Bewildered, I stared as he used the knife edge to smooth mashed potatoes onto the back tines of his fork. He paused for effect, transferred the fork to his other hand, and gingerly lifted it to his mouth. Then transferred back again and repeated the action. So much effort just to eat potatoes! I looked down at my own paw which fisted my fork like a crude shovel. Occasionally, I’d use my index finger like a trowel to scoop up remnants. My date cringed.
I’ve always been suspicious of manners. Table-side niceties seemed so forced and phoney. I was fascinated when kids would ask to be ‘excused’ from the table. Why the big poll? Just go! My parents weren’t militaristic enforcers. My father grew up on a farm where he learned to wolf down meals as quickly as possible before heading out for chores. He would swallow his whole meal in a few purposeful gulps before drifting to the living room to watch baseball highlights. Fork-holding technique was never brought up. There were no admonishments to move elbows from tables or stop rocking the chair, and if there were, I completely ignored them. So when it came to the inscrutable etiquette of the real world, I would have to learn.
In Emily Post’s 75th Anniversary Edition of Etiquette, I was embarrassed to see so many of my own beastly behaviours listed. In addition to exact rules on how to properly eat an artichoke, there were pages devoted to correct labelling of one’s stationery, how to properly address rabbis and cardinals, and how to turn down a date. The egregious conversational sins I was committing were even more troubling; tactless blunders, story-snatching and peppering my speech with valley-girl ‘likes’. I was a boor. And I wasn’t alone. I recognized violations of other basic rules of human interaction at parties, at work and in public. We are inundated with condescenders, interrupters and snoops. The dour soliloquies which amount to depressing lists of personal physical ailments. Name-dropping. TMI’s.
We have become less adept at actual real-world interactions and experts at the technologies which have replaced them. Those little questions designed to open conversation and demonstrate interest in another person are increasingly unnecessary because we have already read their tweets. On Facebook: Music preferences, jogging routes, political strivings and vacation photos parade before us on a time-stamped ticker. Information that would have taken hours of polite conversation to nurse out now splays itself gratuitously alongside targeted ads. The need for pleasantries has vanished. Increasingly, manners within conversation and social comportment are overridden by our rude and ostentatious culture of self-promotion and self-centredness. The pendulum has swung in favour of snippy tweets and attention-whoring selfies. Debates are swallowed up by faux-rage reactions and comment sections flop into ad hominem attacks on total strangers.
I recently waited in line for five-and-a-half hours to buy some hand-painted signs from Honest Ed’s department store. It was a taxing affair, with people queuing up at 5:30 in the morning to get first dibs. A short woman in a blue quilted jacked inched alongside me, staring straight ahead. As the line slowly lurched forward, she managed to sneak under my arm and alongside the girl standing in front of me. Several minutes passed. The line-jumper maintained frame and inched ahead. Suddenly, the magnitude of her transgression began to seep in. “Was she there before?” the girl in front of me hissed. “Excuse me! You were behind us!” snapped a man further back down the line. “Well, if we all had that ideology it would be mayhem!” snorted another. The lone line jumper barely acknowledged us as she continued to sneak steadily ahead. She was unconcerned with our outrage and collective feeling of victimhood. She was getting what she wanted, and screw the rest of us.
The point of manners? The golden rule. The carefully indexed niceties that Emily Post dictates may appear as cutesy affectations. And maybe I would never get the fork thing right. But I could at least try. After all, if society is characterized by relationships, then etiquette is insurance against those very relationships becoming insufferable.
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