonder if presents for dinner is a little too much. Capitalist arms race then? My scented candle is more expensive than yours kind of thing. But I always take something when going to stay. In fact have only today been to Kirkby Lonsdale to buy three different kind of soap for my cousin, plus miniature rubber ducks, bubble bath, felt robin red-breasts to hang on the Christmas tree and various books for the children. (Pausing in the Lake District before second leg of journey tomorrow.)

I like to think walking away man might have had some kind of illness. Gyppy tummy perhaps? Or an obscure form of tourette's?


PS Hope your naughty anonymous commenter reads this and ponders. Although he/she was right about one thing: it's really NOT a bad blog. In the most literal sense of the thing. (Translation: bloody marvellous.)

Tania Kindersley said...

Of course meant singing for YOUR supper. Cannot type due to too much driving.

AQ: said...

Since I'm constantly in the company of Israelis I know all about the "tachles" (or the cutting to the chase) and I'm glad it overlaps with my innate Mexican inability to sugarcoat things. Smiled to see you mention that!

Great post... The Maharishi is a wise one. An ex boyfriend of mine always used to say "This isn't Kosovo!" if I freaked out over something that is in the grand scheme of things quite trivial. Ironically, this was advice coming from someone that canceled everything in his day when I accidentally spilled milk on the couch and had a meltdown if his shirts didn't come back immaculately from the dry cleaners.

I usually just say "RELAX"... Manners totally make the world go 'round more smoothly, and I believe at the root of the mile long lists of how to behave are two skeletal principles: "You can't judge another person until you've walked a mile in their shoes" and "Treat others as you would like to be treated." Socially, politically, religiously, at parties, at work, in line at the grocery store, when you reach out to try a hat on and a too-thin hipster blonde with really sleazy shorts (hello, it's NOVEMBER in NEW YORK- put some tights under those things) pretending to not see you eyeing it snatches it from under your hand- these'll go a loooong way.

Glenland Ladybird said...

DH (Wykehamist) has always said it isn't straight forward - not quite 'manners' as we understand the word today. It is about the way one conducts oneself through out life. He's on call (as per usual)so I can't ask him.I'm not sure that this extract (copied from the school bursary ... hmm I know the Bursar's room well)makes any more sense.
'When William of Wykeham founded Winchester College in 1382, it was with the purpose of educating boys to exercise leadership in society. His motto, Manners Maketh Man, embodied his belief that a civilized society relies for it future on good education. An integral part of his vision was to provide, through charitable endowment, access to education for those who would benefit most, irrespective of their social background.'

Wykehamists aside, well done you.

I've been invited out to sups by one of No1's mates before she goes out to Verbier (chalet girl).I was feeling rather smug about my choice of gift (Lakeland silicone muffin cases) light for her case and dreamy, easy pop out muffins for her guests....but having read your blog I may have to whiz to the Glentown and check out their flowers.x

Liberty London Girl said...

Yes! America confuses me greatly on many of these things. I still find the questions about money and salaries and intimate details of my life disconcerting at least and bloody intrusive at worst. And the asking of ginormous favours straight out with no shame!

And this post reminds me of coming to see you last year. I remember bringing you a book I thought you might particularly enjoy the first time we met, just because. But the second time I came for supper, I arrived empty handed as I had no money in the bank that day. (God last year was a trial). I was personally annoyed by that as I like buying presents, but, as in England, not the end of the world.

Imagine my mortification when my fellow guests arivbed bearing vast cheese plates and hors d'oeuvres! My toes still curl with embarrassment a year later! LLGxx

curious said...

I love this post and thank you for unlocking the mystery of hostess gifts which continues to puzzle me. Thank you also for underlining the need to teach children manners. I currently work with a senior executive who has impeccable manners - apologises if he is a minute late for a call and thanks me for my work. His daughter is a reasonably famous model and I often wonder if her father's teaching speeds her passage (along with great beauty, of course)

Anonymous said...

From: Bente Ward

Darling Bumble,

I loved your article - manners are so important and it costs nothing
- although taking presents to a dinner party is not so usual in England unless it is the first time you are in someone's house.

I was so impressed with Archie when I went to Scotland and he was out playing on his own when I arrived, came to say hallo and took his cap off before giving me a hug!!

Mamma xx

Miss Whistle said...

Thank you for this lovely feedback!

@Tania -- I know that your manners are absolutely impeccable, therefore I think a gyppy tummy is exactly his problem. I'm so delighted that you put your finger on it. Shall remember that for the future. (My friend Vivien was far less generous and suggested I should've poured my plate of paella over his head). And thank you for your very kind comments about the blog. You know the feelings are, truly, mutual.

@AQ -- This is something we should all remember: "You can't judge another person until you've walked a mile in their shoes" or moccasins, whatever you prefer. I would've pinched the skeletal woman in the miniskirt (although maybe there wasn't much to grab).

@LLG -- You must absolutely stop worrying this minute. My book is wonderful and you mustn't give the cheese platters another thought. You were a thoroughly charming guest. X

@Fi -- Thank you for straightening out the Wykehamist thing. I love the notion that it is the way one conducts oneself throughout one's life.

@curious -- I think your theory makes a lot of sense and I full believe that good manners "speeds one's passage" as you put it.

@Mamma -- I posted your comment for you because I know this comment box can be tricky. I think you taught us well, as is evidenced by Archie and his cap. That is absolutely the sweetest thing. XX

legend in his own lunchtime said...

