In a Manner of Speaking

"Shame on you!" my friend reprimanded her daughter at a kid's soccer game recently. "Walk behind people's chairs, not in front of them." WHUH? Once again, I discovered that I have bad manners. I've been to dozens upon dozens of soccer games in the last 13 years, and it never once occurred to me that I would obstruct parents' views by strolling by as they as they cheer on their goalies and defenders. It's common sense, right? Not to me.

Although my parents are no wild animals -- they seem to have the basic laws of etiquette mastered -- I seem to have been raised without a clue. So when my son R didn't say thank you to friend's father for giving him a ride to party (see All Manner of Bad Manners), I was disturbed, but not as much as my peers would have been. This is par for the Rona Gindin course.


I clearly remember my first indication that I'm a social retard. At 4 years old, I was eating dinner at a neighbor's house."Rona!" her mother scolded. "Chew with our mouth closed!" WHUH? I asked her to explain and learned that it's proper to keep your lips closed while chewing. At home the next evening, I caught my father with a glob showing and shared my newfound knowledge. "Gina's mother is right, you should chew with your mouth closed," my mother explained. "We're too old to start now, but you're not." And so I never really tried.


Fast forward six years. I was 10, eating my lunch at a picnic table at the South Shore YMCA, when my counselors began laughing. Hysterically. "Look at how she holds her fork!" they guffawed. "It's like she's using as shovel!" WHUH? Somehow, my folks never noticed that since I began using utensils I'd never positioned them correctly in my hand. I grabbed the stem with my fist, overhand, and got to work.


I was no better at conversation. At 13, a friend saw a grown-up she knew. "How are you, Bonnie," the woman asked."Fine, and you?" Bonnie responded. WHUH? That's what you're supposed to say? I had never once uttered more than "Good" in that situation. How do people know these things?


I corrected each etiquette error as I learned it without much ado. Once I began attending business meals, however, I noticed what a dining dunce I am. Turns out there are rules for where to put your napkin when you leave the table, how to butter your roll, which spoon to use first if more than one is set on the table. WHUH?


Knowing I'm at a disadvantage, you'd think I'd have insisted on my sons following proper protocol from age 2. I meant to. I get tired, though, and worn out from bigger battles, and now they're teenagers with the table manners of baboons. The 17-year-old has begun figuring out what counts as decent behavior himself. Here's to hoping the younger one takes on the burden of caring at some point too. Just as I'm about to brush a hand away for picking at the family-style platter with two fingers, I'll realize I just plunked a piece of food in my mouth the same way. Feet on the chair? Oops, look at mine. You get the idea.


It's a blessing to me that Americans have gotten more lax about manners in general; I'd be screwed otherwise, and so would my boys. But to some degree it's important to use decent behavior in society.


Where's the line? I think we can all agree that "please" and "thank you" are essentials, and that it's offensive to see the food in people's mouths. But a guy standing every time a gal does at the table? Placing a knife just so on the plate between bites? What manners are essential, and which are optional? Where do you draw the line? I'm certain you draw it farther to the right than I do, but I want specifics.  And lessons.