Please Please Me by
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Prompted By Manners

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One of the best baby shower presents I received in 1985, when my first child was born, was Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children, which had just been published. I’m sorry now that the giver did not put an inscription in the book. I would love to know which of my friends it was from, and what their thoughts were at the time. I know I read the book, probably in dribs and drabs, but never seriously consulted it about childrearing. This may be why my children did not grow up to be perfect.

One of the best baby shower presents I received when my first child was born was Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children.

For the most part, I think I taught my children the same rules of manners that I had been taught by my parents.
—Always say “please” when you are asking for something and “thank you” when you receive it.
—Don’t interrupt when someone else is talking, or if you absolutely have to, say “excuse me” before launching into your interruption.
—At the table, don’t reach for something if it isn’t close, ask for it to be passed. (We called it the “boarding house reach” and it was frowned on.)
—Chew with your mouth closed.
—Write thank-you notes for gifts, preferably before you even use them.

Thinking about my own childhood, probably the biggest emphasis was on table manners. For instance, you were never supposed to put your elbows on the table when eating. In fact, there was a poem that my mother used to recite whenever any of us committed that infraction:

Mabel, Mabel, strong and able
Get your elbows off the table!
This is not a horse’s stable,
But a formal dining table!

After a few renditions of the whole poem, she could just say “okay Mabel” and that was enough to remind us to put our elbows down. I don’t think I was as concerned about that with my children as my mother had been. As long as they didn’t stick their elbows in each other’s plates, I was probably happy.

Another rule we had when I was growing up was that you had to say “May I be excused?” before leaving the dinner table, you couldn’t just get up and walk away. The answer was always going to be “yes,” but you still had to ask. In my husband’s family, where they had the same rule, his younger brother thought he was supposed to say “May I be a goose?” So we always laughed about that with our kids. I don’t recall that they ever left the table early, so this rule didn’t need to be enforced.

All the rules of good manners described above still seem reasonable to me. But I can think of others that have not stood the test of time.

When I was a teenager, it was considered good manners for a boy to open a car door (or any door) for a girl. As a result, I can recall being on a date, and if the boy got out of the car and started to walk away without coming around to my side to open the door, I would just sit there in the car and wait. Eventually he would realize I wasn’t with him, and would come back and open the door for me. Ridiculous!

Similarly, when I first started working, I would often be in a situation where there was a group of us waiting for an elevator, and I was the only female. When the elevator arrived, all the men would wait so that I could get on first. However, then when we got down to the lobby and the doors opened, they would again wait for me to get off first. But I was way at the back, having gotten on first, so I had to squeeze past all the men waiting for me to get off first. Also ridiculous!

To me, it seems like good manners for people to open doors for each other, regardless of gender. The first person holds the door for the second person. Much simpler that way. And everyone can open his or her own car door and get out unaided, unless they have a physical disability and need assistance.

What about the notion that it is good manners for men to shake hands standing up and women to shake hands sitting down? I find it awkward to be looking up at the man I am shaking hands with, so I stand up too. That seems like better manners to me.

All the rules of manners that we learned that prescribed different behaviors for males and females are the ones that no longer seem appropriate. I am happy that I no longer have to wait for men to do anything for me, and can just do it myself. Although I do admit that I almost always ask my husband to open jars for me. And he has the good manners to do it without even teasing me about it.

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Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    Thank you for this great trip down a “manners memory lane,” Suzy. It rang a lot of bells for me — including the “Miss Manners” book, which I well remember and briefly referenced in my own story.

    I had many of the same manners impressed upon me growing up and I completely share your views of them, good and bad. Yes, holding the door for someone makes sense — though not a car door — and the elevator etiquette is really stupid and inefficient. As to opening jars, though, that is a new one for me, though I admit I usually open the jars for my wife (assuming I’m anywhere near the kitchen). But that’s just because I’m bigger and stronger, not because it’s polite — right? Still, good for your husband for not teasing you about this.

    And may I have the bad manners to admit that, when I was in high school, we guys had a smart ass variation of the “Mabel, Mabel” ditty you cite. It went: “Mabel, Mabel, get off the table. The five dollars is for the beer.”

    Finallly, as always, perfect song title title.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. But I would like to think you are opening the jars because she asked you to and it is good manners to help her, and leave out the macho part about being bigger and stronger.

      Never knew of your Mabel variation, can’t say I’m thrilled about it. I might delete that paragraph of your comment before I print this story for posterity.

      • John Shutkin says:

        Not to worry, Suzy. I really do open the jar because I am asked and it is good manners to do so.

