Mable, Mable, strong and able, keep your elbows off the table. Did anyone else grow up with this sing song reminder? I actually grew up with quite the dichotomy of how to behave well. Early years living in New York resulted in stories of Southerners who moved north, and their kids offended teachers by saying, “Yes, ma’am.” Then we moved to Mississippi, and every teacher expected to be yes ma’amed. But always my brothers and I received greeting people, table manners, phone etiquette instruction.
Then when I moved to Canada, my Southern manners were too formal and way too friendly. After greeting a friendly person on the street and going home so happy to find a way to get to know people in Vancouver, I soon realized I had to tone down warmth and friendliness. The man I had met called, and was off the phone in a second when he realized I had a husband.
After years of living toned down, I was actually momentarily frightened when visiting Alberta, a person at a gas station initiated a warm, friendly chat. The Southerner in me shifted on and hopefully the kind soul wasn’t put off by my initial reserve.
Living and relating cross-culturally pushed me to learn the function of manners rather than sticking to the forms I grew up with. Craig and I were invited to a formal, tasty, ten course Chinese banquet where all of our manners were ALL wrong. People started exchanging business cards at the beginning of the meal; my fancy party purse had lipstick and tissue. Craig had a business card, but not enough for the entire table. We were served food first, and as we waited for everyone else to be served, the older hostess became agitated,
Do you need a fork?
No, thank you.
We’re fine with chopsticks.
You don’t like fish?
It smells wonderful.
Then why aren’t you eating?
We are waiting for everyone to be served.
Oh no, no, eat it while it’s hot!
So, as an adult I began to consider the why of manners. Actually an article by Dixie Carter in a Southern magazine pointed out the purpose of manners is to show kindness and respect to others rather than displaying a good upbringing. If I know how to act, I don’t need to think about myself, so I can think about the other person. Kindness and respect seem excellent guiding principles for how to relate to other people.
Maybe I will chew with my mouth closed, so I don’t gross out my table mates. And maybe it’s worth learning which silverware to use, so that when I am at a formal dinner, I can enjoy the person next to me rather than being so self-conscious about the spread that I don’t connect to the human next to me. So manners as a kindness to others has served me well, but while reading Richard Foster’s telling of Saint Francis and Brother Wolf, my understanding of manners has been expanded. In the endnote to the story, Richard Foster explains:
This was far more than a nice story bout taming a wolf. It was a parable about the shalom of God coming between the created world, its creatures, humankind, and the Creator. Or, to use a concept from the Middle Ages, it sought to teach cortesia. We use the word “courtesy” to mean manners, but originally it spoke of the nobility, behaviour, and etiquette of the knight. It was, for example, the preeminent characteristic of the knight in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Cortesia was a way of seeing and acting toward others. It meant honoring others, recognizing and respecting their personhood. It encompassed harmonious relationship, loving care, proper respect. Francis, who knew the courtly literature well, deepened and extended the concept of cortesia beyond human relationships to all of creation, including inanimate creation – sun and moon, wind and fire, water and earth. from Streams Of Living Water by Richard Foster p. 389-390
image from http://www.viarosa.com/VR/StFrancis/FranciscanCrownRosaries.html Courtesy as an expression of
recognizing and respecting their personhood
I like it!