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?

hat

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?

eating

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?

sharing

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?

Curmudgeon_Logo

My wife hints at the answer, however.

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

“When you got old!” she answers.

Curmudgeon!

Curmudgeon! 

Such a wonderful word to roll around on your tongue.  It has a solid, satisfying sound when spoken aloud, dropping weightily into a conversation like a bag of sand thumping a wooden floor.  It is defined as somebody who is bad-tempered, disagreeable, or stubborn.

Not at all the person I believe myself to be!

Yet, according to several of those closest and dearest to me, I am becoming something of a curmudgeon.  They tell me it has to do with my rather determined efforts to hold fast to the social dicta instilled in me by my mother.

etiquette

Although it’s been seventy years since first that grand lady began educating me on the social niceties—and despite my knowing that the customs and mores of our changing society have altered since then—I cannot stop bemoaning the loss of what I consider to be simple etiquette.

Let me provide a few examples, taken from experiences we had with folks in the community where we used to spend our winters.  And, I don’t mean to give you the wrong impression of them; they were all lovely people, good-hearted, gracious, and kind.  It’s just that they didn’t necessarily subscribe to the things I learned at my mother’s knee.

When my wife and I would invite a few couples for a dinner party, for instance, and specify an arrival time of five-thirty, I didn’t appreciate when everyone would arrive, fashionably late, some twenty minutes past the expected time.  We’d be sitting anxiously alone, wondering if everyone forgot—worrying that the hot hors d’oeuvres would be cooled and soggy by the time we got to eat them.

hors d'oeuvres

“Oh, we just wanted to be sure you were ready,” our guests would say when I’d make a supposedly-offhanded comment about their lateness.

But you see, we were always ready when we said we’d be.  Always.  If we’d thought we needed more preparation time, we’d have set a later arrival target for everyone.  My mother believed it was proper to arrive when your hosts asked you to.

“There’s nothing fashionable about being late,” she would say.  “It’s just rude.”

Hospitality gifts were another example.  Although they weren’t de rigueur, it became the thing to do as we visited back and forth at each other’s homes.  A favourite gift was a bottle of wine, nicely encased in a gift bag designed for the purpose—but never of the same vintage as might have been previously received from the same couple.

“Thank you,” I would say fulsomely as I pulled the bottle from the bag and set it to one side.  “We haven’t tried this one.  I’m sure we’ll enjoy it.”

“Aren’t you going to open it?” they’d ask.

“Uhh…no,” I’d reply, “not just now.  We have wine already selected for tonight.”

Their disappointment would be palpable as I proceeded to pour them a glass from the decanted wine I’d already planned for the evening.  And I was somehow made to feel as if I were offering a second-rate product, when sometimes, it was better than what they’d brought.

“How rude is that!” I’d rail at my wife after everyone had departed.  “And you know what’s even worse?  They took home the gift bag they brought their wine in!  Can you believe it?”

wine gift bag

My wife would tell me not to get so worked up, but it just didn’t seem right.

Here’s another case in point.  The day after our dinner party, some people would phone to thank us for the evening, graciously commenting on the food, the company, or the conversation among friends.  That’s exactly what my mother told me to do.

“Always call the following day to thank your hosts once again.”

But, increasing numbers of people don’t think to do that anymore.  Or perhaps they do think of it, but can’t be bothered.  Either way, it’s a classic breach of etiquette.

“Don’t worry about it,” my wife would say when I’d rail on about it.  “They thanked us several times at the door before they left.”

“It’s not the same,” I would respond, still miffed.

Now, lest you think I’m overly critical when I have no right to be, let me assure you that I tried to practice all these niceties when we were on the other side.  I’d ensure that we arrived on time, as specified by our hosts, never more than a minute out either way.

“Oh!  You’re here!” they’d say, lifting an eyebrow in surprise as they opened the door.

“Five-thirty,” I’d reply, with an exaggerated glance at my watch.  “That’s what you said, right?”

On one occasion, our hostess was still in the shower when we got there, at the appointed hour, and her husband wasn’t sure whether or not to let us in.

Of course, we always brought along a gift, usually the ubiquitous bottle of wine.  I’d proffer it unassumingly to our host, and often, to my great surprise, he’d open it immediately to pour us each a glass.  I found that mind-boggling.  It made me wonder if he didn’t have enough of his own, and was dependent on his guests for the evening’s libations.

“What if we’d brought flowers?” I’d rage later to my wife.

flowers2

And, so many times, when my wife or I would phone the following day to thank our hosts again for their hospitality, they would always sound bemused.  As if we shouldn’t have bothered.  As if they didn’t care, one way or the other.

“Don’t these people know any better?” I’d rant, scarcely coherent.  “Doesn’t anybody have any manners?  Why can’t they just do things right?”

“You mean your way?” my wife would reply sweetly.

“Yeah,” I’d say forcefully.  “The way my mother used to.”

But it would fall to my wife to have the last word in these discussions, and it’s a word that would always shut me up—at least temporarily.

