manners matter

Some time ago I was at a dinner party where there was present at table a guy whose narcissistic deportment was so disruptive I don’t care if we ever become friends.

Not content to listen to the table talk and contribute in appropriate ways, he tried to dominate the conversation even though he had little to say. He kept talking over his wife who was trying to make good points, but was drowned out by him. When he failed to hold everyone’s rapt attention, he shifted to dominating his seating partner’s attention, and the table talk devolved into two competing tracks.

If you think I am making too much of this, I must answer that I believe you can tell a lot about people by how they behave at the dinner table. If someone serves himself overly-large portions which are inconsiderate of there being enough food for others, he will be greedy in other departments of his life and work. If someone serves others food before serving herself, she will carry that priority of helpfulness away from the table and into the world.

When I was about thirteen and I had become too offensive at table for my mother’s liking, one day I found on my pillow an illustrated book called Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers, by Walter Hoving (1961). My mother apparently had decided I needed to learn a thing or two if I were to get ahead in the world.

I’m glad I read that book (and I’m glad it’s still in print today) because it provides a timeless “gold standard” for social etiquette anywhere, but especially at table. Since then I have avoided embarrassing myself by using the wrong fork or by using my fingers to eat a drumstick. I even know how to set used silverware on my plate so a server is supposed know, without my saying so, that I’ve finished eating and my plate can be removed—though I have almost never been served by a waiter or waitress who fails to ask, “May I take that away for you?” or “You done?” They apparently never read the same book.

(In the “normal” world, having good manners can sometimes make one feel as alien as a feral child in a chateau. Yet, good manners can also be as valuable as a diplomatic passport at a border crossing.)

Good table manners matter for more than just mealtime deportment. Having social graces, being well-spoken and clean behind the ears can be beneficial in crucial situations like job interviews or first encounters with potential parents-in-law.

Meals used to be the center of family life. Table manners set the rhythm, pattern, and tone of the family’s social interactions away from the dinner table and outside the home. For many families, the dinner table was their Axis Mundi, an almost sacred thing.

At table we learned to be respectful and considerate of others and to show our gratitude for food received. We learned not to reach greedily, to take only what we could finish, and not to waste. These were the ethics of behavior our parents expected from us not only at table, but in the wider world. “Whatever you do and wherever you go,” they said, “remember to act in ways that are a credit to your family.”

How many families today share a meal even once a week? How many families can even speak to one another at table over the ubiquitous din and distraction of TV?

How far we have fallen! I won’t even go there, the trends are so widespread and demoralizing. Influenced by brutality on television, crudity in our entertainment, and resignation and apathy at home, we ourselves lapse into words, behaviors, and standards which, alas, are considered “normal.”

Guided by the light of our examples, our children act “normal,” too.

This “normalcy” is reinforced by their peers at school. Bad manners lead to taunting and teasing and the mindless infliction of many small cruelties. Before you know it, the boy next door or the kid in the room at the top of the stairs of your own home is an Eric Cartman clone.

Before you know it, showing generosity, courtesy, kindness and consideration to others—especially those who are weaker, poorer, more vulnerable, or less attractive than we—is considered (in South Park parlance) “gay.”

Who signed up for such a world?

I certainly did not, and I am appalled at the lengths to which our Newspeak politicians are spreading our culture’s “kinder and gentler” ways to other places in the world. I’m disturbed that Hollywood culture is viewed by so many people in the world as representing “normal” American values. It is no wonder that societies with different norms wish to repay us in kind with violence.

The troubles of the world begin at our own dinner tables. But so do the solutions.

I mean this seriously, and if you will please think about it, you’ll see it’s literally true. Think about the many ways your family is connected to the world. The family table is the pebble’s splash in the world pond.

It is entirely up to us what kinds of ripples and waves we wish to actuate in our families. Good manners at table provide a practical way to develop our family’s ethical conscience and self-identity.

Good table manners can help create happier families and a better world.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Monty Python performing “Never Be Rude to an Arab”

13 Responses to “manners matter”

  1. December 15, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Hear! Hear! Dan. Well said / written 🙂


  2. 2 maxsscoutservicesllc
    December 15, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Dear Readers:

    I received the same book as a kid. Like many of Dan’s clothes, the book was a hand-me-down.

    What Dan does not tell you is that our mother sent all three of her children to Charm School. Where we grew up, the charm school was called Junior Assembly. Ask Dan about his experiences. My episodes around Mrs. Murdoch and Mrs. Erickson’s weekly ballroom dance classes left many memories.

