Minding our manners — now and throughout history

Laurie Snider
Notes from the Nest

For nearly two years now, each week I’ve sat at my keyboard pounding out my thoughts, personal stories, newsy items, tidbits about this and that and interesting information on a variety of topics I’ve managed to dig up.

As followers of my column may be aware my former career was as a registered nurse. Real life however sometimes gets in the way of our best laid plains and that career was sidelined by illness. I’m a firm believer in the adage, “when one door shuts, another one opens,” and my second career as a creative person, author, playwright and now weekly columnist was born.

While mulling over ideas for a column, I developed a few loose guidelines for myself. Firstly, I wanted it to be based on personal experiences and everyday ordinary life. Secondly, my wish was to use it as a means for growth and learning; my own and hopefully that of my readers as well.

When questions of interest or people, places, things I was unfamiliar with came up, I decided to make it my business to make new discoveries, expand my horizons, engage in new experiences and share these with a hopefully refreshing, perhaps even entertaining approach. Finally, my hope has been to achieve these goals without igniting controversy, confrontation or condescension.

Many educated, talented, compelling journalists, including at this paper, are already covering the heavier subjects. I tip my hat to all of them as they navigate the stormy waters of anger, animosity and frequent rude behaviour that seems to go along with the territory. My objective has been to contrast the hard news of the day with lighter, intriguing and good-natured tales presented in a courteous manner. Mom always said, “Mind your manners,” and that’s always in the back of my mind as I compose.

As far back as the 25th Century, Ptahhotep, an Egyptian vizier (the highest official to serve the Pharaoh), wrote maxims lauding such virtues as truthfulness, self-control and being kind to your fellow man. Chinese, philosopher Confucius’s thoughts emphasized morality, correctness, justice and serenity.  During the         Renaissance Italian courtier, Count Castiglione, authored a book dealing with proper etiquette and morality.

Dutch, Christian humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam even had ‘sound’ advice for you, if you happened to find yourself in a room full of company with the need to break wind.

“If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound.” Hmm! Next time you find yourself in a room full of coughing individuals, perhaps you should be suspicious.

During the mid 1700s the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was the first to use the word etiquette in its modern form. Conceivably, he was a bit serious in his efforts though. In his book, he is a fan of smiling but definitely frowned on laughing saying, “Audible laughter is the manner in which the mob express silly joy at silly things. There is nothing so illiberal and ill-bred as audible laughter.” Well then!

During the Victorian era things were elevated even further, to a highly complicated series of rules governing all aspects of behaviour from dress codes, courting, writing letters, the order in which guests should walk into the dining room, to that most important of topics, just which fork do you use for what.

There is also great variability among different cultures. If you were to eat standing upright with the Hausa of Africa, they would be highly offended, likening it to eating with the devil. In China you will dishonour your hosts if you don’t leave some food on your plate. Alternatively, in North America doing the same thing may in fact insult the cook.

The practice of saying, “Bless you,” after someone sneezes originated in the 6th Century, when Pope Gregory 1 commanded an immediate blessing following an “Achoo” for fear that the offending sneezer had the plague.  A popular theory about why we shake hands as a greeting was, that it was a means of establishing that neither party was bearing arms. And elbows off the table was born of necessity during medieval times, when tables were especially crowded, so you wouldn’t invade your neighbours’ space.

In modern times, Emily Post born in 1872, has become synonymous with good manners and deportment. She began her writing career as a novelist but found fame sharing her knowledge in her advice column, which appeared in over 200 papers. Although much of her advice is now dated, she does offer one particular gem of wisdom I find more than worthy of emulating. “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” You’re quite right Mrs. Post.

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