If you were brought up in my household, decorum mattered. It felt as though my siblings and I were constantly being coached about our manners; everything from using silverware correctly to writing the proper thank you note. My mother frequently referred to Emily Post and reminded us that while animals are “raised”, children should be “brought up”. We kids were in full agreement about one thing: that my parents’ focus on manners mattered a bit too much. Basically we thought the entire topic was pointless, old-fashioned and pretentious.
With Mother’s Day behind us and Father’s Day fast approaching I’d like to give a shout-out to my parents. For at the risk of being unpopular (and the butt of our jokes) they tirelessly insisted we learn how to conduct ourselves in every situation. Only with time and experience did I understand what a favor they’d done us.
A few years ago our daughter sheepishly acknowledged she was glad my husband and I had acted as the “Manners Police”. Despite years of protest and claims that we were the strictest parents ever, she had come to realize that knowing how to conduct herself in any situation is a priceless gift; one that was already impacting the course of her life. Understanding the significance of her remarks that day, I heard every word. Based on mistakes made and her own observations, here are some of the things our daughter shared:
When someone gives you a gift – or a gift of their time and wisdom – send them a thank you note. During graduate school our daughter had the chance to apply for a small scholarship. It was quite competitive but was finally narrowed down to her and another candidate. To her delight our daughter was chosen. Afterwards she was told why she was selected; it was the hand-written thank you note she sent. The moral of the story: sometimes it’s the small gestures that make the difference.
Listen more than you speak. She now has her own business and is rarely turned down by prospective clients. She attributes this to the fact that rather than trying to sell herself to the client by convincing them of her abilities she listens carefully to what they need. Making the client feel heard is 95% of the sale. Although she didn’t understand the importance of the phrase “you have two ears and only one mouth, so speak half as much as you listen”, she does now! Similarly, in social situations she understands that it’s easiest to win people over by asking them about themselves rather than running on about yourself and your accomplishments.
Chew with your mouth closed and use your silverware properly. Our daughter griped and moaned when we repeatedly reminded her of these things. A few years ago she dated a guy who seemed to have it all – looks, brains and a promising career. Once they shared a meal, however, the magic was gone. As she sat across from Mr. Wonderful and watched him chew with his mouth open and handle his silverware like he was sawing a 2x4, she suddenly understood why these “niceties” were so important.
When in Rome, do as the Romans. When we traveled we insisted that our daughter try foods native to the particular region, and observe their customs. She insisted that this was cruel and unusual punishment. During a summer program abroad, however, she was grateful to be able to down steak and kidney pie, eye balls and other “delicacies”, while her American friends looked on, aghast. Meanwhile her foreign hosts expressed their appreciation for these simple gestures.
Bringing up kids well is hard work; all guts and no glory. Chances are good that the lessons they most resist learning are the ones they’ll thank you for in the end. Manners are more than about knowing how to hold a tea cup; they’re really about forming lasting relationships and making one’s way successfully in the world. Here’s to my mom and dad for insisting we master them.
by Maud Purcell