    One good thing. During fifth-grade charm school, I met a boy that was to become the best man at my wedding. We are still friends today even though I live in the Pacific Time Zone and Rob presently resides in the Carolinas.

    Manners are meaningful. Ditto Dan.

  3. 3 maxsscoutservicesllc
    December 15, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    I have spoken with my friend Sarah, almost a graduate from St. Mary’s College (Moraga, California, not Notre Dame, Indiana) masters program in Social Work. Sarah informs me that next year a revision is coming out in print of the bible used throughout the world for treating people with psychological issues.

    DSM-IV (or is it DSM-V now) will no longer have any reference to “narcissism” being an abberant behavior or thought pattern. Apparently, it will no longer be considered an illness, a symptom of a pathological condition, or is not capable of being treated by modern medicine nor psychoanalysis, or is going to be considered at a “normal” phenomenon.

    Go figure…

  4. 4 Gloria
    December 15, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Well, now that Max mention it, I really would love to know about those experiences on Charm School, Dan. 🙂

    • December 16, 2010 at 1:01 am

      Oh, Gloria, sometimes I wish my brother would keep his mouth shut… “charm school” it wasn’t.

      Junior Assembly was a ballroom dancing class organized by the socially prominent women in town as a way of socializing their adolescent children. It was held at a big place called The Progress Club, and it was a classic awkward affair with the boys sitting on one side of the ballroom and the girls sitting on the other.

      We had to wear suits and ties and party clothes. An old lady played the piano while we learned all the dance steps we would never use when we grew up–well, I take that back… One of the best nights of my life was when I was in college and my mother took me as her “date” to the annual Junior League Ball, and the two of us cut up the dance floor. (I wouldn’t have been able to keep up my side of it if I hadn’t suffered through all those Junior Assembly sessions, so I guess it was worth it.)

      Anyway, I still remember the cha-cha and “magic step” (fox trot), so I suppose I could show some really old ladies a good time if they could get out of their walkers and wheelchairs. But few people my age or younger know anything about that kind of dancing, much less the music of my parents’ youth.

      • 6 Julianne
        December 16, 2010 at 3:17 am

        Ye of little faith! I used to be a member of the University of Georgia Ballroom Dance Team and performed with the historical dance ensemble for the 200th anniversary of the school. We have neighbors(much closer to your place than mine) who are a former competetive ballroom dance team and are nowhere near being in need of walkers or wheelchairs. Other neighbors have proven themselves to be quite proficient dancers at various parties you’ve been absent from. Are you planning to go to the big dance party Saturday night that will serve as Wade’s memorial? (I danced with Wade – but I missed out on the T-shirt.)

        “No noodle arms! I want to see a nice solid frame there.”

      • 7 Gloria
        December 16, 2010 at 3:36 pm

        sounds like fun to me. 🙂 I found this in the net. “The social skills education will focus on learning the essentials of introductions, common courtesy and respect, table etiquette, and table manners. The dance education features traditional, contemporary and group dances including : fox trot, waltz, polka swing, hustle, and folk dances.”


  5. 8 Julianne
    December 16, 2010 at 4:12 am

    Good post! This actually ties in to the problems “in” the education system. In the absence of life lessons around the dinner table as well as elsewhere in the home, society seems to think a 7-hour school day will educate the young folk. I think when we were growing up education was a 16-hour/day event, even though we spent the same amount of time in school as today’s youngsters. While I believe there are some major problems in the education system, I think a much greater problem lies in what happens (or doesn’t happen) during the time that kids are NOT in school.

    I try to give the wait staff the benefit of a doubt. It just might be that they are aware of the rules of etiquette, but have encountered diners who were clueless and had unwittingly left a signal for their plate to be removed when they didn’t mean it to be so. This might cause them to adopt a better-safe-than-sorry methodology.

    It is also true that the rules of etiquette may vary by location. Does the same rule hold for chopsticks instead of silverware to signal when a diner is finished? When/where is it rude to eat from a fork with the tines pointing upwards instead of down? is it rude to cut an entire meal into pieces and set your knife down while eating with only your fork? should long pasta be twirled or cut? should you move your plate once it’s been set in front of you? where is it rude to ask for silverware instead of eating with your fingers? where is it rude to use your fingers instead of silverware? if it’s rude to add salt to food you haven’t yet tasted, why is it expected that you should be able to tell the waiter if you’d like him to grind pepper over your food before you’ve tasted it?

