Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The effect of etiquette books

It would be interesting, I think, to study the effects of etiquette books across various social strata.  The first time I ever cracked open an etiquette book was when I was was fourteen or so and James was eating mashed potatoes with his fingers.  I felt that there was certainly a better way and I went to the authorities for backup.  James (age 5) was convinced, and though his manual dexterity was still developing, he awkwardly used a spoon and dinner became much more pleasant for everyone after that.

I have seen etiquette books used in other ways though.  For example, when Marie's English students were rude in class, she required that they copy some number of pages (proportional to the offense) from an etiquette book. For some of her students in the hood of Las Vegas, it may have been the only exposure they ever had to basic manners.  It would be interesting to determine what influence those exercises had.

I sometimes think I catch a glimpse.  For instance, once I was eating dinner at the home of a no longer friend.  There weren't enough baked potatoes so I volunteered to split one with someone else and then proceeded to cut the potato crosswise instead of lengthwise.  We were in the midst of a hilarious discussion about pumping septic tanks.  Bread had been distributed in a manner similar to a football that is passed 20 yards for a glorious touchdown.  So I was surprised when the conversation stopped and everyone started staring at me.  Everyone.  I asked "What?"and they all started laughing at me and told me that any fool knows a potato is cut lengthwise instead of crosswise when it is shared.  I expressed surprise that such a rule existed and the etiquette book was procured and the rule was read. I jokingly asked if anything was said about discussing sewers or chucking bread around the room.  Neither of those topics were mentioned in the etiquette book so clearly no rule had been broken in either case.  The fault was clearly mine.

Etiquette finally started making real sense to me in France.  I was staying at the Fondation Mérieux for a week, eating three meals a day prepared by the second best chef in Annecy (which is known for some excellent cuisine).  I had the pleasure of eating with some fine and distinguished French gentlemen.  They were from a generation where etiquette was important and their plates were kept impeccably beautiful and clean throughout the entire meal.  I managed to use the correct utensils and I worked out the timing between talking and eating pretty well.  The men thought that I was delightful and charming, but as I watched the way they kept their plates so well composed, I felt like a complete slob.  "Aaah" I thought, "it does matter which way a person cuts a potato."

1 comment:

Carroll said...

James still eats mashed potatoes with his fingers, or something like that! He is now 25, the effect I guess wasn't lasting!

I love Marie's disciplinary techniques. Nothing like good old fashioned discipline. What excruciating punishment! I need to question her about the effect.

My Miriam, the eager learner and scholar! It paid off! You were prepared for Paris at an important time in the presence of those you felt it was important to impress. Knowledge is power!

I love your writing.

Thanks for the reflections on the family. For me they are great fun!