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.

Handshake, Schmandshake!

I’ve never quite gotten the point of the whole “a firm handshake” deal. Judging a person in this manner has always seemed to me like two little boys playing at arm wrestling.  Who cares whether one’s touch is quote-firm-unquote?  I personally suspect that the whole firm handshake concept (which for decades was an exclusively male prerogative) was just something devised in a homophobic era by men who felt a light touch also indicated someone who was “light in the loafers”.

As a young girl in parochial school, occasionally being taught lessons in etiquette (something which, by the way, I would highly recommend be added to the curriculum of every school today), I was instructed that a man did not reach to shake a woman’s hand unless she first extended her own hand.  This etiquette lesson has gone the way of the dodo, but I preferred it.  I dislike touching or being touched by complete strangers.  No, that’s wrong – I despise touching or being touched by complete strangers.  It feels invasive of my personal space, and it takes away my sense of control about a situation – my right to decide whether or not to be handled.  I wasn’t raised in the “good touch, bad touch” era, but not having the right to decide if I want to grasp the hand of a totally unfamiliar person has always felt “bad touch” to me.  After all, how do I know where that hand’s just been?  Is this a person who doesn’t wash after using the bathroom?  What if they have a cold or the flu? Blech.

For that reason, I’ve devised many a trick to avoid shaking hands. My favorite, when I can do it, is to sneeze.  Since allergies are my constant companions, this often isn’t difficult.  And turning aside to sneeze, carefully covering one’s face with one’s hand, is a wonderfully self-deprecating, “Ohmigosh, I can’t believe that happened, let me get a tissue,” moment.

If I’m unable to rustle up a realistic sneeze, I cough. Coughing is much easier, and it still requires turning away and covering one’s face with one’s hand, thereby making it unlikely anyone is going to immediately grasp that hand.  Both coughing and sneezing can include simple explanation and apology: “Sorry, I’m afraid I have a bit of cold; I certainly don’t want to pass it on to you!”, or, “So sorry; the ragweed is in full bloom, and I’m afraid I’m very allergic!”  All said, of course, with an apologetic smile, sometimes while dashing hand sanitizer over one’s palms – no one wants to shake hands with a glob of alcohol gel.

Actually, I rather enjoyed the terrible flu season of 2009, when experts were recommending that the handshake be foregone in favor of the fist bump. No one can judge the fleeting gesture of the fist bump, and the touch is so brief that it doesn’t feel invasive.  I only wish the fist bump recommendation was in place every flu season.

I might be happier, though, in a culture in which the bow was the gesture of choice for meeting. Besides being a refined and classic gesture, in those cultures in which people bow rather than shake hands, it’s possible, by the depth of one’s bow, to indicate anything from real pleasure in meeting to total rejection and insult.  Now there’s a custom I can appreciate!

But I am most taken with the classically graceful “Namaste” gesture, in which the head is bowed slightly over one’s steepled hands as the word is spoken. “I bow to the Divine within you,” the word and movement say, acknowledging the totality of the person standing before one, recognizing that they are both body and spirit, whole and perfect and complete.

Handshake, schmandshake. One should be judged by one’s stance (confident and self-assured?  Slouching, unable to meet the other’s eyes?) one’s smile (genuine or nervous?) and general neatness.  All the rest – clothing, accent, makeup, hair, and touch – are just window dressing.  In the long run, the immediate judgment we make of another is just that: a snap judgment.  Stop worrying about their handshake and take the time to know the individual.