Friday, April 25, 2008

A Mini Rant about Manners

I've been thinking about this for a while. After reading a Garrison Keillor column about the lack of manners in today's society (Yeah, let's hear it for manner lessons preached with humor!), I decided to list my own personal peeves. Sounding peckish here (a lot of "p" words, hmmm...), probably because I'm not sleeping. Always happens when a story grabs me by the brain cells and won't let go. Enough of me. Back to the manners thing.

One of my favorites is the cute young thing who insists on calling me by my first name. She could be a receptionist in the dentist's office, the insurance agent's front desk person, or the cashier at the bank. Young enough to be trainable, I hope. "We can see you at 11 a.m., Tracy. Dr. Goodteeth just had a cancellation." Now, if my tooth hadn't just cracked in half, I'd set her straight. Rusty (Dr. Goodteeth) and I have been together for twenty odd years now, and I don't care if he calls me Tracy. But this twenty-year-old chit of a girl needs to address me as a young whippersnapper should address her elders. In the South, "Miz Tracy," is just fine. "Mrs. Dunham" is more correct, but I'll let that slip. Even, "Ma'am, the doctor can see you..." works in the South.

I have been known, much to the chagrin of my spawn, to correct said young whippersnappers. In a kindly manner, much as a grandmother would use. "Sweetie, I'm old enough to have changed your diapers. In these parts, unless I did change your britches, you may address me as 'Mrs. Dunham.' If I did change your panties, and I'd remember if I had, you are permitted to call me 'Miss Tracy.' " My children, of course, are crawling into a hole in the ground. Believe me, they know better. They address their elders with proper respect, or they'll hear from mama.

My husband, I must preface this rant, is a very good man. A man of inherent good manners and much grace, including infinite kindness. He'll stop to pick up strangers on the street who are gesturing desperately for a ride. He offers jobs to those people standing in the median strip with signs saying "Homeless. Hungry." And he buys them lunch if they are willing to work for a him. (Only one man ever took him up on his offer.) But, as a native of Chicago, he didn't learn to say "Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am." I knew this when I married him. Along with his hatred of fresh tomatoes (sigh), it's his only failing. I was, however prepared. Our family repeated the following iconic story often.

My mother, during her childhood pre-WW II, lived for a year in a Chicago suburb. Her parents, being proper Southerners, taught her to say "yes, ma'am," etc., when addressing her elders. One day, her teacher sent home a note from school saying "Judith must cease speaking like a servant when she talks to me. "Ma'am" is a sign of servitude and inferiority."

My grandmother's wrath and outrage would have been a sight to behold. Wish I could have seen it. As the story was repeated quite often to describe the loutishness of Yankees, I grew accustomed to its moral. Yankees don't know diddly about good manners and the proper graces. Other Yankee peculiarities came to the fore in other stories. Being invited to dinner, then told to bring a "covered dish" of a certain type. Who invites guests to dinner then insists they feed themselves? Only Yankees. I could go on, but you get my drift. There's a social divide that has nothing to do with geography. It's all about manners.

When someone provides a service and one thanks that person, the common response today is "no problem." I want to stomp my foot and ask what happened to "you're welcome." Or even, as was once common in the South, "my pleasure." Yet today the South is slipping into the maw of a mannerless morass. I fear it's the fault of all those Yankees who've moved down here and bought their newMcMansions and expect to fit into society because they drive Beemers. I wish someone would tell them it's not going to happen. "Society" in the South is still ruled with the iron fist in the white glove by ladies who may not have two nickels to their names, but their grandmother's pearls are heirlooms still worn today, their sterling came down through the family for generations, and they were educated at Miss Jennie's, as were their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. And Miss Jennie's doesn't accept girls without the proper pedigree and impeccable manners.

Manners will get you places, my mama and grandmothers always preached. I still think they're right.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Geesh, Tracy. I hate to admit to being a Yankee. But I am. But I was brought up to use Ma'am and to say please and thank you. So not all Yankee's are as you describe. Maybe it's the era they were raised in?
Char

Tracy said...

Maybe you're right, Char, about eras. But I still say there're regional differences - or maybe where in the North you're raised. It's still more common now in the South to teach children to teach children to speak to their elders with proper respect, don't you think? Or is it a city v. rural distinction?

Anonymous said...

I was raised in upstate New York. Ever heard the expression Half-horse town? Well we didn't even have half a horse. LOL We lived on an onion farm. Maybe that has something to do with it; I wasn't raised in a city. But I think one problem with today's youth is the fact they have to worry about not getting shot more than saying please and thank you. I just wouldn't want to be a kid in today's world.
Char