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Etiquette Week

Author Shelley Fraser Mickle
Air Date 5/10/2000

Etiquette Week Transcript

This is National Etiquette Week, and to a child, there is almost nothing more boring than learning etiquette. It can be dangerous, too. Quentin Crisp, a British author wrote that “nothing more rapidly inclines a person to go into a monastery than reading a book on etiquette. For there are so many trivial ways to commit some social sin.” Yet having once been a child and more recently a parent myself, I can say that without learning in childhood the rules to rebel against in adolescence, life is more than boring. You’re likely to be labeled uncool.

It seems my whole life has been tied up with rules of etiquette. Being raised in the South and largely by a grandmother who was from the Mississippi Delta where blue blood and manners are akin to having money, I barely spent a minute when I wasn’t receiving some instruction in etiquette. I was taught to say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” as often as someone in the military. We even had a form of salute, which was that I was expected to stand up whenever anyone older than I entered the room. I was taught to wear short white gloves when I dressed up and to always take them off whenever I shook hands. I wrote thank you notes for the slightest of things – such as when Mr. Carl, the dimestore owner, gave me a free handful of bubble gum. I think I wrote enough thank you notes to have paved a road through Mississippi. I could also eat dinner with three different forks and knew never to cut the butter with the same knife with which I buttered my bread.

By the time I got to college, I was ready to break every one of these rules. I slept till noon as a house guest when I visited Mrs. Williamson, who was a close friend of my grandmother’s in Mississippi. I wrote her a one line thank you note: “it was swell”. For one whole year, I burped at dinner and ordered red wine with fish. I spit watermelon seeds on the ground and called no one sir.

It was funny, though, when ten years later I became a mother myself, and I began hearing most of my grandmother’s rules coming out of my mouth. For it was my job then to instruct my own children on the ways of the world.

Maybe that’s why last week I wrote Mrs. Williamson a note of apology. And why one of my favorite quotes about etiquette has always been the one by George Bernard Shaw, who said “manners are behaving as if you were in Heaven where there are no third class carriages, and where one soul is as good as another.” Because after all, isn’t that the point?

Posted in Holidays, Stories