How (or how not) to do things.

December 2, 2019

For 4,000 years, humans have implored one another to mind their manners. Like most rules, manners are written from social heights. Many decrees for how (or how not) to do things — to use snail tongs and fish knives – seem built to keep interlopers out. Some standards change, like passwords, as soon as they’re no longer secret. Forks had to be switched from left to right hand, until everyone was doing it, and then they had to be held fast in the left one. Hands must be on the table . . . or must be off. Asparagus is finger food until it is fork food. Many of the guidelines are anodyne; but any populist would be justified, scanning the lot, in seeing a system for social segregation, and declaring that none of it matters.

And yet: throughout history, there have also been good rules, important reminders of things we often forget. The very first book of manners, a papyrus around 2350 B.C., included the sound guidances to wait to be served by your host and to resist staring. In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, there is “Eat as it becometh a man, those things which are set before thee; and devour not, lest thou be hated.” Erasmus says not to lick your fingers, but use a napkin, and to give up your seat to an elder. Brunetto Latini, whom Dante learned from and then satirized, wrote in his poem “Tesoretto” that good manners should always be there, even when no one else is.

In the democratic present, perhaps the way to distinguish useful etiquette from frippery is to discern which rules help us be good rather than seem good.


Serving others first is plainly charitable. Filling companions’ glasses, waiting to eat, giving another the last of the stew, chewing with a closed mouth — each is a basic acknowledgment of togetherness. Perhaps the consequential lesson in the matter of holding your fork, etc., is that customs differ at different tables in different lands and that there is a certain intelligence in doing as is done. In other words, whatever unites merits keeping, and what divides can be folded and stored away with the linen too old and ornamental to use.

The legendary lesson that Miss Manners recounts about Queen Victoria is one to remember when at a state dinner, the queen lifted up her finger bowl and drank from it: “She had to. Her guest of honour, the Shah of Persia, had done it first.” The story is told elsewhere with different aristocratic protagonists. The message is the same. True courtesy will instinctively check faddish manners at the door in the interest of kindness — which is the root from which the entire family tree of courteous behaviour, from the noble Egyptian’s papyrus on, has sprung.

Etiquette without manners is meaningless.

The hostess who greets you with a booming “you’re 45 minutes late!” but then rallies with an Oscar-worthy round of introductions scores zero for manners, completely wiping out the marks she got for etiquette. How much better everyone would feel if she just said: “Darling, how lovely to see you. Don’t you look gorgeous?” and proceeded with introductions. Beautiful manners are the knack of making everyone feel loved, honoured and interesting.


Manners help teach tolerance, empathy and appropriate boundaries. Instilling them early, experts say, gives children a ‘superpower.’

When we were growing up, we couldn’t leave the dinner table without asking our parents’ permission. We would never have dreamed of addressing our friend’s mother as “Diane” — it was “Mrs. Cadwallader” then and now. It’s no secret that we live in a more informal age. Families eat on the go at kitchen islands, kids call teachers and doctors by their first names and the use of “please” and “thank you” often seems optional. Rather than answering landline phones, today’s tech-savvy young children bark commands at Amazon’s virtual assistant, Siri.

Is there a baseline of good manners that children these days should be expected to practice? Of course, notions of politeness can vary wildly between cultures — but using manners is still important, says New York City psychologist Melissa Robinson-Brown, Ph.D., and should not be taught to young children merely because they’re rules to be followed. “Manners communicate that you respect another person and acknowledge that the person has feelings, and they can be impacted by your behaviour,” she said. “Young children understand way more than we think.”

And research shows that learning manners at an early age can bring long-term benefits. A 20-year study published in 2015 in the American Journal of Public Health found a strong association between kids’ social skills in kindergarten and their success and wellbeing in adulthood. It’s not just about landing a good job later in life. Parents who praise their kids for showing sympathy and courtesy and who regularly talk to them about imagining how others feel are laying the foundation for empathy to blossom, said Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “They’re life skills that help so much with our social and emotional I.Q. — things like recognising social cues and developing good listening skills,” she said.