    Growing up in a household with frequent international visitors, I learned that there is a great deal of variation in customs and acceptable practices. I’ve been schooled in what’s proper where, but I try to avoid places where the fancy rules are expected to be followed. I’ve learned that I’m much more likely to offend if I stay worried or nervous about what might be found offensive. I trust that my friends and acquaintances will tell me if and when I exhibit behaviors that they find inappropriate.

  6. December 16, 2010 at 4:36 am


    You’ve fired off so many questions about different rules, etc. I’m out of breath. Personally, I think the most important thing is the spirit you bring to table with you. Get the spirit right, and the rules don’t matter. We have sat at table together. You know what I mean.


  7. 10 maxsscoutservicesllc
    December 19, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Dan’s little brother would like to hear more of his Junior Assembly experiences.

    Also for Christmas, I ask for a posting describing the Grub Shack. It sounds like a place I’d like to hang out.

    Ho, ho, ho from David A. in Northern California!

    Merry Christmas and Happy Yuletide to all!

    I am looking forward to Dan’s eyewitness report of the Winter Soltice from West Texas…

  8. January 8, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Two or three people referred me today to this article which appeared in The Huffington Post (1/8/2011) by Dr. Douglas Fields, a Neurobiologist and author of “The Other Brain.” I thought you might find it interesting!

    “Americans are rude. I say this not to preach, which is neither my right nor my intention, but as a scientist, a developmental neuroscientist. My concern about American rudeness relates to my scientific research and knowledge about the development of the human brain. My conclusion comes from a recent trip to Japan, and from a reminder of times past, the death of actress Barbara Billingsley, who died Oct. 16, 2010.

    Billingsley portrayed June Cleaver, the sympathetic and iconic, nurturing mother on the popular 1950s sitcom “Leave It to Beaver.” Remember her signature line? “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver.” She confided her concern earnestly to her husband whenever their young son seemed the slightest bit distressed. The latest scientific research backs up with detailed molecular and cellular mechanisms what June Cleaver (and we) always knew intuitively, that through adolescence, the human brain is molded by the social environment in which a child is reared. A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent.

    One can debate how accurately television entertainment reflects reality, but there is no doubt that it represents the ideals of the time. Commercial art and entertainment always reflect and reinforce a society’s values, as the public buy it (literally) because they value it. There is no doubt that American society has changed dramatically with respect to manners and social discourse in a generation. The “Leave It to Beaver” model of American polite society in the 1950s and early 1960s is gone. Those black-and-white sitcoms have been supplanted today by garish reality television programs that showcase domestic and social interactions driven by narcissism, factionalism, competition and selfishness.

    The contrast between the brash, comparatively disrespectful behavior of Americans today and the courtesy, formal manners, civil discourse, polite behavior and respect for others regardless of social status that is evident in Japanese society is striking. The contrast hits an American like a splash of cold water upon disembarking the airplane in Japan, because it clashes so starkly with our behavior. For an American, Japanese manners and courtesy must be experienced.

    American children today are raised in an environment that is far more hostile than the environment that nurtured today’s adults. Children today are exposed to behaviors, profane language, hostilities and stress from which we adults, raised a generation ago, were carefully shielded. When I was a boy, there were no metal detectors at the entrance to my school. The idea was inconceivable, and there was indeed no need for them. Not so today. I wonder: how does this different environment affect brain development?

    First it is helpful to consider, from a biological perspective, what “rudeness” is, so that we can consider what is lost when formal polite behaviors are cast away.

    People (and animals) living together in large numbers must develop strict formalized behaviors governing interactions between all individuals in the group, or there will be strife and chaos. In the natural world, as in the civilized world, it is stressful for individuals (people or animals) to interact with strangers, and also with other members of a working group and family members. As the size of the group increases, so do the number of interactions between individuals, thus raising the level of stress if not controlled by formal, stereotyped behavior, which in human society is called “manners.” The formal “Yes, Sir, Yes, Ma’am,” is not a showy embellishment in the military; strict respect and formal polite discourse are the hub of the wheel in any effective and cohesive social structure. True, many chafe under a system of behavior that is overly rigid, as do many young Japanese, but my point is that these polite and formalized behaviors reduce stress in a stressful situation that arises from being an individual in a complex society.

