Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Table Manners

     I read in a novel that it's the small day-to-day courtesies—the exchanged thank you's, you're welcomes, good mornings, good bye's, and have a great days, and the shared chores, errands, and responsibilities—that make for happy marriages. It seems like such a simple formula, but I think there's much truth to it, for nobody is perfect and everyone is flawed, so that it's not so much the person someone marries (since we're all filled at times with horrible, shameful, selfish, evil, and hurtful thoughts and feelings) but rather how a person treats his partner despite those shortcomings that matters most, for if a husband treats his wife well, she'll tend towards happiness; if he treats her bad, she'll tend towards sadness. Sort of like a sunflower that reaches toward sunlight when love and acceptance is offered, or droops and collapses when locked in a dark closet where nothing but moribund silence and disregard prevails. And of course the opposite's true whereby a husband will tend toward happiness or sadness depending on his wife's treatment of him. When both sides function well, there's usually ample happiness on both sides. (And there's seldom a glutton for punishment in marriage, at least not for long in happy ones.) 
     And I believe this simple formula also applies beyond marriage to immediate family life, for families, like couples thrive most when members help out, show consideration, and seldom take each other for granted. (It helps me when I struggle with selfish disregard to think that they won't always be here, that I won't always be here, and that I don't live alone anymore.)    
     Common courtesy for our family extends beyond exchanged pleasantries and shared chores to decent manners according to our customs. 
     This has been a struggle for our family and continues to be, for it's not always easy to mind our manners in the midst of hectic schedules, frazzled nerves, disappointments, and endless demands. In short, life's tough and we don't always feel up to it. Nonetheless, its worthwhile lest we neglect, hurt, demean, or offend another by our careless, thoughtless, or crass insensitivity as if no one's there or he or she doesn't matter much, for everyone wants and deserves dignity and respect 'cause no one's beneath another, slave-like, or sub-human. 
     The dinner table's a prime example. Sometimes ours reminds me (or used to) of The Simpsons for its Homer-like belches and burps without so much as an “Excuse me” or hand held over gaping mouth to obscure tongue and uvula. 
     “What do you say?” I ask with astonishment after such an outburst with no apology in the offing. 
     “Excuse me,” Deanne may say after a chuckle. 
     “Elbows off the table” is a common refrain to our kids or “Eat with your lips closed.”
     It may sound harsh, but my dad used to jab my cheek with his pointed index finger when I didn't “get it” and kept chewing open-mouthed after endless, repeated reminders—it even drew me to tears at times and I hated it!
     But I thank him now (Thanks Dad!) for teaching me civility so that I can eat anywhere with anyone with no apparent disapproval (that I'm aware of).
     And I did the same for my children when they didn't get it (especially Braden who was slow to learn), but now, they seldom need reminding even with words. 
     Other corrective reminders that we employ as necessary include:
     “Sit up straight”—no ducking head down to fork like a bird sipping water; no slouching. 
     “Put your plate in the middle”—not angled off to one side.
     “Wait your turn”—age before youth when self-serving; no interrupting when someone else is speaking.
     “Take your fair share.”
     “Eat civilized”—no noodles dangling from mouth to plate; put entire forkful of food into mouth; cut meats to size; no hasty eating.
     “Hands on your lap”—don't rest unused hands on table or gesture inappropriately with them.
     “Sit properly”—unused hand belongs outside the thigh, not crossed over creating closed body language to persons seated on that side of the table.
     “Hold your fork properly”—no hobo hand grips or flipping utensil upside down into mouth. 
     “Sit straight”—no half-turned body or errant leg placements.
     “Finish your vegetables first...” before asking for dessert or seconds.
     “Swallow before talking.” 
     “No more talking until you finish your dinner”—eat and don't just talk. 
     “I can't hear what you're saying”—no side conversations, whispers, or secrets; include everyone in conversational exchanges.
     “What do you say?”—receive permission to be excused before leaving or taking seconds; say please, thank you, I'm sorry, or excuse me.
     “I don't understand what you're saying” or “Does that make sense?”—think before speaking. 
     “I don't know, go look it up”—no endless annoying questions.
     “You don't know what you're talking about”—don't spout off false knowledge like a know-it-all or state wild speculation as fact. 
     “Let's change the topic” or “We'll discuss it later”—said to Deanne for inappropriate subject matter or when emotions run too high.
     It might sound harsh, as if everyone sits in a straight-jacket of formality at our family dinners, but it's quite the opposite: warm, friendly feelings, shared laughs, spontaneity, and positive reinforcements flow through ninety-five percent of most meals. And it's hard to imaging such shared conviviality sans decent manners. For by focusing first on others at our meals with everyone saying, “Can you please pass me the ______” and “Thank you” in turn, we all feel valued, welcome, and a part, and none is excluded or minimized. Good manners is just a nice, easy way to show caring. And as they say, over ninety percent of communications is non-verbal, tons of which include manners. 
     I've told my kids that manners are culturally determined, everywhere interprets good manners differently, and different families set their own standards. Nonetheless, the first time I witnessed uncivilized manners by high school classmates at a formal banquet, I was shocked. But I was also relieved that my parents had taught and trained me well. And I'm sure my kids will feel likewise when the same happens to them. Or when they dine with their girlfriend's or boyfriends' parents for the first time. 'Cause manners do matter and leave big, lasting impressions.

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