Mindful of Manners
I was prepared to dine with the Queen, should the opportunity arise. It didn’t, but I still behave like it might… common courtesies simply make life more pleasant.
What is it that sets us apart from other animals? Is it intelligence, compassion, passion? The ability to learn and use new knowledge? Opposable thumbs and flush toilets? If there were 10 people around the dinner table discussing this question, there would be 10 different traits raised and debated. How about these for a start: using logic, solving problems, caring for people we don’t know, having intellect, being creative, using tools, cooking food and crying.
Characteristics that I think set us apart are courtesy and manners, particularly table manners. Courtesy is an indication of the respect we have for others; it’s a reflection of our character. It’s the implementation of the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated. Some think that holding a door for another, for example, is a gender thing. Not necessarily. Men still hold doors open for women, but it also makes sense for a female to hold a door open for a male, particularly if his arms are full. A simple “thank you” and “you’re welcome” are the required courteous responses.
Canadians are nice, mannerly and law abiding; Atlantic Canadians are friendly and polite. When I was in a Halifax bookstore recently I passed in front of a man perusing a bookshelf and said, “excuse me.” He commented that he was from south of the border, but knew he was in the Maritimes because people were so polite.
Sometimes it goes beyond saying “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me.” It’s how we behave and the language we use in private and in public.
Some years ago one of my sons was travelling on a bus with his two young children. A couple of youth were rather loudly using foul language. My son nicely but sternly asked that they not use that language when young children were present—and he received a round of applause from the other passengers for doing so.
Common courtesies simply make life more pleasant. We probably won’t see another Sir Walter Raleigh—best known for tossing his coat over a mud puddle so Queen Elizabeth I wouldn’t get her shoes dirty. But we can still be conscious of pedestrians as we drive through puddles. Being aware of and considerate of others is basic to being courteous. For example, it’s discourteous for a listener to speak or otherwise distract attention while another is speaking.
One of the most effective means of teaching good manners is to set an example. Some families enforce the rules more strictly than others. Good table manners make good sense—and they make the dining experience more pleasant for everyone.
The rule at my grandmother’s dining table was that children were to be seen and not heard unless spoken to, though we were often invited to engage in the topic of the table. I can recall my uncle storming away from the table if our table manners were not properly observed. I adored this uncle so tried my best to attend to my manners.
In my home growing up, I was prepared to dine with the Queen, should the opportunity arise. It hasn’t, but I still behave like it might. Though grateful for the training, I must confess that sometimes I wish I could be a touch more slobbish! I am frequently ill at ease when dining with others not likewise instructed—there are times when I, too, have to leave the table because of someone’s manners. I don’t storm off in a huff like my uncle; I just surreptitiously slink away, giving a weak excuse.
One of the things I was taught is to eat slowly—chewing each bite 23 times—the reason being two-fold: first it aids digestion, and second it gives others the opportunity to talk. It is such a pleasure to dine with someone who eats as slowly as I and who engages in conversation.
I get annoyed when the plates are whisked away from the table before I have finished, or when a waiter in a restaurant wants to remove my plate while I am engaged in conversation.
Conversation makes a meal far more pleasant and civilized than gulping and running. It’s disturbing to spend a few hours preparing a sumptuous meal then have it disappear, sometimes at a silent table, in 15 minutes.
Even when eating alone I set the table properly, light a candle or two, and dine as though the Queen were sitting across the table from me. Instead it is just my two dogs hoping that crumbs will drop!
The animal in us is different from the furries we often invite into our homes to share our lives. We sometimes eat the same foods, but we do so differently. We may be somewhat territorial, but we exercise our rights through more courteous ways than fisticuffs or dogfights.
As a youngster when I was invited to have a meal at someone’s house I was always cautioned, “ask to pass, say please and thank you, and don’t do anything to disgrace the family name.” I’ve passed along this warning to my sons and expect that they have done so with their children as well.
I’m older now and the caution still echoes in my head when I’m a guest. A quote I read recently rang a bell with me: I love everything that’s old: friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines.