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Manners from the Heart
This book is nothing if not a personal statement. You can hear my own voice clearly all the way through it -- sometimes full of enthusiasm and sounding like a cheerleader, sometimes showing complete disapproval (Don't go there, don't do that!) and at other times evincing a mixture of shock and acceptance of reality. (It doesn't mean you have to like it, it simply means you have to live with it, and then, for heaven's sake, move on!) In the present, we don't have time to challenge everything in behavior that seems to have gone wrong in the last half century, so we should pick our battles wisely and well. I first began to write about manners in my American embassy days in Paris and Rome, only as a sideline to my business. Then I took over Amy Vanderbilt's work in the 1970s after her death, and since then I have written a dozen books on etiquette and entertaining under my own name. In the decade since I wrote my Complete Guide to the New Manners, there have been manifold changes in people's lifestyles, marriage rituals, eating habits, language, entertaining concepts, work habits, child-raising, and sexual behavior.
I have combined advice and information for a person's private and business lives under the covers of this one book, because the two worlds so overlap today, it's difficult to separate them anymore. Even volunteer work today often requires management expertise with big budgets and regulatory issues. Today in books "less is more" from where I sit. At times it seems people in business do not have the time to read anything longer than a cartoon. What could easily be four books on the subject of etiquette must now be shrink-wrapped into one. Moses was lucky. His rules were written in stone. Our modern ones are more like skywriting. In my writing I have been obliged to rewrite some of the rules of manners that I had thought were inextricably woven into the fabric of our society, destined to lie there calmly and gracefully forever. I marvel at the way girls my age grew up, decades ago, accepting without contention our mothers' decisions on how to dress, how to wear our hair, and at times, it seemed, how to breathe. When my mother saw me dressed in a cotton dress, with bare legs and sandals on a ninety-nine-degree day, she would make me change and put on stockings, whether I was on my way to play in a piano recital or do an errand for her at the neighborhood grocery store. In public one was always properly dressed, or else one did not emerge.
And then there is the major revolution in how we communicate with one another, using the in-your-face products handed to us by the world leaders of technology. These products in turn spawn the need for other sets of rules governing the way people use their little gadgets that ring, buzz, and throb like agitated beehives, completely upsetting the peace and serenity of anyone within hearing distance. If Thomas Edison were alive today, he would be appalled at what has happened to his telephone -- and to the manners of the customers who use them.
Compassion is a wonderful thing, and the more I study the field of behavior from a sociological point of view, the more I realize that a society without compassion, even with all the right rules of behavior, is a dead one. It's very hard to live without structure, and manners are the best vehicle there is to provide us with it. They give us security, a feeling that if we do the right thing and avoid the wrong thing, everything will be all right. The trick is to know in advance what is the right thing, so you can avoid the other. Your heart will usually tell you which way to go, because remember, good manners (keep remembering there are bad manners, too) are soft and full of heart, not hardened with selfishness.
In New Manners my editor has allowed me to use my own way of talking as I write -- at times rather breezy and slangy. There are many new subjects introduced that have never before been treated in etiquette books, but the old traditional ones are given their proper place too, including advice on how to get married. (The traditionalists alas are being run over and squashed in the marketplace by a thundering herd of product sellers and so-called "wedding planners," who wouldn't recognize respect for the ritual and traditions if they saw them!)
But disapproval of another's choices is not allowable. People can get married any way they please. We are a great, vigorous, ambitious country, formed by people from every nation in the world, and untrammeled by our past. We are a miraculous mixture of many colors, races, religions, and values. Let's hope that our new young leaders will simply wander to the etiquette section of libraries and bookstores once in a while and take a good long, hard look. Of course, I must admit it's difficult to be wrestling with the subtleties of marriage customs, when at the same time there is a rising number of people proudly advocating for cohabitation without marriage. Our times are -- well -- screwy.
My book is new in that advice and information for a person's private and working lives are cojoined instead of being separated into two books. The two worlds overlap so thoroughly, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them these days, what with stay-at-home fathers, single mothers taking care of the children and bringing in the bread, more and more people working from their homes, and children growing up sometimes forced to cope with three or four sets of parents. Therefore, take your pick of the advice, anything from instructions on how to use a fork and knife (carefully, please) to suggestions for a nice way to celebrate a baby's birth or to respectfully mourn someone's passing. It's all about getting through life in the best and happiest way.
It's important to understand the difference between manners and etiquette: Etiquette is protocol, a set of behavior rules you can memorize like a map, which will guide you safely through life. Manners are much more, since they are an expression from the heart on how to treat others whether you care about them or not. Manners teach you how to value another's self-esteem and to protect that person's feelings. Etiquette consists of firm rules made by others who have come before, telling you to do this and do that on specific occasions. Etiquette means acting with grace and efficiency, very laudable in itself, but your manners are yours, yours to use in making order out of chaos, making people feel comfortable, and giving pleasure to others. Etiquette is at times stiff and starchy (watch an official receiving line if you want to see an example of it). Manners are taking aside a guest standing in that line who obviously is bewildered and doesn't know what to do, and whispering to that person how to proceed. "No, don't embrace the host. Shake her hand, state your name clearly with a big smile on your face, and tell her how delighted you are to meet her."
The primary purpose of any book on manners is to provide guidelines about the how, what, where, when, and why in the social graces. In arming yourself with this knowledge, you develop a sense of security. You're reassured that the way you're behaving is the right way. This is also a book about being happy, which is not a contradiction in terms, because when you're nice to someone else (even just a stranger on the telephone), that someone else is nice back to you, and suddenly two people feel good about themselves and each other, and spread their good feelings. And that's what happiness is.
Times are tough. And yet, there's great energy out there -- a great capacity for good everywhere that human beings are. It's in the air. We just have to act positively, seize the initiative, and hold on tight. If we open our eyes wide and remove their fixation on a screen so we can see reality, not images around us, if we remove our cell phones so we can hear the world around us, and if we look and talk to one another, we'll find that energy. We'll be able to channel it toward the solution of human problems. We'll be nice to one another, even when we don't feel like it. We'll start getting along well, even with strangers, even when we're being given the runaround in a crowded store or even when someone who doesn't like the way we drive is honking and hurling strong epithets at us. (Instead of giving that person the finger in return, we just might concentrate on being a better driver and hope that the other driver's obviously traumatized life eases up, and that he hasn't sprained that overused finger.)
If we channel the energy that's in the air, negatives can be willed into positives, and we can all move toward a solution of today's common problems. My definition of a really admired person -- someone who has real class -- is a person who has only one kind of manners: the caring kind. I remember hearing the late Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce (at that time my boss at our embassy in Rome, but at all times my role model and mentor) answer a reporter who had asked for a definition of "a really classy person." The reporter's notebook and pen were poised for a typically long Luce dissertation. "A person with class is someone you want to be around -- all the time," she answered simply.
The reporter paused and finally asked, "That's it?"
"There's no need for anything more," she replied.
Today's real manners, the kind that describe someone others want to be around, are those that:
* Make you pick up a piece of litter someone left on your neighbor's sidewalk -- or on anyone's sidewalk, for that matter.
* Cause you to rush to a friend's house to see what you can do when you hear a member of that person's family is in trouble.
* Inspire you to go up to the hired waitress at your dinner party who has just dropped a large platter of sliced veal all over the floor in front of your guests, to help her clean up the mess, and then to pat her arm and tell her to forget about it -- " It doesn't matter at all."
* Make you realize that it's not worthwhile wondering who should go through the revolving door first, but it is worthwhile rushing to help an elderly or disabled stranger through the revolving door.
* Help you notice some tiny garnet roses in a shop window, so you buy a small bouquet of them to bring home to your spouse or your significant other or maybe to a child.
* Motivate you to jump into a conversational lull when someone has just said something embarrassing, thus restarting everyone's conversation so that the one who made the gaffe can pull himself together again.