    Stress is a neurotoxin, especially during development of a child’s brain.

    Studies have shown that children exposed to serious psychological trauma during childhood are at risk of suffering increased psychiatric disorders, including depression, anger, hostility, drug abuse, suicidal ideation, loneliness and even psychosis as adults. Using modern brain imaging, the physical damage to these children’s brain development can be seen as clearly as a bone fracture on an X-ray. Early-childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse and witnessing domestic violence undermine the normal wiring of brain circuits, especially those circuits connecting the left and right sides of the brain through a massive bundle of connections called the corpus callosum. Impairment in integrating information between right and left hemispheres is associated with increased risk of craving, drug abuse and dependence, and a weakened ability to make moral judgments. (See my post “Of Two Minds on Morality” for new research on the corpus callosum and the ability to make moral judgments.)

    A series of studies by a group of psychiatrists and brain imaging scientists lead by Martin Teicher, of Harvard Medical School, shows that even hostile words in the form of verbal abuse can cause these brain changes and enduring psychiatric risks for young adults.

    In a study published in 2006, the researchers showed that parental verbal abuse was more strongly associated with these detrimental effects on brain development than was parental physical abuse. In a new study published in the July issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, they report that exposure to verbal abuse from peers is associated with elevated psychiatric symptoms and corpus callosum abnormalities. The main causes are stress hormones, changes in inhibitory neurotransmitters, and environmental experience affecting the formation of myelin electrical insulation on nerve fibers. The most sensitive period for verbal abuse from peers in impairing brain development was exposure during the middle school years. Why? Because this is the period of life when these connections are developing in the human brain, and wiring of the human brain is greatly influenced by environmental experience.

    Unlike the brains of most animals, which are cast at birth, the human brain develops largely after we are born. The brain of a human infant is so feeble that human babies are helpless. Human infants cannot walk, visual perception is rudimentary, and cognitive abilities, likes and dislikes, talents and skills, and the ability to communicate by speech or through reading and writing do not develop fully until the completion of adolescence.

    Our brains are the product of the environment in which we are nurtured through the first two decades of life. Whether you are Mormon or Muslim or speak Spanish or French depends primarily on where you were born and raised. Our experience during childhood and adolescence determines the wiring of our brain so powerfully that even processing of sensory information is determined by our childhood environment.

    Whether or not we can hear eight notes in a musical scale or 12, or whether we find symmetry in art beautiful or boring, or whether we can hear the difference in sound of the English letter “R” vs. “L”, depends entirely upon whether our brains wired up during childhood in Western culture or Asian culture. The neural circuitry underlying those sensory perceptions is directed by what we experienced in early life, and these circuits cannot be rewired easily in the adult brain.

    One can view the effects of environment on brain development with fatalism or with optimism. It is, however, the reason for human success on this planet. The fact that our brains develop after we are born rather than in the womb allows humans to adapt to changing environments. Biologically speaking, this increases the likelihood of success in reproducing in the environment we find ourselves rather than in the cave-man past coded through natural selection in our genes.

    There were many other sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s that portrayed politeness and manners as paramount in social and family interactions: “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed Show.” These are largely forgotten, but “Leave it to Beaver” thrived. It did so not as a commercial success for the ABC television network during its run from 1957 to 1963, but because of its enormous popularity in syndication, where it ran for decades in the late afternoon, watched with devotion by an audience of school children.”

  9. 12 maxsscoutservicesllc
    January 8, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    I, for one, miss the family comedies in black and white TV.
    Fortunately for me some episodes are replayed on the Nick at Night channel.
    Dan may agree with me that our Dad was more like Dr. Stone on the “Donna Reed Show” partly because our Mom ran the household sort of like Donna did.

    I have written two screenplays about a suburban convenience store that shed a humorous and ethical light on the sometime hectic fast-paced Silicon Valley life. If only I could find a couple Hollywood producers ;<(

    This research of Dr. Fields reinforces much of what Dan has been writing about for months. Education and family life shape our childrens' lives for TWO decades.

  10. May 20, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    Reblogged this on Max's Scout Services & Communications of the Americas WebBlog and commented:
    May 20th would be Dan’s 70th birthday.
    This photo is from a book called Tiffany’s Table Manners; I studied it as a young man.

    In my early 40s, I taught a workshop “Mr. Manners” for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders in the Menlo (Park) Lyceum.

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