Wednesday, September 1, 2010

In defense of manners ...

Let me tell you a little story.

Growing up in the wilds of Orange County, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. Being the only child of a divorced marriage is hectic enough - but move both parents 35-40 minutes away from each other, add in school activities, practices, vacations, and the omni-present question, "What do we do with Alyssa?" Well ... it's really no wonder. Let it be known that my grandparents were not the typical "grandma" and "grandpa." In fact, I was to call them "Grandmother" and "Granddaddy." There's a myth (told by my parents) that my grandmother wanted to be called "grand-mère," after the French fashion, but I don't know if that's really accurate. But ... that would have been very typical for my grandmother.

My grandmother didn't make me sweets and spoil me rotten and take me to amusement parks. My granddad was closer to that, but he worked so much, that it was really just me and my grandmother. All the time. They were quite young when I was born - my mom was only 24. And the youngest of my mother's siblings was still in high school. It was a strange position to be in - not really a grandchild, not really child - some void of a thing in between.

As I was saying, my grandmother wasn't the rosy-cheeked, spectacles-on-the-nose, copious amounts of hug-giving grandparent that many of my friends had. When I was younger, she seemed strict, dour, and down-right scary at times. I was always being corrected, always being taught the proper way to go about things like napkin placement, salad fork vs. dinner fork, the necessity of an "excuse me" when I needed to get up from the table ... she was a regular sergeant-major of manners. And I became a fast study.

Despite the near-militarism of my grandmother by way of civility and good-breeding (whatever that is), I really loved being with her. She would leave me to read, leave me to watch old movies while she prepared dinner or was out in the garden or whatever it was that needed doing. She'd call me in to shuck corn, shell peas, help with dishes ... but we'd talk. In fact, I remember a very vivid talk of college when I was only 12. She was emphatic that I go, and that I finish. I didn't realize it at the time, but later discovered that she dropped out of USC to marry my grandfather, and, as I perceive now, maybe regretted it more than she'd ever thought. She was my biggest advocate, one of my best teachers, and liked me, in spite of myself. It sounds odd to write that, but I wasn't the sharpest kid when it came to looks, style, or just general awareness - and my grandmother was for all of that. But I tried and worked hard to please her, and I was a very polite young girl, which I think made her proud.

I didn't really come into my own until high school. Something in me woke up, and I saw the world, and my place in it - the power I was capable of (at times), and the good I wanted to do. Like most of us at 16 or 17, I had a slightly anarchic side, that started scorning manners for being barricades to truth. Pleasantries became objects of my ire. I'd still say please and thank you, I've never been a "rude" person. But I thought back to my grandmother after she died, and all her work toward emphasizing manners. What did any of it matter? And more over, why do something if it's not honest? And at that time, I perceived that her manners, more often than not, were not always sincere. "Fuck that!" I thought.

Cut to my first journey to Massachusetts. A huge wake up moment for me in regard to the brazenness of human beings. I was miserable that first summer. I didn't have any friends, I didn't do anything socially - I was afraid of the people. I was wholly unprepared for what I found, the harshness, the lack of courtesy, the rude gestures, the curtness. Who would want to live here? It was explained to me some years later that it's just the New England way - instantly distrustful of others. Whether it's because of the cold, whether it's because of the Puritan foundations, whether it's because they embrace rudeness in a purely singular way and make it their own - they're called "Massholes" for a reason.

I've been noticing this terrible trend over the past 5 or so years. We don't treat each other very well, and I don't think it's for the purposes of honesty or an attempt to be more sincere. At camp over the last few weeks, a handful of children said, "Please" or "thank-you" when they received candy or awards. It made me really sad.

But here's the thing about manners - you can't practice them solely for themselves. You have to use them because you want to. Because you want to treat everyone kindly. Because you care about other people. Because you can make someone's day just by smiling and saying "thank you" when they hold a door open, or move for you, or hand you something you need. Because treating people with respect has never, and will never go out of style. Because maybe, if you show someone a common courtesy, they'll pass it on. And maybe that will result in less horns being honked, less middle fingers being raised, less rage on the road, less violence, less expletives being used in anger, less rudeness tossed about as flippantly and mindlessly as trash on the street.

I admit that it can, at times, require vast amounts of patience, humility, and kindness, which may just not be there at times. But there's nothing that can replace our human connections to each other. We are all so connected, yet spend so much time severing those connections with little shows of our displeasure. So why not let the guy merge in front of you? Why not ask the cashier at the drive-thru window how his day is going? Why not smile at the woman walking past you on the street? Why not make someone else's day better, and perhaps even yours in the process? It's a hell of a lot better than being angry all the time, than clenching your jaw in frustration, than screaming in your car. Don't get me wrong - there are times when those things are completely necessary.

But when all else fails ...

How do YOU want to be treated?


tyler said...

Excellent post!

There is a real difference between the insincere manners one encounters dealing with shop clerks and flight attendants and the real manners we get from people with nothing to sell us. Still manners has somehow seemed to be seen as insincere across the board.

Let's give good manners a good name again!

Lira said...

I'm VERY interested in the generation after us, who grew up having the internet. They are able to be anonymous and attack others and lose out on being social and polite.

I had heard on NPR a few weeks ago that college freshman today check their phones to get the time; not their watch....

Great post, A.