Storytime: You Can’t Buy Manners

I’ve always been interested in all things etiquette and manners because I think its becoming a lost art in our world. I don’t consider myself a snob about it and I understand that a lot of people don’t find it important enough to understand the value of a handwritten thank you note, know which direction to pass the bread, or if its appropriate to use your cell phone at the table. I also understand that what is considered to be socially acceptable behavior changes through time, but there is something about a person who knows how to behave with tact and confidence that makes everyone around them feel more comfortable and welcome. In the end, that is what the purposes of manners are: to make each person in the group feel involved and comfortable with each other.

The reason I am writing about this today is because yesterday I was witness to some very bad manners by some very affluent and (what some people would consider) cultured people. The event was a birthday party for my 1 year old nephew and there were about 20 people including me and my husband at the party. Most of the people that were invited were the parents, grandparents and extended family of the birthday boy, and it was among that group that the offending members could be found. The venue was at a local restaurant chain — a completely acceptable, family-style place, so please don’t think that I’m going to drag them over the coals about not knowing which fork was the salad fork.

Let’s just get into what happened. This was the first time I had brought my husband to an event with me and my sister’s in-laws. They had asked for me to bring him to parties and other gatherings before, but the timing was never quite right so it just didn’t happen. So since this party was a good time for us to both go together, some weeks before this party, I RSVP’d my sister who was organizing it and said that I would be coming and asked if it would be alright if I brought my husband since the invitation said I could bring a guest. She said “of course” and so he came.

We arrive at the party and my brother-in-law greets us and introduces my husband to everyone there. We all sit down to chat with each other and wait for the food to arrive. Part of being a good host means making everyone feel welcome by conversing with those who are seated next to you. My husband was sitting next to me and my sister’s parents-in-law. My husband and the father-in-law make eye contact and my husband nods his head with a “Hello” to him. The father-in-law looks away without a word. Now, I know that the father-in-law is reserved person, but no matter if this may be the case, it is good manners to return a greeting. Being a CEO, one would think that the father-in-law would possess basic table conversation etiquette and at first I thought that perhaps he wasn’t paying attention and didn’t notice, but as the party went on I knew that this wasn’t the case if his family members’ manners were any indication.

I was chatting with the mother-in-law and she’s asking me about work, life and normal things and then asks “So, when are you guys having kids?“. My husband and I don’t have kids and don’t plan on having any anytime soon, so I answer, “We don’t want any.” She goes on to talk about why she’s glad that she had 3 kids and that she was glad to not have been an only child growing up and all of the joy that comes from having a large family. I can understand if someone very close to me, like my mother or sister, asks me this question, but this is considered to be a rude question in most circumstances. Some people want children, but can’t have them, so there’s no reason to offend or inadvertently hurt someone for that fact.

Towards the end of the party, the restaurant brings out a small cake for my nephew to eat and we all sing “happy birthday” to him. After the song, the mother in law and father in law place the cake in front of him to let him have at it. He’s a one year old so at this point in his life I loves touching everything and putting everything in his mouth. So it’s not his fault that he literally smashed cake onto the carpet and sprayed and smeared frosting onto the table, all over himself, his shirt, high-chair and the clothing of those around him. A couple minutes of this would have been enough, but I was horrified to see the mother and father-in-law egging him on until he, the floor and table were covered in cake. I know that people like to let the child smear frosting on themselves for a photo op, but it’s another thing to let the child create a sticky, sugary mess on the restaurant floor and elsewhere as other diners look on at the ruckus. After the pictures were taken, the cake was demolished and the child was taken by his parents to be cleaned, I was feeling bad for the waitress who would have to clean up after the child, so I grabbed some baby wipes and started cleaning up the table and high-chair. Seeing me do this, the mother in law says to me with a look on her face, “Oh honey, don’t do that. Trust me, we are leaving a very good tip for her.” Throwing around your money is no replacement for having good manners and treating others with respect.

When someone has good manners, it elevates all of their good qualities and forgives their bad qualities. When someone has bad manners, it sullies all of their good qualities and emphasizes their bad qualities. This party confirmed those statements for me and made me more conscious of how I treat others despite their privilege or lack thereof. Manners are not inherited and you cannot buy them as we can see from the story above. They are learned, practiced and honed in order to make others around us feel comfortable with us and make the world a more civilized and harmonious place.