* Cause you to discover, when your longtime laundryman delivers the shirts, that it's the man's twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, so you give him the bottle of champagne you were saving in the fridge for your own special occasion.
* Have you bring an entire supper over to a family on their moving day.
* Remind you that a friend's car is being repaired, and the person desperately needs it today, so you lend yours.
* Make you rip an article out of one of your magazines, to send to a friend or colleague who would be greatly interested in it.
* Motivate you to leave a big bunch of balloons in the office of a friend who has something to cheer about.
* Cause you to buy a special-interest self-help book for a young person who is just starting a job in that field.
* Remind you to buy some concert tickets as a gift and arrange transportation for a lonely elderly friend whose great love is music.
Today that person who's so nice to be around, as Clare Luce put it, is not the Mr. Billionaire-Business-Whiz kid who yells obscenities at his driver when he makes a mistake, or the Mrs. Nouveau-Riche who screams at her maid when she can't find her pantyhose.
That person who's so nice to be around:
* Is a consummate host.
* Is a consummate guest.
* Has good table manners.
* Has a pleasant, well-modulated voice, uses good grammar, and has a graceful vocabulary.
* Is someone who returns others' hospitality, gifts, dinner invitations, and kindnesses in a grateful, generous manner.
* Is a good communicator -- someone who makes telephone calls, sends e-mails, and writes letters, who is in touch with people, instead of expecting everyone else to communicate with her.
* Seeks out the wallflower at a social event and brings that person into the group.
* Is a person who rises to defend anyone who is being unfairly criticized.
* Is a conveyor of good, not bad, news.
* Is adept at making introductions and being introduced, saying hello or good-bye -- and makes everyone feel good while it's happening.
The crux of everything said above, and of everything in this book, of course, is the home. Home is where it all starts -- manners, good character, values, ethics, social conscience. Home is where a child witnesses and can absorb the good example of caring parents or relatives. Home is where comfort and support can be found, where one person automatically makes an effort to help other members of the family and, in turn, is helped himself. Talk about success -- a happy home is what real success is about, the proof positive of thinking about other people, of having their comfort and their happiness in mind. Home is where the discipline is, too -- that wonderful magical chisel that sculpts the child into a beautiful work of art -- a nice, in-control human being. Home is where the small child learns not just from parents but from grandparents, too, so that the child will be a shining mirror image of the best of both generations.
But wait a minute. Isn't this picture unrealistically rosy for these times? Where are all the homes today in which the small child grows up in the constant company of both parents and grandparents? Isn't Mom off working? Are the parents divorced? Is there a confusion of stepparents and stepchildren around? Is the television going all the time so that no one has to talk -- either about her own problems or someone else's? Are the family teenagers off on their own, out of the home, doing their own thing most of the time? Isn't anyone who happens to be home likely to be standing around the fridge or the microwave, eating with his fingers, while the nurturing dining table -- the seat of conversation, manners, and the learning of human skills -- stands there empty, unused, except as a storage surface?
And how about the delicious interchange of generations that used to be grouped around the dining table? Is the surviving grandparent in a retirement home? Is everyone too tired at night to sit down and just talk to one another? Where is the humanity in all this?
I believe in fighting. Since the development and polishing of manners is not a one-shot operation but a continuous process that begins no place else but home, I think we can fight to put the home back in all of us again. And if we don't have children, then we can spend a lot of time with someone else's, who are perhaps neglected in this early training of manners, morals, ethics, and values. How about inviting a niece, nephew, grandchild, or godchild over for dinner? Every time you throw in a little lesson on how to act, making it fun and following it up with a favorite food, that child is going to love you and learn from you.
First the youngster may learn what not to do. ("Don't scream while at the table, and for heaven's sake, take your fingers out of the salad plate!") Next, the child learns how to do the nice thing -- a big step up, by the way, from simply knowing not to do something wrong. (Suddenly you'll hear your child say, "Can I bring this present to Suzy's house, Mommy? I think she'd like it. Teacher says she's sick and feels really bad.") Then you'll see the proof that your child has a heart, and you can pat yourself on the back. This is how manners are gradually built into a young person's character. This is how a beautiful human being is formed -- one who will walk through life automatically reacting in a "you-they" way, instead of an "I-me" way.