        And good point about the Mabel variation; pretty crude. I would gladly delete it, but I don’t think I’m able to do so at this point in the process. But, like a judge upholding an objection and instructing a jury, I will ask everyone to please disregard that statement.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    I agree with you about everything Suzy. Table manners are important. It isn’t pleasant to sit with someone who is sort of piggy. But the social conventions for men and women in the work place (or holding car and regular doors for women) have long been passé. I think the Women’s Movement of the 60s, demanding equal rights, helped to kill those notions, all for the best. As a women in the tech sales force in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was frequently the ONLY woman in a meeting. I didn’t want to be singled out in any way, but rather, I WANTED to be treated like an equal. That was important to me. I’m glad those old rituals have been thrown out.

    • Suzy says:

      It took more than the ’60s to kill those social conventions, since I experienced them (and I think you did too) even into the ’80s. I hope all those old rituals have been thrown out, I’m not entirely sure that they have been, but then again, I haven’t been in an office setting in almost 15 years.

  3. “Please Please Me”? I have recognized most of the song titles that you use for your posts, but not this one. When I look on the internet I see that it is the debut studio album for the Beatles, released in 1963–and an album that I know not at all. So I have learned something new this morning, and the rest of the day is still ahead of me!

    • Suzy says:

      Mike, I’m gobsmacked that you don’t remember the song “Please Please Me.” I don’t know about an album with that name, but the single was one of their first big hits. In April ’64, when the Beatles had the top 5 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it was third, after “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” I’m sure if you listen to it, you will recognize it.

  4. It all sounds familiar Suzy, and it’s good that some of those outdated customs are long gone. The easiest thing is always to be considerate, compassionate and kind to each other. Imagine if we all could!

  5. Marian says:

    Very reminiscent of my own experience with manners, Suzy. I really like your analysis. These days I’m the jar opener at home because of my partner’s arthritis, and certain tools can help. When I went into my client’s office (just pre-pandemic), where most were 20- or 30-something, there was no difference in manners by gender. I was impressed how courteous everyone was to me, their “elder,” in a non-patronizing way. There is hope!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Marian. You’re right about tools for opening jars, of course, and that’s what I would use if my husband weren’t available. Glad to hear about the manners of the younger generation, and that there is hope! That comment made my day!

  6. Mister Ed says:

    Great story, Suzy! Particularly loved the part about “Please may I be a goose.” Quack quack.

  7. “This may be why my children did not grow up to be perfect.” As usual you infuse a delightful story with enough humor to have me laughing out loud several times.

    My husband never fails to open a door for me, to thank me for a meal, to say please when asking me for something. It just seems to come naturally to him. No, he’s not from Canada; Garth is from the Midwest. Midwest nice. And of course, if I get to the door first, I open it for him.

    Oh, and thanks for the ear worm…I can live with this one for a while!

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    Many of the rules of etiquette make sense and reflect simple courtesy, but some are strangely arbitrary. As a teen I was coming down my block one evening talking to a girl I knew. My grandmother happened to be looking out her window, and yelled at me that I should always walk on the curb side when accompanying a lady. This seemed odd; if anything, an attack will probably come from an alley, not the street.

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    It does seem that many of us learned the same manners at the table, and similar sayings too. I could really relate. I also liked the “goose” story, and though I hate to be a “neigh” sayer, Ed is wrong and you are correct–geese honk. Canada geese are called “honkers” and make that very loud honking noise as they fly.

  10. Laurie Levy says:

    I love this, Suzy. So easy to relate to your thoughts about the “silly” good manners, most of which relate to gender. My husband still lets me go up stairs first, although now I think his motivation is to catch me if I stumble. Your family’s table manners are the same ones I grew up with. The elbows thing was such a big deal, for reasons I never grasped, that my mother-in-law actually stabbed my husband’s sister with a fork for non-compliance. Good manners?

  11. Good one, Suzy. As I read these stories I’m struck by the common chords of our experience.

  12. Common chords–except that in my neighborhood in Indiana, the last two lines about Mabel were, “this is not a horse’s stall/this is a first-class dining hall.” Which actually has a better syllable count to maintain the cadence.
    We didn’t do the curbside thing that I ever heard about. I enjoyed hearing all your reminiscences.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your comment. But I disagree that your version’s cadence is better; mine has an even rhythm for all four lines, whereas yours is syncopated. Plus, my mother would never have allowed our dinner table to be referred to as a “dining hall,” sounds much too institutional!

  13. Risa Nye says:

    This is all very familiar, Suzy. However, the stickler for manners in my experience was my New England born mother-in-law. Her three children were raised with very proper table manners and manners in other respects, as well. For example, the boys were taught to stand whenever a lady entered the room! And when we were dating, my husband always opened the car door for me. I learned from him and his family, and we in turn taught our kids table manners. Now that they are adults, though, I have to bite my tongue when it seems that many of the things we taught them have gone by the wayside. I note that their kids will ask to be excused from the table, so there’s that. Enjoyed reading this piece, as did everyone who commented.

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