Manners of the Heart

I once enjoyed reading various columns in the daily newspapers. They were, after all, essentially the same thing as these blog posts; only the presenting medium differs.  And I have vivid memories the many weekly and daily features that I read.

One, years ago, was an advice column for etiquette. (I see you are now shaking your head.  You are thinking: When even the words “please” and “thank you” are forgotten bastions of good manners, when hate speech and road rage are common — well, in this era, almost no one, no one at all, would ever write, much less read, a feature piece about etiquette.)  But, there you have it.  For many years, newspapers across the country carried a daily article totally devoted to proper behavior.  Some still do!

I found the etiquette column fascinating. My own upbringing might be referred to as “Midwestern casual”.  I knew enough of good manners to keep my elbows off the dinner table and my mouth closed while chewing a bite.  I did not sling my napkin about my neck, but placed it on my lap. I knew that I should hold the door open for a person whose arms were laden with packages, or who was elderly, and that I was to answer respectfully, “Yes, Ma’am” or “Yes, Sir” when addressed by an adult. Parents of my friends were addressed as Mrs. or Mr., not by their first names.  I was never to point at someone, and I needed to say “Pardon me” or “Excuse me, please” when it was necessary to walk around someone.  But that about summed up my acquaintance with mannerliness.

So I devoured these articles on etiquette, learning unexpected and captivating facts. Presented with more cutlery than a knife, fork and spoon?  Start at the outside and work inward.  Lay my unused hand across the napkin in my lap. If arriving first at the door, hold it for everyone else, but if a someone offers to take the door for me as a large group enters, say thank you and continue in.  Spoon my soup away from me. When first becoming acquainted in a formal situation, ask if I might call someone by their first name. Sit with my ankles crossed and on a slight slant to one side.  Stir tea or coffee slowly in a vertical line.

Some of the advice was pithy and intelligent; occasionally (like that “spoon your soup” rule) it seemed to be total nonsense…until one considered the consequences of behaving otherwise (A dribble from the soup spoon will fall into the bowl, not the lap! Tea stirred in a circle will create a vortex and could overflow the cup.)

But scattered amongst all this concise and sensible information, there lurked pitfalls, and many of these became apparent in the questions sent in by people seeking to know the appropriate way to handle unusual situations. My favorite of all these was the woman who had a debate going with a friend on the correct way to put the flat sheet on the bed.

Having grown up in an era in which white bedsheets were the norm—colored sheets, and solid colors at that, had finally edged into the market; prints were just becoming popular—it had never occurred to me that there was any special way to lay the flat sheet atop the fitted sheet. You placed it down, straightened it across, tucked in the bottom and put hospital corners on the lower sides.  Period.  End of story.

But just as Dear Abby learned in the Great Toilet Paper Debate, everyone has an opinion.  The writer opined that, if the sheet was laid down “properly”, with the uppermost seam turned down, the flat sheet had to be laid with the printed side downward or “only the maid sees the pretty sheets”.

The maid?!

I had already gotten stuck at that part about the sheets being laid down “properly”. It had certainly never occurred to me to turn that uppermost seam down any which way.  One laid the sheet, as I’ve said, to the correct height on the mattress and tucked in the bottom and corners.

But the maid?

What maid?!  Did the writer of the letter—much less the author of the column—not realize that 99-and-some percent of the readers of this column had no maid?

It suddenly occurred to me that the etiquette lessons I was learning from these articles might not, after all, be applicable to the reality of the life I was living.

I’ll never remember what the author’s answer was to this ultimately silly question, having boggled at those other points in the letter. Despite that, I continued reading the manners advice column daily, extracting from it some pertinent guidance that I continue to use to this day.

But the memory of that letter came back to me when I was recovering from surgery, and a thoughtful friend came weekly to change the bedsheets for me. Laying down the flat sheet, she asked if I preferred to have the embroidered top seam turned down, for that would determine how she lay the sheet over the mattress.  “Hey, you’re doing me the favor,” I told her.  “I’m just grateful for your help. You put the sheet on there any way you like.”

And that, I think, is the essence of good manners: gratitude, consideration, and genuine courtesy.  Truly good manners are manners of the heart.