Whatever happened to Miss Manners, that icon of propriety who reminded us through newspaper columns that thank-you notes were not just a sometimes thing but a social responsibility following receipt of a gift, being hosted at a party or for any act of kindness or appreciation?
I recall sending out many thank-you notes—illegible, to be sure—following my high school graduation, but I must admit to being remiss about continuing that effort throughout adulthood. I do try but am not always prompt about expressing appreciation for things others do for me.
I also remember a time when children addressed their elders with a yep, a yeah or a huh at the risk of a harsh reprimand. Yes sir, no ma’am, or excuse me could you repeat that was as expected as removing your hat when you came in the house. I still do that, by the way, thanks to early instruction by my parents and re-enforcement by drill instructors in basic training who would offer something much harsher than a reprimand to miscreants caught wearing any headgear inside. I’m often a bit surprised to witness at even fine restaurants men wearing hats, not just inside, but at the table. Miss Manners would quake in her proper shoes.
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Table manners also seem to have declined since my youth. I don’t mean knowing which fork to grab first or where to place flatware after you finish the meal. I mean sloppiness, little regard for those dining with you, tooth picking (I’ve seen this at banquets, sadly) and boisterous behavior. I partly blame our less than ideal table manners on our penchant for grabbing a bag of burgers on the way home and tossing them on the kitchen counter. But it’s no excuse when folks are gathered around a table to enjoy a meal and polite company.
I also believe that good manners consist of more than a list of rules to be memorized by the time we’re 10 years old. It’s both much simpler and far more complicated than that. It boils down to one factor—showing respect. That means paying proper homage to our elders, authority figures, our equals and our betters. It means respecting children, sometimes stooping down to their eye-level so we’re not always looking down on them. It means treating people at least as well as we want them to treat us. (Where have I read that sentiment?)
Good manners do exist. I witness examples fairly often. Recently I visited a farm in West Texas and met a five-year old boy who is learning good manners. He was respectful. He used his sirs appropriately and as I was leaving I leaned down, shook his hand and said: “It’s been a pleasure meeting you.” To which he responded: “It’s been a pleasure meeting you too, sir.”
He had good instruction. I had talked to his dad and grandfather earlier. His dad is less than half my age and he answered all my questions with “yes sir,” or “no sir.” The whole family treated me with respect and not just because I’m old. It’s their nature, the way they all were raised, a tradition. It’s also not at all uncommon in farm country. I’ve noticed over many years that the most polite, well-mannered young people I know are farm kids.
Not all of them could quote Emily Post on how to set a table, when it’s improper to wear white, or what one is supposed to do with all those eating utensils positioned around a plate at banquet dinners. I don’t know all that stuff either, and I don’t really care about it. I do appreciate the respect I see in farm kids. Miss Manners would be proud.