Rule 22. Don’t Forget Manners.
Manners Are About Intimacy, Not Forks.
Manners are About Respect and Kindness
Manners and etiquette go back to the days of chivalry. Remember King Arthur’s Court? King Arthur decided that he and his knights would sit at a round table as an expression of respect for each other. King Arthur and his knights resolved to set a standard of behavior. Knights were expected to be gallant, honorable, generous, and courteous. Valor, bravery, honesty, protecting the weak, and treating foes benevolently were valued. The ideal knight was known by his gracious courtesy and high-minded consideration, especially toward women. Chivalrous and courtly manners allowed people to get to know each other better, romance each other, and be kind to one another.
Manners are indeed about being kind and not about forks. They are about creating intimacy. Not the stuff of sex, but the stuff that makes you care for and respect someone, whether he be a parent, child, friend, or lover.
What does this have to do with today’s families? Lots, because children imitate the way men and women behave with each other. The let-it-all-hang-out mode of expression has become the name of the game, and it’s regrettable. Today, language is often crude, behavior seems to have little form, and rituals may have become a thing of the past.
Many years ago I had an experience that still stands out in my mind. It was the 1960s and I was newly married to a man from Sweden. He took me home to meet his family and told me that there would be a dinner party held in our honor. Hearing this, I really wasn’t very excited. In Europe, the Swedes were known as having the most inflexible code of manners, and I saw them as an uptight people. Yet this first dinner, formal as it was, created the highest level of closeness with my new family that I have ever experienced in my life. Its mannerly behavior, allowed me to develop a bond with my husband’s family in just a few hours.
Before the dinner party, my new in-laws carefully explained the proper way of skölling, which is a form of toasting. They showed me how to raise my glass and look directly into the eyes of the person skölling me. They taught me how to hold the glass and not to drink for as long as the person was talking. With all their instructions about proper behavior, I quietly expected to be bored by the whole event. After all, these people were complete strangers to me.
The night of the party arrived. We were supposed to be there at 8:00 p.m., but I assumed I had some leeway. I soon learned otherwise, when my father-in-law came knocking at the bathroom door to tell me we were leaving.
“But I haven’t finished putting on my makeup yet,” I protested. I had applied mascara to only one eye. “We are leaving now, “ he said again, this time turning to go down the stairs and out the door. “But I’m the guest of honor!” I wailed. Nonetheless, he went down to the car and would have left without me if I hadn’t gone racing out, mascara wand in hand. I nearly blinded myself trying to put mascara on my other eye in the car, and once again, silently railed against the Swedes and their rigid set of rules.
At exactly 8 p.m., we were at Aunt Ellen’s house. Seventeen family members, ranging from age nine to ninety, were there to greet me. Cocktails lasted precisely half an hour; at 8:30 sharp, we were called to the dinner table.
I was overwhelmed by the elaborate table setting. There were five glasses to the right and five forks to the left of each plate. “How long will I have to sit here?” I wondered as the meal began. I felt lucky at least that one of the rules was that newlyweds were allowed to sit together, so I had my husband’s coaching to guide me through what I thought would be an ordeal.
One by one, each member of the family rose and skölled me, welcoming me to the family. As part of their welcome, they told stories about the family and my husband’s place in it. I learned that my new grandfather had been one of the few Swedes licensed to navigate the English Channel at full sail, and that my husband was the favorite sibling among all the small children when he was growing up. He had also been a famous soccer player. Even the children had some special stories to add.
As the meal progressed, I began to feel more and more affection for this family that had gone to such lengths to offer this ritual of welcoming me. As I listened to story after story, I was overwhelmed by feelings of closeness and warmth. I had gotten to know them in such a way that even as I think back now, decades later, a tenderness for them comes over me. The Vikings, who established these rituals long, long ago, knew a thing or two about establishing family bonds.
Family Dinners Create Closeness
You don’t need a Swedish dinner party to create closeness in your own family. Even if your schedules are hectic, or you aren’t accustomed to sitting down together, you can still workout ways to bring the ritual of family dinners back into your home.
Here’s how to begin:
Establish a schedule of family dinners to be eaten together. This may mean once a week, on Sundays, or three times a week, every other night. The important thing is to schedule a specific time for dinner. Make it clear that everyone is expected to be there, and establish some ground rules. These should conform to your own family’s needs, of course, but here are some good ones to consider:
- The television is off.
- Books, magazines, and headphones are put away.
- The answering machine is on and turned to low. (If you don’t have one, buy one for this purpose. Otherwise, take the phone off the hook.)
- Family members can have guests only with the permission
- of the person cooking and the head of the household.
- Guests are expected to perform the same tasks as the person who invited them, unless they are honored guests like a grandmother or a boss.
- Say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.
- Be kind to one another in word and manner.
- Do little acts of kindness for one another.
- Help when someone needs assistance.
- Let others know how they can help.
- Respect one another.
- If differences get in the way, learn about them.
- Respect one another’s differences.
- Talk to each other the way you want your children to talk.
- Treat each other with respect.
- Use respectful language when talking to each other.
- Say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.
- Allow others to finish their sentences before talking.
- Respond to adults with full sentences.
- Look others in the eye when speaking to them.
- Be on time.
- Call if you will be more than fifteen minutes late.
- Inform others when you plan to depart and return.
Greetings and Introductions
- Any good etiquette book has lots in it on this topic. But does your family own one? Most do not. I understand etiquette books are now back “in.” (For the longest time they were “out.”) Buy one. They help take the anxiety out of new situations.
- It is important to teach children about introductions. Other-wise, introductions can be uncomfortable, or just not done. The proper method is to present the junior person to the senior person. So if young Marvin has Sam over to study,he presents Sam saying, “Mom, this is my friend, Sam. Sam, this is my mom.”
Families need to decide who will answer the phone and how to speak on the phone and how to call someone to the phone. (Hint: The correct answer is not to scream. Get an intercom or walk to the person.)
Parties and Visits with Friends and Relatives
When my son was little, I used to let him open the door to greet guests and show them where to hang their coats. As he got older, he passed trays, served beverages, or showed people where the bar was. He didn’t have to stay at a party for long, but that time taught him how to greet and interact with adults.
Design a protocol for visiting or receiving guests. I think it’s excellent social training for a child to be asked to go and shake hands with family members and friends. Only after properly greeting the adults does he get to go off and play with the other children.