Life On the Other Side

The Truth About Manners – They Still Matter

When our children are small, we teach them basic manners, things like saying “Please” and “Thank you” and “Excuse me” when sounds uncontrollably escape their bodies. We spend years reminding them to not interrupt, to not use foul language (especially around Grandma) and to eat like civilized beings.

While most teens and many parents today have no idea who Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt  are, these etiquette gurus provided rules for prior generations to live by. Their etiquette books and newspaper columns helped people know how to write a thank you letter, what the unwritten rules are about sending and responding to formal invitations were and even which utensils to use at a formal dinner.

Today, these rules are largely ignored and are thought of us arcane. However, some manners still have value.

I have often thought that it is a sad state of society when I have been complimented on the manners my children have. Is this an uncommon occurrence? Things like thanking your host when you are invited to dinner or the bus driver when you exit the bus should be second nature, but sadly they are not. Although this paints my children (and by extension me) in a positive light, I think basic manners should be observed by everyone. By the time children are teens, there are some things they should know how to do that will make them welcome guests at any event and will make a good impression on prospective employers. It is never too early (or late) for them to learn them these things.

Make a good first impression

While a handshake is not required in every circumstance, it is important to know how this is done. If someone offers their hand for you to shake, you should accept it firmly (no limp fish handshakes) and smile and make eye contact at the same time. If you are sick or have another good reason to not shake hands with someone, you should politely explain this (again with the eye contact and smile).

Introduce people

It happens: you are out with someone and run into someone you do not know, but the  other person does. It is awkward and uncomfortable to be left standing there while others converse.  If you find yourself in a situation where you are talking to more than one person and they do not all know each other already, you should introduce them. This is as simple as providing their names, though it is also thoughtful to include some detail about how you know the person, such as, “Sam is a classmate,” or “Mr. Jones is Suzy’s father.”

Make small talk

Many of us are not fans of small talk, but it is something that you have to do sometimes. We all find ourselves in those situations with someone we don’t know well (or perhaps someone we don’t particularly like) and staring at each other or our phones or the floor is not only awkward, it may be a wasted opportunity. Small talk is how we initially get to know each other. If you have just been introduced, hopefully you have been provided some tidbit that you have in common that can spark a conversation. If not, asking questions is a good way to start. Things such as “How do you know ___?” or “Have you seen the movies nominated for Oscars?” or even “Do you follow professional sports?” can get a conversation started. This is where some familiarity with current events or trivia can come in handy. Of course you want to avoid topics that can trigger strong opinions (and if this cannot be avoided, steer the conversation away from disagreements to more neutral topics).

Give and receive genuine compliments

People like compliments. Having said that, people can also tell when someone is sucking up. People like to have their efforts noticed. Paying genuine compliments does this. It is not difficult to find something to compliment either. Physical attributes are a fairly obvious place to start, but one can also compliment someone’s cooking, decorating skills or work efforts. Graciously receiving a compliment is also a skill. Don’t argue the fact, simply say thank you.

RSVP, every time

This is the rule I see most often ignored. If someone has invited you to an event, in most cases, they expect you to tell them whether or not you are attending (and once you are old enough to make that phone call or send that message, it is the person invited that should be doing the responding). Especially if food will be provided, even informal events deserve a RSVP. While you may think that one person will not make a difference in planning, if everyone thinks like that, the host can be looking at a range of possible attendees of say 50-80 (yes, this happened to me), leaving the host to decide which dilemma is preferable: running out of food or finding storage space for leftovers. (I went with the latter.)

Be on time

Though people talk about being “fashionably late,” being late is an inconvenience to others. If you are invited to a party, the host may be trying to keep a meal warm until you arrive. If you are meeting someone for an event, being late can mean losing preferential seating or missing part of a show (and also has the potential to interrupt the event altogether).

Be a respectful dinner guest

While basic table manners can be taught from a very young age, teens may also be venturing out on their own. Besides the basics (please, thank you, avoiding rude noises, not complaining about or making faces at food they don’t like, not reaching across the table, etc) they should know to place the napkin on their lap before eating and to refrain from diving in until all guests have been served. They should be polite to servers and when eating at a restaurant, ensure that an appropriate tip is left for the server. Conversations should be heard only by those at your table and talking should not be done while food is in one’s mouth. If it is imperative to take a cell phone call during a meal, step away from the table. If you are eating at someone’s house, offer to help clear the table or otherwise help clean up.

Curb cell use

If you are with other people, minimize your time on the phone. There may be calls you need to take, but keep them short. It is perfectly acceptable to tell callers that you are currently busy but will call them later (and make sure you do). There will be times you will need to use your phone to get directions or look something up (since many of us use our phones for much more than phone calls today), but don’t get caught up in checking Facebook while you are there. Make sure to turn your phone off (or at least on silent) when entering a theater or house of worship (and if you have to take a call, step outside so as not to disturb others).  The person in front of you should get more attention than the one on the other end of the phone.

Send thank you notes

Yes, people still write these. Especially since they are unfortunately so rare today, sending a thoughtful thank you note makes an impression.  Thank you notes are appropriate when: you receive a gift (especially if the gift giver is not present when you open it), after a job interview, after staying at someone’s home, or any time someone has significantly gone out of their way for you. While some say that an email thank you is sufficient, an old-fashioned paper and pen thank you is always appreciated and has more impact. Thank you notes are generally short: simply state what you are thankful for and perhaps what you look forward to in the future (using the gift, hosting your friend, further discussion about a job opportunity, etc.).

These are all small acts, but they can have a big impact. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – manners do matter.


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