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.
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."