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“Friends and good manners will carry you where money won’t.”

– Margaret Walker


A polite, and mannerly friend will soon be teaching etiquette at a local educational institution; a task that suits her perfectly. Her students will enter the real world with enhanced skills for their personal and workplace lives as well as a clearer understanding of why etiquette — what some call ordinary good manners — is the grease that smooths interactions with our fellow human beings. It keeps us from saying ugly or unkind words to each other or conking someone over the head when we are angry or displeased. 

Etiquette/manners require us to consider others’ feelings, and if we do not, brand us as crude bores, mean people or worse. Etiquette evolves over time and is different in different cultures — think polite bowing in some eastern cultures and the wild proliferation of fish forks and grapefruit spoons at proper Victorian dinner tables, but its core is always respectful treatment of those around us. 

“Miss Manners” — aka Judith Martin, puts it this way. “I make a distinction between manners and etiquette — manners as the principles that are eternal and universal, etiquette as the particular rules which are arbitrary and different in different times, different situations, different cultures.” 

However we label it, it underlies civil society.

It is also simple, as Parents instructs its readers. Three decades ago Robert Fulghum published All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a classic take on living a good life. Parents magazine is more specific in its piece “25 Manners Kids Should Know,” tips that work just as well for adults. Here are some of the most obvious and the most abused.

 “Do not comment on other people’s physical characteristics unless, of course, it’s to compliment them, which is always welcome.” The Dicksons learned this one the hard way, when a Precious Jewel standing nearly 3-feet tall looked up from that low vantage point past a pot belly so impressive that its owner, my professional colleague, had to wear his belt below it. The child looked into the man’s eyes and said flatly but clear as a bell, “You’re fat.” We quickly and privately had a mother-child conference on the topic “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” and that not every thought needs to be spoken aloud. Several years later, a tutorial was required after the Jewel and a friend commented on a classmate’s large ears, and we landed in the principal’s office, but eventually the lesson was learned.

“Knock on closed doors — and wait to see if there’s a response — before entering.” Every parent I have ever talked to about this one has had such an experience, often involving the bathroom or bedroom. Fortunately, most children figure this one out about the time they would like a little privacy themselves. I have no idea what to do about adults who have not learned this except scream at them. They deserve to be embarrassed.

 “Use eating utensils properly. If you are unsure how to do so, ask your parents to teach you or watch what adults do.” I suspect this is will be an important aspect of what my friend will teach her students. She may also tell the story of President George H. W. Bush drinking water from his fingerbowl because a guest did so, and he did not want to embarrass his guest, an example of the ultimate good manners.

“Be appreciative and say ‘thank you’ for any gift you receive. In the age of email, a handwritten thank you note can have a powerful effect.” The Precious Jewels were instructed from an early age that a gift was off limits until the note was written. This was not always effective, but at least they got the idea. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was so good at thank yous and congratulations that her notes—always on blue stationery—are treasured keepsakes in many families.

 “The world is not interested in what you dislike. Keep negative opinions to yourself, or between you and your friends, and out of earshot of adults.” And, “Never use foul language in front of adults. Grown-ups already know all those words, and they find them boring and unpleasant.” Not so sure about sanctioning negative comments and ugly language among children as long as adults do not hear them, but clearly children do experiment and learn from it. It is also a fact that I was a naïve mother when the Precious Jewels were young. A story famous in our family involves the time I told a friend the children were in the back yard playing. My next door neighbor, a kindergarten teacher who had seen it all and whose own children were also in the yard, said, “No, Margaret, they are in the backyard smoking.”

Obviously, manners can be learned and the effort is well worth it.

But for those who never learn, Mark Twain says this. “It is a mistake that there is no bath that will cure people’s (bad) manners. But drowning would help.”

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