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Well Intended / Good manners at the table -- and beyond

Published 6:04 am, Thursday, January 30, 2014
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Most evenings, we eat our dinner at the kitchen counter. For half an hour, we turn off our computers and the television and put our phones away and try to enjoy a pleasant meal together. Across steaming plates, we share a break in the day. It's our chance to catch up and to check in.

While I would like to say we use this time to discuss the events of our lives, our thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, if I am honest, I'll admit that most of our conversation revolves around simple table manners. "You have a napkin," it begins, and then, "Take small bites." Finally, "Use a fork!" It's exasperating. And sometimes repulsive.

I don't want you to think that I am raising savages. Both of my kids open doors for strangers. They say please and thank you (while I'm in earshot). When cajoled, they compose thank you notes. Relatives tell me that they are gracious when they visit. But, some meal-times, I honestly just try not to look at them.

When I was a girl, the same year I was enrolled in cotillion and practiced a wobbly box step while standing as far from my best friend's brother as I could (thankful for my white gloves that kept our hands from actually touching), my parents enlisted me in Molly Thompson's Junior Misstique Charm School. On Wednesday evenings, my mother dropped me off at the Boston department store where Ms. Thompson instructed a dozen girls in the rituals of civility.

She lined up chairs and we practiced getting in and out of the back seat of a car, first swing out your legs (always together), then stand. We sat with our feet crossed at the ankles so that no one could see our panties. We learned how to make introductions and how to navigate a plethora of shining silverware at a dinner party. She taught us the best way to get out of an uncomfortable conversation and methods for improving posture. She told us what we should and should not ever do. Do not touch-up lipstick at the dinner table; that is what powder rooms are for. Never chew gum in public; you will look like a cow. Always send a personal note after a dinner party. Never take a bite of your food until the hostess does. Don't whisper. Always show your appreciation to your hostess with a well-chosen gift.

Perhaps I was sent to Ms. Thompson because my own manners were desperately lacking. Maybe at the age of 13 or 14, my parents couldn't stand to sit across the kitchen table from me one more day and something had to be done. I am afraid to ask. Or maybe in those days, my parents saw having good manners as a key to a comfortable future. I recall my mother saying to me, "Use your first lady manners," as if by using the right fork and saying please and thank you, I might make my way into the white house. (In those days, no one considered that a woman might be elected into office.)

Clearly, the standards of good manners have relaxed a bit over the years. I can't think of the last time I saw a fish fork or a finger-bowl. (Maybe I just don't get out enough.) I don't even own a slip anymore. Email has replaced most hand-written letters.

I have always heard that good manners shouldn't draw attention to themselves. I imagine the same goes for bad manners. Good manners should emphasize courtesy. We should strive to show consideration for others in order to put them at ease. Our days are so much more pleasant when we open doors for each other.

While the world may be changing towards a less-structured society, some things remain the same. Never chew with your mouth open. Always greet everyone who comes into a room. Look people in the eye when you shake hands. And, I do wish Ms. Thompson was around to give my children a quick refresher on the basics of polite table-manners.

Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: kristarichardsmann@gmail.com.