September 8, 2011
While I was at the Adoration Chapel recently, an older Italian gentleman came in to pray. After taking some time before the Blessed Sacrament, he approached my chair. Standing at a respectful distance, he said something along the lines of, "It is very warm today. May I turn the fan on for you?"
No thank you, I said.
"Please do let me know you would like me to turn it on later, or perhaps open the doors for you."

I was struck by his dignified demeanour.  He was carefully, though not formally dressed.  He didn't crouch by my chair or put his hand familiarly on my shoulder.  He didn't press his case, and he deferred to my preference. I was comfortable in his presence and felt cared for - by this complete stranger.

This episode came to mind again a few days ago when watching a movie set in the early 1960s.  The opening montage showed students of a London school for girls going through their paces: walking with a book balanced on their head, taking dance lessons, learning table etiquette and so on.

How I miss old fashioned manners!  Why have they gone out of style?  What have we adopted in their place? Society always follows a code, written or not.  Perhaps our code is anything goes; let it all hang out; the most important thing is to have fun.

Just what are manners?  According to Bill Kelly, "Good manners are just a way of showing other people that we have respect for them."  Emily Post wrote, "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use."

Manners are Christian principals played out in daily life. They are a system of behaviour that focuses on consideration for others.  Jesus gave us a guideline for good manners when He taught: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Luke 6:31)

To be well-mannered is to treat people with respect, to honour their (and your own) dignity. It is being able to handle awkward situations with grace.  I think dignity and grace are two qualities that are no longer valued - at least in the version of life we see on tv.  Watch most celebrity interviews, most prime time dramas, or read most newspaper articles and you will be inundated with accounts of people flaunting boorish behaviour.

While looking for clips showing etiquette lessons of the 50s, I came across an article about Iman, explaining that she fell in love with David Bowie's impeccable manners. That made me think of a quote from The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood: "How do you learn to love someone?"  "Love?  Baby girl, just start with good manners." (Or words to that effect.)

We are in a time that honours telling it like it is.  Being real.  There is something to be said for honesty, but I would tend to agree with Abel Stevens, who said, "Politeness is the art of choosing among one's real thoughts."

Besides the benefit of being able to host a dinner party for your husband's boss, or knowing the right gloves to wear with an evening gown, there is the confidence that comes from knowing what is expected of you, and knowing you are able to meet that expectation. There is the harmony that comes from everyone playing by the same rule book.

I would like to introduce my nephews to that lovely Italian, so they could learn from him what it means to be a gentleman. Never mind half of the curriculum taught in schools these days, I say we bring back etiquette classes!

3 comments:

  1. I had a pleasant encounter the other week at work while working with this one particular woman. She was one of my crew on the machine I was running. It didn't start out very well, or so I thought, but it went along these lines:

    I had instructed her to do a few of the tasks needed to be done and she proceeded to do them. She held up a carton of stock and asked me what she should do with it, but before letting me answer, she smiled and said jokingly, "I know, I know, stick it up where the sun don't shine right?" I froze. I was horrified that she actually thought I would say that to her and told her that under no circumstances would I ever tell a woman something like that, that I never even said that to another man! Then something changed.

    She looked at me seriously and said that there weren't very many real men around today, especially gentlemen and it was refreshing to meet one. I was floored at her admission of the lack of men, real men, but I was edified by her comment that she considered me a real man, not for being macho(far from it), big and strong(which I'm not), or even handsome(even less than big and strong), but for just being a gentleman. That is a sobering thought isn't it? That gentlemen are so few and far between that when one is encountered a comment has to be made?

    I thanked her but mentioned to her that she was mistaken about the lack of gentlemen...I told her I had just raised three of my own.

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  2. Wow...Bobby what a sad testament to the state of affairs these days.

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  3. Sarah...I almost half expect the younger men of today to be 'one-brow' if you will, because so many homes have no fathers in them anymore to guide their sons in how to be a gentleman, but what I see more and more, especially in my work environment, is that even the adult men are severely lacking in civility and the fine art of being a gentleman when around men AND women...sad indeed.

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