HOLLENBECK: Life was sweeter when old-fashioned manners mattered
Did you ever wonder what happened to old-fashioned manners? Lots of times I find myself wishing for a revival of the little niceties that used to be commonplace but are rapidly disappearing from modern society.
The same could be said for language today. Crude words that I still can’t utter have become commonplace. Some in particular would have sent my mother into a frenzy if I had dared use them in earlier days.
However, today’s young people use words that I find demeaning to them. Unfortunately, they hear them spoken casually in just about every facet of society. I think initially the entertainment industry was a big contributor, but the trickle-down effect has shoved these expressions into other areas.
I often correct my grandchildren for using expressions I find offensive, but I can’t tackle the world.
Back to manners per se.
Attention to this topic came to mind recently when we were going through a stack of old books at the house and my spouse came across a 1921 publication titled “Manners and Conduct In School and Out.”
This charming book begins with a foreword written by the dean of girls at Chicago High Schools: “Politeness is to do and say the kindest thing in the kindest way.” This is followed by the comment that “we earnestly hope this little book may help girls and boys to become happier, more agreeable and more effective citizens.”
Most people probably would agree that there couldn’t be a loftier goal. We do want our children to become happy, agreeable, effective citizens of society. But actually teaching manners in school? Teachers nowadays are given so many responsibilities that any semblance of imparting etiquette would have to be a fleeting thing, if at all.
This little book touched my heart, particularly with its first-page greeting, a quote from Emerson: “Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy.”
A lady is defined as “a girl or woman who keeps herself physically fit, her thinking on a high plane, and her manners gentle and winsome.”
And a gentleman, the book states, is “a fine, athletic, manly fellow who is an all all-round good sport in the best sense, and who has manners that do not prevent other people from seeing how fine he is.”
Maxims for conduct are listed according to venue. For instance, in the manners for the street section, it states:
• If you are well brought up, girls, you will not loiter on the street to talk to one another; much less to boys. Street visiting is taboo.
• Boys, a gentleman does not detain on street corners a girl or woman friend. If he meets one with whom he wishes to speak more than a moment, he asks permission to walk a little way with her. During the moment that he does detain her, a gentleman talks with his hat in his hand.
There’s a section on spitting, which got my attention right away.
• To spit on the street or sidewalk is likely to endanger the health of others, and to make you seem vulgar and horrid. Use your handkerchief. (Just for the record, how many men do you see nowadays who still carry handkerchiefs? My husband is one who does, but I think he’s in a gnat-sized minority. But I don’t think he’d be spitting on the street anyway.)
Then there’s a section for streetcar etiquette. We obviously don’t need that one so much, but I found it interesting. It says:
• Avoid rushing ahead of others to secure a seat ... or to secure any other special advantage. Someone must be last; why not you?
• In a streetcar, boys, you should touch your hat politely and offer your seat to a woman, a girl or an elderly man who is standing. Your courtesy should be accepted with a bow and “thank you.”
• Girls, if a seat is offered you, accept it at once with “thank you.” Don’t explain that you don’t mind standing.
• The chewing of gum in a streetcar, in church or in any other place outside of your own private room stamps you at once as “common.” (Hooray for that one! I’ve always thought of a cow chewing her cud when I see someone chewing gum, particularly in the workplace. And in a public ceremony? For shame!)
In the “manners for school corridors” section, it states:
• Boys, hats off on entering the building; don’t put them on again before you are at the outer door ready to leave.
• Hold a door open for a girl or an older person to precede you in passing through; then glance over your shoulder to prevent the door from swinging back into the face of any person who may be following.
• In order to appear to the best advantage, keep your hands out of your pockets. (My mother always included this admonition in her sermonettes.)
Classroom manners included the following tip:
• When sitting, push back as far as you can in the chair and lean forward from your hips, keeping your spine straight, not curved. The way you sit or walk or stand shows culture or a lack of it.
The lunchroom etiquette section states:
• Eat slowly and noiselessly; don’t “feed.” Avoid talking when your mouth is full. Take a small mouthful, so that you may talk without giving offense. Keep your lips closed when chewing. Never use your knife to carry food to your mouth.
• Keep elbows and wraps off the lunchroom tables; furthermore, do not sit on the tables. (Trying that last one would probably get you sent to the principal’s office or worse.)
The “duty to yourself” section, which begins with the Shakespearean “to thine own self be true” quote, states:
• Take a complete bath at least three times a week. (During the dog days of summer in Arkansas, I’d suggest modifying that to three times a day.)
• Whenever you are curious about the wonderful experience which we call “birth,” think of it reverently, and go at once for information to your father or mother; if you lack these, go to some high-minded friend much older than you. Otherwise, enclose a stamped envelope addressed to yourself in a letter to the YMCA or the YWCA or the FBI, Washington, D.C., asking the title of the best book for a boy or a girl of your age about the beginnings of life.
Wonder what would happen if someone dared submit that kind of request today to the FBI ...
Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of the Courier.