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Common sense and etiquette

October 03, 2006|by LAURA BELL and ELIZABETH KRAMER

"The time has come," the Walrus said, "to talk of many things."

- From "Through the Looking Glass," by Lewis Carroll

It's time the world had a serious think about etiquette.

When it comes to which fork to use or what to do with our napkins, our parents know everything.

As kids, we hear the inevitable from our parents: "Get your elbows off the table!" and "Chew with your mouth closed. You're not a cow."

We dismiss these words as nonsense - and sometimes forfeit dinner. But do parents have a point, after all?

No, they don't. Not always, anyway.

What if there were no manners and we could eat our dinner in peace? What if we could put our elbows on the table, belch as loudly as we wanted and use whatever silverware, or lack of it, we pleased?

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Well, in the eyes of civilization, this would be uncouth. For hundreds of years in Europe, there has been a code of etiquette based on manners developed in the court of King Louis XIV. Since his reign in the late 1600s, finishing schools have existed to teach young ladies the details of etiquette.

But etiquette often has nothing to do with common sense. For example, in some levels of English society, it is not socially acceptable to put milk in a teacup before the tea, according to Judith "Miss Manners" Martin. It is seen as low class. Others say the milk-in-first method is a sign of breeding. Think of it like trying to eat ribs with a fork. Impossible. Yet socially acceptable.

Even cannibals had a strict code of etiquette, according to the National Geographic magazine. Get this: Eating people was completely fine, and considered a delicacy, but you weren't actually allowed to touch your food. So you would use these really long-handled three-pronged forks. Again, not much sense.

In present day, we have even more rules than before. Why? The reason is that we now have new technology, such as cell phones. We carry these technological wonders with us everywhere and we always answer when they ring. This is not always socially acceptable, like if you're out with your friends or somewhere important.

Thus, there is a new etiquette rule: While with company or friends, do not answer your cell phone unless it is an emergency.

Say you're out with your friends at a movie. Your phone rings; what should you do? At almost every movie we've seen at the theater, there has been some obnoxious person who talks on their phone. Granted it's not always a teenager but most of the time, it is. Before every movie, there is some kind of insane commercial with dancing popcorn and soda asking you to please turn off your cell phones and pagers. And yet, there is always that person who has to talk on their cell phone - even though everyone knows it's common decency not to interrupt a movie. It's rude but no one says anything.

So, sometimes society's seemingly pointless and annoying manners do come in handy.

Throughout history, the odd and unnecessary parts of what we call etiquette have been a part of our lives, whether we liked it or not. It seems that we cannot escape these tedious particulars, mostly because adults are trying to pound etiquette rules into our heads.

Someday, we might find ourselves bombarding our own kids with semi-senseless gibberish. No matter how inane etiquette seems, it carries a great deal of importance in our society, like the brand of shoes you wear, the style you wear, how you talk and where you live.

Some etiquette makes sense, however. After all, putting your napkin in your lap makes sense, and unless you want to drop food in your lap, it's best not to put your elbows on the table.

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