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The Shipwreck Rose: Good Behavior

Wed, 07/03/2024 - 08:25

“Etiquette is folk custom,” says Miss Manners, who is 85 and still dispensing tart and intelligent advice to readers of her syndicated newspaper column. “That is why there is such hostility between generations in times of rapid change; their manners being different, each feels affronted by the other, taking even the most surface choices for challenges.”

As in most things, Miss Manners is correct here. 

Folk customs bumping and banging up against each other — like toy boats in a crowded bath — are the main reason why everyone in “the Hamptons,” indeed the entire tristate area, is so angry all the time, so affronted: We’re operating by different sets of norms.

We’re all pressed.

Not to be a boor, but take me, for instance: I’m still operating by the small-town folk customs of my childhood — issuing a chipper “hello!” when I enter a shop, smiling and saying “good morning” when I pass a stranger on a narrow sidewalk or woods trail, forcibly making eye contact with the checkout person behind the cash register at the I.G.A. — while most of the people I encounter while out and about on my errands are operating according to the folk customs of Moscow, Paramus, Mexico City, Manhattan (or wherever folk custom forbids eye contact rather than encouraging it).

I’ll grant you that it may well be irritating for innocent bystanders to be on the receiving end of the possibly — just possibly — passive-aggressive “fine weather!” from a gee-howdy-ing stranger when they are only trying to sip their black espresso in their black athleisure-wear and think their French Existential thoughts alone unbothered on the bench in front of Ralph Lauren’s Double RL. But nevertheless, she persisted.

Europeans make fun of Americans for the way we go about grinning and chirping banalities at one another, but we don’t smile and chirp at one another habitually like this, bobbing and nodding like Muppets, because we’re all idiots, but because the smiling, nodding, and have-a-nice-day-ing are folk customs that serve a social purpose. That purpose is to signal — visibly, audibly — our cooperation with and participation in the commonweal. The smile is a sign of citizenship. Acquiescence to the rules of, and reaffirmation of the bonds of, civic cooperation. It’s sort of necessary in a democratic republic. (Yes, I base this opinion on the years I spent in ex-Soviet-occupied Central Europe not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. No one grinned at strangers in Budapest or Bucharest in 1992 or ‘93.)

You have to be carefully taught, of course, in the folk customs of good behavior. “We are all born rude,” Miss Manners says. “No infant has ever appeared yet with the grace to understand how inconsiderate it is to disturb others in the middle of the night.”

Although they are getting much too old to be congratulated for managing to not hold their fork in their fist, my kids at 14 and nearly 17 are still often applauded for their nice manners when we are eating dinner in nice pasta restaurants. They both shake hands competently, as well. But here at home, behind closed doors, the situation is shocking. Neither one seems to have internalized any of the rules for basic, common, decent behavior that I have tried to drum into them by endless repetition of my expectations. The fact that my teenage son somehow hasn’t gotten the memo to sit up straight-ish at the dinner table and bring the fork or spoon to his face rather than his face to the plate beggars comprehension.

I realize that teenagers behave like beasts because it’s fun to rankle mom, but I got so annoyed last night that I actually started furiously typing up a checklist: If you don’t meet these expectations, Teddy, no e-bike for you.

This is how far I got on my checklist of basic, common, decent, human behavior before I fatigued myself and decided to fall asleep watching “Dial M for Murder” on Kanopy instead:

Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Don’t rock your chair back to balance on the two back legs. Don’t hunch over your food and shovel food in like a barbarian. Put your napkin in your lap. Clear your plate, scrape it, and put it in the dishwasher. If someone has cooked for you, taste the food. If someone has cooked a meal, do the dishes afterward (without being asked). Don’t issue orders to your parents (or anyone else, unless you are on the sporting field and you are the captain). When asking for something, say “please” and “thank you” automatically. When someone appears carrying bulky or heavy things, offer to relieve them of the load. Help carry groceries or luggage from the car without being asked. Hold the door open for others. Don’t let doors swing shut in the face of the person behind you. Don’t let the screen door slam. When you enter a small shop, say “hello,” and when you leave, say “thank you.” Don’t leave dirty dishes or mugs in your bedroom. Don’t keep leftovers, candy, or open snack packets in your bedroom. Don’t throw your clothing on the floor, but put it in the hamper. Don’t throw wet towels on the floor, but hang them up to dry. Don’t use towels just once, but reuse them. Replace the toilet paper on the roll when it’s empty. Put the toilet seat down. Flush the toilet. Put the cap back on toothpaste, the lotion, the sunscreen. When wearing shoes, don’t put your feet up on upholstery or on the car dashboard. Don’t rest your feet on the movie-theater seat. Don’t shout obscenities while video-gaming if anyone else can hear you. Don’t leave the lights blazing when you go to bed. Don’t stare at your phone while in the company of another person. Don’t use your phone at the table. Don’t talk loudly on your phone in public (stores, beach, restaurant). Don’t make people wait for you.

And now, at this juncture, I apologize to the managing editor for the inconvenient length of the paragraph just above.

If The Washington Post ever finds itself in need of an etiquette writer to replace the incomparable Judith Martin, who is Miss Manners, I think they should hire me. Advising others on good manners requires three personality traits, I.M.H.O, all of which I possess in spades: One, an unhealthy and unshakeable degree of confidence in one’s own correctness. Two, a familiarity with the manners, mores, and social niceties of today as well as decades and centuries past. Three, an unhealthy and unshakeable confidence that readers will not just find your voice funny but also find your voice intimidating.

My curriculum vitae is particularly well padded on number two, above, me having lolled on the couch for many, many hours in the 20th century, back when boredom existed, doing close readings of the 1922 “Emily Post”; the 1982 edition of “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior”; Lillian Eichler’s 1940 manual, “Today’s Etiquette,” as well as, repeatedly, the chapters offering “Hints on Writing Love-Letters” and “Gentility in the Parlor” in the 33rd edition of a book called “Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms,” published in 1882. (“Hill’s Manual”? Highly recommend! It also includes chapters on such extremely compelling topics as “Tomb-Stone Inscriptions,” “Division Fences Between Houses,” graceful postures to assume during social calls, and composing blank verse.)

Of course, you cannot seriously propose yourself for an etiquette-writing gig by tooting your own horn. The incivility of the brag disqualifies you. As Miss Manners says, “It is far more impressive when others discover your good qualities without your help.”

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