On Etiquette

A decade or so ago, after almost forty years of marriage, my wife left me.  Oh, it was nothing permanent, thank goodness—just a weekend excursion she took with one of our daughters, who was visiting us in Florida with her two girls.  They left me to look after our grandchildren.

I was delighted, of course, not only because I love the girls, but because I knew it would give me an opportunity to put into practice all those theories about dealing with children that I’m forever espousing to my wife.

 Hah!  So much for that plan!

It wasn’t that my theories were without merit.  They were based on an assumption that children—and adults, for that matter—are responsible for their own behaviour, and should be held accountable for the consequences of that behaviour.  Pretty simple, really.  Our world might well be a better place if more people subscribed to that thinking.

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Now, before I go any further, please don’t get the impression that I ever told my wife how to raise our own two daughters.  Far from it!  She always brought her own common-sense approach into play during the many hours she spent with them.

But I couldn’t resist the opportunity—after I’d been away from fatherhood for so long—to put my theories into practice, dispassionately and all-knowingly, with my granddaughters.

However, I didn’t reckon on the fact that my daughter had learned the lessons of effective parenting only-too-well from my wife.  And the extent to which she’d been successful was brought home to me that weekend.

Right from the get-go, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find any fault with my grandchildren.  On both mornings, they got up and made their beds, got themselves washed and dressed, and then wakened me.  Gently, with a kiss.

After breakfast, which they helped me make, they cleaned off the table without being reminded.  Then off they went, outside to play until it was time to walk to the pool—their favourite pastime.  The closest we got to a confrontation was when they asked if they could go barefoot.  I told them about fire-ants, and they readily dropped the subject.

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It was quite frustrating, because I wasn’t getting any opportunities to practice my pet theories.  Finally, however, I figured my chance had come.  We went out for dinner that first night, to a local place offering bbq ribs as the house specialty, and that’s what we ordered.  It was the perfect moment to direct the girls in the proper etiquette for dining out.

I tried to begin when the salads arrived, but I wasn’t fast enough.

“Use the small fork for your salad, Gramps,” offered the youngest before I could tell her the same thing.  I nodded obediently.

When I tried to say something else a few moments later, the oldest said, “Gramps, you shouldn’t talk with food in your mouth, remember?”  I nodded again, in guilty agreement.

Then, a minute or so later, while I was still watching for some breach of etiquette from them, the youngest piped up again.  “Please don’t let the fork scrape against your teeth, Gramps.  And your napkin should be on your lap in case you drop something.”  I hastily complied.

When the platter of ribs arrived, I received more advice from the oldest—even before I had done anything wrong.  “It’s okay to pick up the ribs in your hands, Gramps, but don’t lick your fingers.  Just wipe them on your napkin.”

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“Gramps, don’t eat so fast,” said the youngest a few minutes later, “or you’ll get a tummy-ache.”

This went on through the entire meal.  I was lectured to, scolded, and encouraged, all at the same time, by my own grandchildren.  Worst of all, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  Probably because, eating so fast, my mouth was always full.

But then, at long last, I found a way to seize the upper hand.  It was time to pay the bill, and I was the only one with money!  Confidently, I marched with the kids up to the cashier, flashing a broad smile at her as I pulled out my wallet with a flourish.  Rather than returning my smile, she merely looked at me—somewhat curiously, I thought.

Nevertheless, I paid the bill masterfully, adding just the right amount for a gratuity.  As we left, I bestowed one final, beaming smile on the cashier.  And again, she didn’t return it.

After we climbed back into our car, I turned to the two girls.

“There!” I said.  “That’s how you settle up after a good meal.”  I just knew they’d be impressed, and I smiled condescendingly at the two of them.

Ewww, Gramps!” they chorused in unison.  “You’ve got a big piece of meat stuck between your front teeth!”

Alas, being a grandpa isn’t always easy!

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When Did It Start?

When did it start to be okay to ignore the fundamental tenets of good manners?  Of respect for other people?  Of common sense?

As a gentleman of a certain generation, I am beginning to notice innumerable illustrations of how the teachings of my parents, for instance, are flouted, seemingly with impunity, by so many people today.

When did it start to be okay, by way of example, for men to leave their hats on while dining in a restaurant?  Or while riding in an elevator?  Or when meeting someone for the first time?

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Was it not always de rigueur to doff one’s hat in such situations?

When did it start to be okay for a gentleman to remain seated when a lady enters the room?  Or when greeting someone at a social function?  Or when there is no seat left for an elderly person on a crowded subway car?

Was it not an expectation that one would respect one’s elders?

Perhaps it is cantankerous of me to bewail the apparent passing of such social niceties.  Maybe I am being overly pernickety in complaining about such faux pas.

And yet, when did it start to be okay to start eating before everyone was seated at the table, their food in front of them?  Or to prop oneself on one’s elbows, head lowered almost to the plate, to shovel food in?  Or to talk with one’s mouth full?

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Was dining not intended as a social occasion where one might enjoy, not only one’s meal, but the pleasant company of one’s family and friends?

And when did it start to be okay to show up for social occasions without a proper RSVP in advance, if requested?  Or to arrive fashionably late, or embarrassingly early?  Or not to appear at all when expected?

Were politeness and punctuality ever considered superfluous, unwarranted, not of value?

I can scarcely believe I am alone in bemoaning the dumbing-down of our social discourse to the lowest common denominator.  Alas, I fear it may be so, based upon the evidence I see on an almost-daily basis.

For instance, when did it start to be okay to interrupt while someone else is speaking?  Or to speak over them?  Or to ignore them altogether, perhaps by staring pointedly at one’s cellphone?

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Was polite conversation not always considered to be an amiable exchange of ideas and opinions, offered with due regard for others’ points of view?

When did it start to be okay to speak loudly in public, to the annoyance of others around?  Or to sprinkle one’s speech with profanities?  Or to play one’s music so loudly that it impinges upon others’ right to peace?

Was consideration for others not always a hallmark of a polite society?

I suppose, in fairness, I must concede that not everyone is guilty of such breaches of social refinements.  In fact, among my circle of friends and acquaintances, there is more adherence than avoidance in evidence.  But my circle is not particularly broad.

When did it start to be okay in the wider world to make demands, rather than requests?  Or to forget please and thank you?  Or to refrain from offering the plate to others before helping oneself?

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Are good manners now out of style?  Is it considered better in this day and age to receive, rather than to give?

And when did it start to be okay for one to let a door close after walking through, without checking to see if someone might be following close behind?  Or to forego standing aside in the first place, holding the door open for the other person?  With a smile.

Was such consideration for others not always a hallmark of civilized behaviour?

These contraventions of the social contract that has always held us together are, in my opinion, nothing short of egregious.  They tear at the fabric of our human condition, at the ties that bind us, one to the other.  We are the lesser for their prevalence.

I have written in the past that my wife (and others, I suspect) consider me a curmudgeon.  Perchance, I am.  Yet, despite such censure, I cannot stop asking the basic question—when did it start to be okay to ignore the standards of cultured, urbane comportment?

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My wife hints at the answer, however.

“When did it start to be okay?” I ask.

“When you got old!” she answers.