Good manners aren't about cutlery and rules. They're about kindness.
I have one husband, three children, and two dogs. All are physically large, verbally expressive, and occasionally unruly — but very sweet, and certainly not dangerous. Still, they can be intimidating to those who don't know them.
I understand. That's why I've worked hard to teach all of my charges a simple command: "Manners."
When I say this one word, my rambunctious offspring know enough to cut it out and help with the dishes.
My husband takes a deep breath and resists his (very natural) urge to correct our rambling relatives at the dinner table.
To the dogs, "Manners!" is a cue to sit, stay, and not approach anyone until they are asked to do so.
I've been thinking a lot about manners lately. The concept, of course, is not new, though what is considered "mannerly" has evolved drastically over time, place, and culture. My Philadelphian grandmother, who cared deeply about cutlery, would be horrified to see me and mine eating so many of our meals with chopsticks and (gasp!) fingers, but hey … scrumptious Taiwanese food calls for sticks. And as for poi? Anything but fingers would be considered gauche in our home.
Persnickety social niceties aside, I think there are some universal tenets of good manners that we might all want to consider — and observe — in these troubled times.
1. Think before you speak
Waking up at 3 a.m. and unleashing a tweetstorm of incoherent ramblings based on your immediate feelings can feel good in the moment, kind of like downing a whole plate of nachos and following up with a Red Bull chaser after a hard night on the town.
A few hours later, you will not feel so good. Trust me.
Words have power. What you say, write, and tweet will ultimately convey your personality and intentions to posterity. Just ask Alexander Hamilton.
2. Be aware of where you are — and what's appropriate there
If you are attending a hockey game, by all means wear your favorite jersey and a pair of yoga pants. Cheer your heart out! Drink maybe one more beer than you should! Pound on the Plexiglas! Just don't do these things on the flight home the next day.
The charm of American "casual"-ness has lost its luster as we have become increasingly sloppy and inconsiderate of others. Consider your circumstances and surroundings. Dress and behave accordingly. Not only will you feel better, but you will also inspire others to follow suit.
3. Be gracious
It's a contentious world. Always has been. Guess who emerges from difficult situations with more social capital? The person who rises above immediate conflict with tact and grace.
We humans are always going to disagree on certain points. "Grace" is a beautiful, multi-layered concept, and one definitely worth pursuing, both for personal and professional gratification.
Who cares if Uncle Ted the Climate Change Denier is just flat-out wrong? Arguing with him at a family gathering isn't going to change his mind. It's just going to make even more people even more uncomfortable than they already are. When Uncle Ted starts to rant and quote "alternative facts," simply murmur "How interesting," and slowly move away.
4. Be kind
You know that nice feeling you get when you let the harried mom with two kids move in front of you in line at the grocery store? Or the warm surge you experience when you tell the down-on-his-luck guy to keep the change when you buy a newspaper from him?
Kindness is the epitome of good manners. It also works in your favor, flooding your system with bio-chemicals that promote health and a sense of well-being.
Win-win, wouldn't you say?
5. Be forgiving
Did that guy just cut you off at the intersection?
Okay. It's not the end of the world. Maybe his wife — in the backseat, counting contractions — needed him to hurry up, please, for the love of God.
Do you disagree with your cousin from Michigan who voted for a certain politician and may have forever influenced the course of history? Of course you do. But perhaps she had good reasons for her vote. Listen to the her, without interrupting or over-talking. You might learn something that will help you both make better choices in the future.
Look: We will all mess up, goof up, put our feet in our mouths, or otherwise embarrass ourselves. Don't we hope our fellow citizens of the world might forgive us, just a little?
Like follows like. Set a good example.
Good manners are less about choosing the right fork at lunch, and more about letting it slide if the person across the table from you chooses to slurp his amuse bouche straight out of the cunning little dish that pretentious waiter plopped in front of you all.
Last week, a wary older gentleman passing my dogs and me on the sidewalk heard me give this familiar command: "Manners."
The dogs stopped. The gentleman also stopped, looked at the dogs, and looked at me, gratefully. Then he sighed.
"Manners are important," he said. "I wish more of us understood that."