“Curmudgeon!” she’d say.

curmudgeon

 

 

 

The F-Word

Years ago, when our two daughters were still in elementary school, my wife and I encountered a moment of truth with them—one of those things that never seems to arise in the privacy and sanctity of one’s own home.  Children are too diabolical to let that happen.

We were out for dinner, treating them to a white-tablecloth dinner in a fine restaurant in our neighbourhood.  Part of our strategy to introduce them to the niceties of life, we hoped it also would serve as an opportunity to educate them in the proper manners and etiquette such occasions demanded.  No other children were present, and I smugly complimented myself on the loving family picture we must have presented.

family-eating

Our table sat amidst several others, nicely spaced, but close enough to require moderated tones while speaking.  We all had ordered, the girls speaking directly with the server, being sure to say please and thank you as required, and the evening was going splendidly.

Then my eldest daughter dropped the bomb.

“Daddy,” she said (more loudly than necessary, it seemed to me), “what does the f-word mean?”

Even as the blood rushed to my ears, it couldn’t drown out the sound of dropped cutlery clattering on plates from the tables around us.  I resisted the urge to check how many pairs of eyes must be staring at us.

“What?” I said, stupidly, since the last thing I wanted was for her to repeat her question.

“I said, what does…”

“I heard you, I heard you,” I interrupted.  “Please lower your voice.”

No one spoke for a moment or two.  Our fellow-diners appeared to resume their own conversations, though hoping, I was sure, to hear how I might respond.

My wife was the first to break the silence.  “What f-word?” she asked.  “There are a lot of words starting with ‘f’.”

I stared at her, aghast.  What could she be thinking?  Surely she didn’t want our daughter to say the word out loud in a crowded restaurant.

The two girls glanced sidelong at each other, almost furtively, nervous smiles on their faces.  The youngest shrugged her shoulders slightly.

“Umm, I guess I forget the word,” the eldest replied.

“That’s okay,” my wife said nonchalantly.  “But if you think of it another time, you can ask us again.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for my savvy wife’s realization that such a sweet child would be unwilling to actually utter the word.

Emboldened by her success, I added bravely, “Yeah, and when you tell us the word, we’ll tell you what it means.”  I immediately winced from my wife’s kick under the table.

The rest of the meal passed in peace as we engaged in casual conversation, laughed at the girls’ stories of their activities at school, and discussed our choices for dessert.  But just as our selections were served, my daughter spoke up again.  Too loudly again.

“Daddy, I remember the f-word!”

I dropped my spoon, splattering chocolate pudding on my tie.

“The…the what?” I uttered lamely, dabbing at the stains with my napkin, spreading them wider.

“The f-word,” she repeated.  “You said if I could remember it, you’d tell us what it means.”

My wife smiled sweetly, abandoning me to the course I had set myself.

Stalling for time, I surveyed the room around us, noting how people quickly averted their gazes.  One or two appeared to be laughing into their napkins.

“Yeah, okay,” I finally said.  “I guess I did.  But when you tell me, talk quietly.  We don’t want to bother other people, right?”

She nodded solemnly.

“So, what’s the word?” I heard myself ask, confident now that I could handle this.  I was beginning to feel like SuperDad.

superdad

With another glance at her sister, my daughter blurted out, “Fart!”

“Fart?” I echoed, hearing the now-audible laughter from other diners.  My relief about the choice of word was immense, given the alternative, but not for long.  “Where did you hear that word?”

“At school,” she replied.  “Lots of kids say it.”

I realized that now my wife, too, had her face buried in her napkin.

“Oh,” I said, trying to maintain some semblance of control of the situation.  “Well, fart is not a word that nice people like us use.”

“Yeah, but what does it mean?” my daughter persisted.

“Well…it refers to…to the gas…you know…the smell that sometimes comes from your bottom.  When you’re sitting on the toilet, for instance.”

With a shriek of laughter, my youngest daughter cried, “Oh, I get it!  When you do it, it makes a loud noise, and you call it a tinkie, Daddy.  Right?”

Blushing furiously now, I said, “Right, right.  But that’s just what we call it in our family.  Not everybody calls it a tinkie.  Probably every different family has their own word for it.”

There followed another few moments of silence at our table, save for my wife’s choked chuckles into her napkin.

“But Daddy,” my eldest daughter said, “if we say tinkie to anybody else, they won’t know what we mean.  Does that mean we should say fart?”

“No,” I replied firmly, “you should not say fart.  You should probably not talk about it at all.  But if you have to say something, just say passing gas.  That’s all it really is, anyway.  Nice people don’t say fart.”

And that was the end of it.  Both girls seemed satisfied, and it didn’t come up again.

On the way out—with me clutching my jacket closed to hide the chocolate smear on my tie—we passed a table where a neighbour from our street was sitting with his wife.  I nodded politely, hoping to avoid any embarrassing conversation.  But I had to stop momentarily when he held up his hand, then beckoned me closer.

“Tinkie?” he said.

I fled.