As always, I love your posts.
Thank you:)

Anonymous said...


Kcecelia said...

Thank you for this lovely post! I so agree about the necessity of good manners.

Years ago my sisters, my mother, and I went to a baby shower for my younger sister in a gorgeous old home in Hillsborough—a prosperous suburb of San Francisco—where it seemed the hostess had a lovely setting, but no training in the social graces. It was a difficult afternoon. In our car after the event, I said how surprisingly painful it had been to spend so much time with people who did not seem to know what manners were required to move a group of people comfortably through teatime and gifts. My mother commented that manners only work if everyone knows what they are. (Which is what you mentioned here, along with how it's complicated by cultural variations.) I answered that it was a kind of delicate dance: it does not work if someone is doing the Foxtrot with a partner who is unfamiliar with the concept of keeping measured bodily time to music. Thus, I agree that it is important that we teach our children manners. With the manners come the ability to bridge the confusing cultural gaps that will arise later in our lives.

This reminds me of what a complex thing it was for me to be brought up by a Midwestern (French-Canadian, German, Irish) mother, and an American Indian father. There were subtle, intricate—sometimes confusing—cultural variations. The saving grace was that both my parents valued manners—a kind of careful reverence for life—and words over everything. My mother was a literature major in college who taught high school English, and was a librarian, before she married my father. Years later, after her children were older, she went back to work for a bit as a children's librarian. LPC has commented that she thinks on Twitter I sound a bit like Jane Austen. This may be a side effect of being raised by a mother who is an Anglophile—a constant re-reader of Austen's works—who taught her children to adore such books as The Wind In the Willows, and Alice in Wonderland.

As a child, and now, I delight in poor Alice's consternation that her usual English manners do not get her the desired results in Wonderland; a world where it is acceptable for the Dormouse to fall asleep during tea, and for the March Hare and the Mad Hatter to first use the Dormouse as a cushion and then to dunk his sleepy head into the teapot; and, where the acceptable solution to getting a clean cup at table is to have everyone move down one place. The "A Mad Tea Party" chapter of Alice in Wonderland is a wonderful thing to read to a child about manners, and how things can go terribly awry without them.

In The Wind in the Willows, the way that Rat and Mole host each other in their respective homes is some of the most beautiful writing on the usefulness, beauty, and comfort of good manners—and the love and respect those good manners can express—that I have ever read.

Here is my idea: Want more good manners? Buy these two books for every small child you know, and then read to them.

Kcecelia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
So Lovely said...

My parents were obsessed with manners when I was growing up. We spent quite a large amount of time traveling and living in different countries so with a haul of 4 children we needed to tow the line. One stern look from my mother or father was enough to know that they disapproved of the behavior. I was raised to thank my friend's parents for allowing me to come and play, and if invited to dinner could I do anything to help. I'm very proud of the way I was raised & feel very relaxed in any company/situation as I have my "training" to fall back on.

To me, being invited to someone's home for dinner is the ultimate privilege and you have been generous to invite me over often. I truly wish that I had a housing situation that was conducive to entertaining so that I could reciprocate.

Good manners make others feel welcome and at ease around you.

I shall have rocks thrown at me from friends for saying this but I find talking, texting or checking messages on cell phones while dining - bad manners.

Anonymous said...

I'm very much enjoying your blog, having been directed here by my dear mother. On the subject of manners/etiquette, I wonder, do you find as a Brit in the US that people are confused when you sign messages with kisses? I have been in terrible trouble over this recently.
xx Elsa's daughter

Miss Whistle said...

@T -- Legend and Lucy -- thank you as always for being brilliantly supportive and kind.

@KCecelia -- Your mother was on the right track and I love the Alice in Wonderland metaphor. Thank you for your idea. I think it's exactly what we need to do.

@So Lovely -- You are always welcome and I SO agree about the texting thing. Makes me crazy.

@Anonymous -- I am so honored that your mother directed you to my blog. Even at 12, your mother had the kind of spirit that one remembers forever (as witnessed by our new-found friendship). Yes, on the xxx thing. You have to be very careful only to use it people you know well, and not in any way for business or where there might be a question of its appropriateness. There's actually an amusing piece in the New York Times today about how to sign off: "When Best Isn't Good Enough" by Judith Newman. Thank you so much for reading! xx

Anonymous said...

Thank -you-, Miss Bumble, for your delightful blog. My personal take on manners is that I should practice them without regard to one's station in life. I daresay there are a few attendants at my local Scottish restaurant, McDonald's, who could pick me out of a lineup based on voice alone. They know me because I ask after them and looking in their eyes, say "thank you". There is the wave of joy that washes over you when you say or do the right thing. Good manners open all sorts of doors, don't they?

The Epic Adventurer said...

I have often pondered the differences between British and American manners (I am half of each, and have lived in both places -- plus, I have an Israeli brother! This post was made for me!). Some things about both are incomprehensible to me...

When I am teaching young people, I often refer to their manners. Talking about "respect" -- respect me, respect the work, respect each other -- is so pointless most of the time. Respect cannot be forced where it isn't felt. Manners, however, seem to breed mutual respect! The young people I work with (and often, adults as well!) respond so much better when you talk about their actions, rather than telling them how to feel.

Miss Whistle said...

Dear Epic Adventurer:
Thank you so much for visiting. I completely agree with you about teaching young children manners. I look forward to visiting your blog.
Miss W