Last week, the members of my dance group filmed a video we will be submitting to the Pina Bausch Foundation (http://www.pinabausch.org/en/projects/the-nelken-line). I hope to share it with you soon, but right now, we are working out final permissions. But anyway, after filming, we went out to lunch, where I mentioned that lately I have been reading etiquette books. It’s true, Readers, I have been swept up in an urge to read them, and I checked out a few from the library. I told the lunch ladies that I wasn’t really exactly sure why I felt the need to read this material. It has to do with the general timbre of the times, for sure. But also because lately, I’ve been wondering if I need to bone up. This is not based on any one thing, but on many small things. For one, considering the timbre of the times, I have to ask, am I contributing to the betterment or the worsening of it? Perhaps it’s important to refresh my understanding of etiquette these days, so that I can definitely say I’m trying to contribute to their betterment. It’s a bit futile, perhaps. A bit like a one woman attempt to turn the Titanic away from that iceberg. A bit like teaching the powers that be by example when you’re a mime and the power is out, so you’re in the dark. But, otherwise, it makes perfect sense.
For another, my kids think I have Resting Bitch Face. Well, not that they say that, exactly. In fact, Resting Bitch Face (RBF) is a term I learned from another mom. Neither daughter has used it. RBF a troublesome thought, I’ll admit, because I’d much rather settle into a pleasant expression when I’m drooling into a paper bib at the nursing home, than into a mean one. It might make the health aides more well-disposed towards me.
But, really, am I mean? The 10th grader thinks so. She thinks I come across as mean to strangers. She’s referring to several incidents at the cash register at a particular clothing store that caters to teenagers. They involved the so-called rewards card. Something I find particularly unrewarding. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because they can never find my account. I know these stores get more use out of the information they get from me via these rewards accounts than I ever get out of my so-called rewards points. Yet they can never find my account. Apparently, my last name is very challenging. P-e-r-l-m-a-n. Exotic, right? I’ve tried spelling my name correctly and incorrectly. I’ve tried my phone number and email address. No account. I’ve spoken to customer service. Managers have (supposedly) corrected whatever error they have in their system. No dice. So after the third or fourth time, I may have sighed aloud, looked askance, possibly even muttered under my breath, and/or furrowed my maternal brow. And that, to the 10th grader, makes me look mean.
But I have to ask, if I’m not super nice, am I necessarily impolite? There is a difference between being nice and being polite. I read a good blog post on this very thing just the other day, serendipitously. I agree with the writer when she says, “I was raised to mind my manners and be polite to everyone, especially my elders and my betters, but no one ever said I had to be nice to everyone.”* While this sounds harsh, I agree. Even if it does put me on the side of the crotchety. Politeness is what is required in a business transaction. I don’t have to be friendly and kind. I just have to be polite, and you just have to be polite to me.
So what exactly is etiquette? According to my recent reading, etiquette is ethics and protocol. It’s principles, and it’s rules of behavior. These rules, the things about forks and spoons and who sits where, this is the stuff that gives etiquette a bad name. It seems arbitrary and exclusionary, and much of it is.
However, the essence of etiquette is different. It was Miss Manners who clued me into that, eons ago. Miss Manners helped me through some tough stuff on the romance front. A bad breakup, A heartbreak. A period of humiliation. At some point, in desperation, I took her book to bed with me. It helped, first, because she was funny. It also helped in a deeper way, because as I read on, I began to understand her message. It was dignity.
But seriously. Dignity. Her message was to act in a way that preserved your dignity and the dignity of others. That is the role of etiquette, at bottom. Miss Manners penetrated my humiliation by showing me that while I couldn’t control what happened to me or how others treated me, I could control how I treated myself and others. And developing a nice polite shell was a terrific way to begin to move forward.
For Miss Manners, it’s about dignity. For Henry Alford, who wrote the amusing, Would it Kill You to Stop Doing That?, etiquette is about respect. He says, “Contrary to popular opinion, manners are not a luxury good….The essence of good manners is not exclusivity, nor exclusion of any kind, but sensitivity. To practice good manners is to confer upon others not just consideration but esteem; it’s to bathe others in a commodity best described by noted speller Aretha Franklin.” Respecting others. Respecting yourself.
For Irish hotelier and British TV personality Francis Brennan, who has a whole chapter on men’s suits, which I found enlightening, “Manners aren’t a rigid set of rules.” Manners, he says, are “a set of principles to live by: caring, consideration, community.” For Boston Globe Miss Conduct columnist and author Robin Abrahams, underlying etiquette is the importance of thoughtfulness.
The South is touted as a place of great hospitality. I mean, except the KKK and all it stands for, but let’s not quibble. We can all agree we’ve heard about Southern charm, Southern etiquette, and best of all, Southern aristocracy. Well, according to Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, a lot of ‘so-called Southern aristocracy’ came from ‘humble origins.’ Once they “turned land into money” they “began to fancy that they were English country gentlemen and ladies.” Guess who taught manners to their children? Their slaves. “The household slaves tended to be from the upper class of their tribes, and they had a high sense of hospitality and deference.”
Well, now. Ain’t that a fact to ponder.
Reading Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners, I was struck by her optimism. “The trend of modern society, albeit with fits and starts, is toward universal courtesy.” What she means is that over that last four or five decades, “the West has signed onto the idea that courtesy should be extended to everybody.” “When you think of it, the notion that everyone—regardless of nationality, religion, gender, occupation, race, age, or health status—should be treated with respect as an individual is extraordinary. I don’t think we’ve ever tried that before, as a species. There were always classes of people—slaves and servants, women, children, the disabled, people of other nations, the poor—it it was considered perfectly acceptable, even moral, to treat as less than human. We don’t believe that anymore.” Yes, I know, consider the times. Consider our horrid, impolite, awful president. But she makes a good point when she says, “ Yes, there is still prejudice..misogyny..racism….but we acknowledge, at least with our conscious minds and in public, that these things are wrong. And people who engage in these behaviors have to entertain elaborate excuses for why what they are doing isn’t really misogyny, racism, or the host of other prejudices. Even this represents progress.”
So was I rude or polite to the cashier? The 10th grader and I will have to agree to differ in our interpretation. However, I now stand better girded for the onslaught.