Thursday, January 23, 2014

My Favorite Bit of Etiquette

image from here
Some of my favorite moments in Downton Abbey are references to the social etiquette of the period. While Lady Violet recently commented on the lack of logic behind some of the most silly etiquette, other manners -- such as Tom being gently nudged to dutifully dance with the Duchess a couple weeks ago -- seem to make sense to me, and I enjoy how some of these rules are wonderfully unchanged by our modern times. Men graciously dancing with women who hint they would like to be asked is ever present among gentlemen now, and I enjoy seeing the rules in place in a different era.

While Tom can be excused for not knowing all of the manners expected of him, sometimes it seems that many people today question not just the logic behind manners, but also the need for them. Sometimes it is as if all of society were a child protesting a request to remove his elbows from the table; railing against rules considered to be old-fashioned and out of place.

But manners, in their most basic sense, are simply a list of ways to act that make others feel comfortable. Of course there are flourishes added in, but when one looks closely at different pieces of etiquette, most have some logic behind them. The reason is that good manners are just a gracious way of treating people. A blueprint for graciousness or empathy. A simple list of rules to follow when it does not come naturally to us. A way to make society a more enjoyable place to live.

Take the dancing example: It is simply kind to offer to dance with someone who lacks a partner; it makes that person smile. Offering a guest something to drink is another clear example of offering a kindness: The guest may be thirsty after travelling, even if it was only across town. Covering our mouths when we cough makes others around us feel more comfortable, as no one wants to think about germs.

There is one bit of etiquette I learned years ago, which sticks with me as a pure example of what manners are really all about. It is my favorite piece of etiquette because I believe it is the ultimate example of making others feel more comfortable.

Of course we all know to take cues from the host of a gathering, and that the host is to make all of her guests feel welcome, even if someone breaks a beloved champagne flute. But it may be less well known just how far this welcoming and gracious behavior is expected to go. In a case where a guest does something wrong, say, picks up the wrong fork at dinner, good manners require the gracious host to also pick up the wrong fork, and for her other guests to follow suit, thereby making the person who made the misstep feel comfortable.

(We saw this very rule in place in this week's episode of Downton Abbey when Lord Gillingham did not bring white tie, so Lord Grantham was obliged to wear black tie to dinner as well, and not force his guest to be uncomfortably underdressed. Even if it meant listening to his mother's comment, "so another brick is pulled from the wall.")

Is that not a wonderful thought? That a person would willfully do something "wrong" just to make someone else at the table feel comfortable? To me, this is exactly what good manners are about, and exactly why they are important, no matter the year. We should all strive to be such empathetic humans.

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"There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you've got to be kind."
-Kurt Vonnegut