Growing children aren't the only ones who need others to care about them. We all do. In a fast-moving, high-pressure age, the need to be happy is universal. Late in the 1970s, I completely revised The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette, the first of a series of books on manners. It addressed problems created by the social confusion of the sixties, a decade in which we survived the antiestablishment youth rebellion, the shock of women leaving home and going to work, and the blurring in definition of men's and women's roles. In the 1980s, I wrote my New Complete Guide to Executive Manners, to help that increasing population of families who spend most of their time at work to feel more secure in their relationships in that environment. I followed that book with my New Complete Guide to a Great Social Life, because so many young people in the workplace -- and other singles, too -- complained to me that they really didn't have a social life in this busy world. Then came More Than Manners! on the subject of instilling character in children. With each book addressing these human concerns, I have found people increasingly thirsty for knowledge about what to do and when to do it, and for information on how to show their awareness of other people's feelings.
In 1923, Emily Post wrote the first really comprehensive book telling Americans how to behave. Her readers -- middle- and upper-middle-class people -- listened and learned, eager to move up another notch in their own social stratum. This was long before such terms as "diversity" "multicultural," "tolerance," and a "celebration of differences" were integrated into our vocabulary.
Some of us are still trying to rise to the next social level, enabled by a goodly supply of money and natural good manners. Many more of us are curious about the meaning of all this society-protocol-etiquette business. What does "the right thing" mean in any given situation, and just what is "proper behavior" in trying situations that no one has ever had to face before? We are a charge-ahead democratic society, perplexed by the new challenges. We'll get there. We just need to self-educate ourselves more. And observe. And listen. And read. And while we're doing all that, we will have learned how to cope.
Probably most of us would like to be thought of by others as moving through the world with grace and ease -- no simple skill. There is no one-week, easy cram course for it. One of the great things about growing older -- into your forties, fifties, sixties, and onward -- is that the longer you live, the more you know about how to handle yourself, what to do and when to do it. Unfortunately, you can't call up answers to social problems with a flick of a key and a glance at the monitor screen. They're never that simple.
It's a question of learning and using the proper mix of information and consideration -- whether you're tipping someone, coping with your grandmother when she comes to live with you or with an adult child who won't leave the nest, dealing with the plumber or a member of the board of directors, or talking to your boss as you're waiting together in an airport for three hours. By the time you have an instinctive feel for what to do in all these situations, you could write this book -- and I'd be the first to read it!
If you believe that the definition of happiness is having good relationships, and if you believe that good manners are essential to that feeling, then you must also believe that one natural result of a person's good manners is that individual's state of happiness.
Good relationships don't just happen in the everyday course of events. They are the result of someone's hard work and caring. They are constantly, dynamically changing, being refined and fine-tuned. We can't escape a constant interaction with people (unless we choose to live as hermits). We interact all day long with family members, friends, and just plain people -- the people at our place of work, in the gas station, on the bus, at our house of worship. We react to the toll-road ticket taker, the doctor, barber, manicurist, and to the people who deliver our packages, collect our garbage, and read our utility meters. They are, each and every one, individuals worthy of respect and consideration; when they behave as if they are not and are beastly to us, we must find a way to control our anger, so that we do not take it out on another human being. (When I am unjustly treated in a nasty manner, I immediately imagine myself sticking many pins into a pin cushion, and in my mind that takes care of the person who did me wrong. I recommend you find your own avenue of harmless revenge.)
When we graduate from the self-obsessed "I-I-Me-Me" school of philosophy into a life of caring about other people, we begin to react automatically to those other people, whether they are close friends or not. We react in a uniform, decent, and considerate manner. It's not something we stop to think about. We just do it.
Copyright 2003 by Letitia Baldrige
Excerpted from Letitia Baldrige's New Manners for New Times by Letitia Baldrige Copyright © 2003 by Letitia Baldrige.
Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 20, 2011
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