My mom tried – hard. She taught us to welcome guests with a warm ‘hello’, to make requests with a ‘please’ and to follow up with a ‘thank you.’ She taught us to eat the meals set down before us at any table. We learned to listen to those around us (especially the adults) and to ask to be excused. Mom even tried to teach us to write ‘thank you’ notes.
But when it came to table manners, she had an uphill battle. We knew how to hold a fork, knife and spoon. We knew how to set a table properly from a young age and we knew to clear it, but those rules are more about work ethic than etiquette – at least in our home. Real contribution to the family has always meant more than polite impressions.
The root of her battle lay with the fact that my dad has questionable table manners. He sets a table in his own creative way, he frequently talks with his mouth full, occasionally puts his elbows on the table, and he has been known to lick his knife. And as a child I watched judgmental people dismiss him as a result of these habits; now, as an adult, I dismiss them in turn.
You see, people’s attention to etiquette can lead them to swift and superficial misjudgment of character. And so I have always had rather ambivalent feelings toward etiquette, and to sports and leisure activities encoded with extensive rules; golf and tennis tighten my jaw; country clubs stiffen my back. Etiquette is used in social circles to reinforce classism, to justify exclusion – if you don’t know the rules then you are not part of ‘the club’, and if you are not part of the club, then you are expendable or invisible.
Please don’t misinterpret me. I would like to teach my twin daughters “the rules” so they can wield them wisely. Actually, if I’m being absolutely honest, I would like my husband to teach my daughters “the rules.” He is much more adept and knowledgeable about the subtleties of polite social interaction.
I would like to teach the girls to be considerate and present. My dad has taught us this. He has taught us to always shake the hand that is offered first. He has taught us to sit down with people, to make eye contact with those who are talking, and to actively listen to what they have to say, because everyone has something to offer. He has taught us to participate in conversations, but to avoid taking up too much conversational space.
From my dad, I have learned that small gestures can have a tremendous impact on the lives of others – taking in a neighbour’s mail, shoveling an elderly person’s driveway, opening up a conversation with someone who is sitting alone. And from my dad, I have learned that peanut butter can taste great licked from a knife.
I would like my daughters to approach others with his kindness, generosity, and sense of humour.
Karen Wolfe is a mother of twin girls and lives in Toronto.