Research has found that kids as young as 14 months will show “empathic concern” for others. “We’re a very cooperative species,” said Susan Gelman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Michigan. “And we know that even babies engage in turn-taking — they wait for the other person to stop, and then they’ll vocalise, and then they’ll stop.”


For starters, all verbal kids up to the age of 6 should be able to say “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome,” said Elaine Swann, a Los Angeles-based etiquette expert who runs manners classes for children at The Swann School of Protocol. From toddlerhood on, kids can master a simple handshake; know the difference between “inside” and “outside” voices; and be taught to wait for a break in adults’ discussions before interrupting, “rather than just butting in with an ‘excuse me’ and expecting that to be the magic phrase to stop all conversation,” said Swann.

And when kids are addressing grownups, said Daniel Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute, they should at least try to make eye contact — which he knows can be tough for some children. “You can teach kids to look at the bridge of someone’s nose,” he suggested. “It gives them something specific to do in that moment.”

Swann tells kids that if an adult asks a question, they should try to hold that person’s gaze when they give an answer. “I’ll say, ‘If someone asks how old you are, look at them when you say “5,” and then you can look away,’ ” she said. And even the youngest children can have a hand in thank you notes, said Senning. “If your child is very young, involve them by writing a note as they sit with you,” he suggested. “At the end, they can scrawl their name or include a drawing.” And the ability to acknowledge a mistake with “I’m sorry” is also important, Senning said.

“Everyone thinks of manners as exemplary behaviour, but how we conduct ourselves when things aren’t going well is a bigger test of our people skills.”

Maybe modern-day manners are not as formal as in generations past, but in some ways, they’ve improved — they’re less about what fork to use and more about tolerance and respect for others’ differences. And anyone whose child has undertaken an elementary school “cool to be kind” initiative knows that being kind is a very 21st-century value.

“The way we teach kids under 6 to be considerate is to say that we don’t do, or say, anything to other people that’s going to make them … mad, sad or embarrassed,” Swann said. “We ask a lot of ‘what if’ questions, like ‘If you did this, how do you think that would make someone else feel?’ ” There is also a welcome emphasis on boundaries: Often, kids are no longer expected to hug someone just because they’re asked. This, too, is a positive development, Dr. Brown said: “Otherwise, in some cases, it can set kids up to believe that if adults, especially family, ever make them feel uncomfortable, then the child just has to tolerate that.”

“There could be a variety of reasons why your child doesn’t want to kiss Uncle Jimmy,” Dr. Trachtenberg noted. “Some kids are just very shy, and if you force them, they recoil more, because they haven’t warmed up to the person yet.” Ultimately, all the experts agreed that teaching your child manners isn’t enough — that parents need to model what they teach. You can’t jabber on the phone while tossing a credit card at the shop assistant and then expect your child to be courteous. As Senning said, “Be the kind of person that you want your kids to be.” If you do, the payoff is huge, Swann said. “I tell kids, ‘People will respond to you very favourably when you are polite,’ ” she said. “Doors will open to you, and you’ll get more of what you want. Think of it as a superpower.”


True politeness and manners mean being easy in your own skin and making everyone else easy in theirs. It really equates to simple kindness and consideration. The secret is to treat everyone with the same courtesy.

There is no first or economy class when it comes to manners.

They are important every time two or more people are together. They show you are aware of other people’s comfort, that you know how to pay attention and show tact. Just by doing the right thing- reaching and passing at the table, or knowing when and how to ask permission- you make a person understand how much you value their presence. It’s subtle but important.

Doing things like answering the phone when you are with someone, glancing at the clock, or talking only about work isn’t just thoughtless, it tells the world you are self-centered. Knowing how to give a compliment, or tell people when they have been sweet, great or clever, shows your kind and sophisticated. Think Hugh Grant or Rupert Everett in one of their upper-crust roles -considerate, sincere, self-deprecating, amusing.

Compliment people. Find something you admire and say so. Manners are the kindness we give without sarcasm, judgment or expectation.

Be observant and modify your manners to each connection you make. You have to learn as you go. It quickly becomes easy. When you are with someone with great manners. You will never want to leave their side.

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