"ONE IS APT TO THINK OF ETIQUETTE AS BEING OF IMPORTANCE TO NONE BUT BRIDES, OR DIPLOMATS, OR PERHAPS PERSONS LATELY ELECTED TO POLITICAL OFFICE." --EMILY POST, 1956
My husband is the nicest man I have ever met. In the beginning months of our relationship, I experienced more anxiety than with any other boyfriend ever because he was so kind and trustworthy that I was sure it was a con job. He's everything I ever wanted in a partner: creative, smart, funny, adventurous, respectful, and kind.
But, you guys, he slurps his soup, and just last week? He took the last piece of pie without even hesitating.
I thought I was an open-minded individual (don't we all) until I discovered that not all people grew up learning the same table etiquette as me. In my house, we all waited for everyone to be served and said grace before picking up our own utensils to eat. We served others before ourselves, and we always passed things along; no reaching allowed. We said please and thank you, our napkins were in our laps, my parents did not answer the phone during dinnertime, and -- above all else -- no one ever took the last piece of anything.
Most of my life looks very different than my childhood, adult autonomy (like my bedtime) notwithstanding. I've always been a working mom, so babysitters are a huge part of our life. I allow my daughter to read books that are more mature than I was allowed to read at her age. I'd prefer it if she'd spend all day collecting wildflowers and breathing fresh air, but I let her watch television or play on the computers sometimes, even when it's a beautiful day outside. My parents were religious and conservative, so our household is different on all fronts in that department. I am not raising my daughter religiously, so there is no grace before meals. But of all things that I was raised to believe were important, it's table manners that I have the hardest time letting go of.
Discussing it with my brother the other day, I discovered he has the same problem. We were laughing about how much it drives us absolutely bonkers when someone reaches across a table for something instead of asking us to pass it to them, or serves themselves without passing the dish along or offering to serve everyone else first. And my brother and I had the same question for the world: why on Earth do manners matter, anyway?! Ever since moving away from home, they've caused us nothing but discomfort and irritation towards others.
I hate it when I feel discomfort and irritation toward anyone, but especially when I feel those feelings bubbling up toward my boyfriend-now-husband because he doesn't have his napkin on his lap or he brought his phone to the table. I don't know why I care. So I talked to him about it a little bit, and I thought about it for myself a lot more. What is the big deal, anyway?
Emily Post takes etiquette seriously, so I pulled down the old book that represents playful irony in our house by supporting a speaker instead of acting as a useful text (until now). Reading chapter one, I found lots of things to laugh about, such as this gem: "Certainly the greatest asset that a man or woman or even a child can have is charm." The greatest asset, seriously? But then my eye caught a passage that I read again and again.
"What is the purpose of this rule? Does it help the make life pleasanter? Does it make the social machinery run more smoothly?"
I consider this passage as applied to my childhood, and I see our strict table manners in a new light. I was the second child of four, and in between two sisters who had severe disabilities. My older sister had Down syndrome. My younger sister, in a twist of mere coincidence, is developmentally delayed and emotionally disturbed. Life for my parents was about doctors' offices, behavior specialists, special education schools, bus pickups and drop-offs, special diets, special meetings, and lots and lots of heartache. They strived to provide a full life for all their children; my brother and I were active in sports, marching band, play dates, high school dances, and voice lessons. In short, my parents were exhausted all the time. Through this lens, our table manners make a lot more sense. Sure, my mother wanted us to know appropriate behavior for the world, but I think it was more than that. Life was so chaotic, couldn't dinnertime be one half hour of relative peace, didn't manners help our "social machinery run more smoothly"? People stared at our family a lot. I think its fair that my parents might have hoped that our manners illustrated a modicum of functionality and class despite the disruptions my sisters usually caused in public. My mom learned about leaving the last piece of everything so that her father could have lunch the next day, which he learned was important as a child in the Great Depression. It was understandable then, it is helpful now. Routine is calming, and this was one part of life that could offer my mom and dad soothing expectations and reliable results.
Using this new understanding, I watch my daughter and husband at the dinner table, and appreciate my adult life that is, so far, much less stressful than anything my parents were facing when they were my age with four children. My daughter certainly knows all the tenets of dinnertime behavior, but it isn't what makes life pleasanter on a day-to-day basis.
You know what does make life pleasanter? My husband, who has taught her how to build sugar packet pyramids, and play table football with creamers. On one of our fist dinners out as a family, Lily wore clip-on earrings to the restaurant, and he borrowed one and put it on his nose. The table next to us thought he was playing with his food, and their disgust made him laugh because he doesn't care what people think of our family, and so what if it was noodles or jewelry up his nose? By serving himself first, he's introduced the concept of taking care of one's self, instead of always, always putting the needs of others first. This is huge for me, after a life built around caring for everyone else without stopping to think about what I need, whether it's money, or mashed potatoes, or comfort. It took me two years into our relationship to make myself a snack without automatically making a second one for him; it hadn't occurred to me that he would help himself if he was hungry or -- most importantly -- that he loved me regardless. Turns out that manners are not about love, not really. Instead, they're about respect, and there are many ways to show respect (even while taking the last piece of pie). He's agreed to keep his phone away from the table, and I am trying to relax about whether or not he eats with the right fork. Now I'm working on asking things to be passed to me, instead of assuming that my parents were everyone's parents, or that anyone can read my mind.
And, the biggest sign of growth was my recent participation in a dinnertime funny-face contest. I won, hands down, and I didn't care when we were laughing so hard that my daughter fell from her chair onto the floor and spilled her drink.
This essay was originally published at A Practical Wedding.