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JEFF CORBETT: Manners maketh nil

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October 9, 2019 by admin

DO you remember when much was made of manners? If so you’re likely to be middle-aged, a term used politely for those well past the halfway point of their life.
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Children in the company of a parent in public were appraised and complimented on their manners, and to do so was a part of the ritual of adult manners; guests in the family home would make a small fuss about the loveliness of the children’s table manners; and parents saw even the most informal meal as a training opportunity.

Elbows on the table! Oh the shame!

And so for a long time eating at a table was more an exercise in keeping elbows uncomfortably by my side than in actual eating, and I could never understand then why elbows and table should never meet and I cannot now. Naturally, now, I allow my elbows to rest naturally, which may well be on the table.

We went through the “may I” stuff, but it is such a silly affectation that I’d be horrified if my children asked: “May I be so rude as to ask you to pass the butter?”

Well-behaved children spoke only when spoken to, in company at least, then we were limited in what we should say. Boldness was cheekiness, and cheekiness was shame.

Honorifics were de rigueur for all children, and such is the change that I don’t think I’ve heard my children refer to anyone apart from a teacher with a Mr or Mrs or Miss. All the family’s friends regardless of age have been known by their first name, whether they like it or not.

And training in manners has been limited to the use of cutlery, eliminating animal-like noises at the table (although I’ll have to revisit this with my eldest son), mouth closed while eating, please and thank you, and excusing yourself. The combing of hair has been a bigger and less successful battle.

Well, mouth closed while eating, or not talking while eating, has given way to the reality of interaction, and I can’t recall a cutlery correction being issued to any child over the age of five, and it seems that my family’s attitudes are common. Well, common as in widespread.

Have we lost anything of value? Have we failed our children by not harping endlessly about straight backs and formulated language and ladies first and not eating until the head of the table eats?

I suspect that the purpose of manners, and the reason for manners, has changed in one or two generations.

Until my generation it seems that manners were a statement of social position and a template for interaction, so that an exchange between people would proceed according to a formula. The formula would open with exaggerated concern for the other’s health, for family, and move through discussion of the weather to an almost apologetic raising of the business at hand.

Responses were largely by rote and in studious agreement, and this can be seen in older people nodding and issuing sounds of agreement as the other’s story proceeds, even when they disagree with the points being made.

For at least one generation manners have been about consideration rather than a social statement and a template, and consideration is a much more sincere response than structured platitudes. There are, for example, no manners stipulating that we dip finger food into the sauce only once, but it is inconsiderate to dip the sausage roll or whatever more than once.

As informality has seen off formality, the emphasis has moved from being courteous to being not rude – we are not offended when someone we encounter does not pay even lip service to manners but we are offended if that someone behaves rudely. Such rudeness may range from disregard to hostility.

And while manners are no longer a social marker, rudeness certainly is.

I have noticed on my blog, however, that those few contributors who use what we see as old-fashioned manners are more likely to allow for the possibility that the opposition is right, that they may be wrong. And a consequence of this is that they are far more likely than others to find common ground.

Maybe there is a value in discussion of the weather.

Have manners and their role changed in your life? For better or for worse?


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