My father is a gentle man. I have never heard him speak louder than in a conversational tone. When he speaks, he speaks carefully, deliberately, his words revealing his quiet grace and his subtle humor. And when he is bent over at his woodwork, he holds the wood in his rough hands and crafts it like a famous sculptor working on a statue of Michelangelo. But if there is one dominion where my father is strict, it is the dining room table.
Growing up, my father never allowed childish shenanigans while eating dinner. He kept the five of his children well informed on the simple tenets of dining etiquette: sit up straight, put a napkin in your lap, don’t talk with your mouth open, ask to pass dishes, compliment the cook, and most importantly, ask to be excused. It became an inner joke in the family to ask to be excused in the most facetious way possible. I never understood why his demeanor changed from reserved to lovingly militant when we were merely having a meal together. For seventeen years of my life, his teachings were ingrained.
Just recently, in a trip to a family restaurant, a friend and I sat down to a casual meal and I put my napkin in my lap. She found it amusing, but I found the attention uncomfortable. After all, this was a mannerism more than a conscious decision. Wasn’t that sort of thing normal? Wasn’t it a standard?
Society dictates that we are considerate and polite, but what is the purpose of this? When someone opens a door for me, or when someone helps me with whatever load I’m carrying, I am grateful for their concern, even if it is just an innate mechanism. I have always seen common courtesy, as a kind of unspoken respect we give to other people. The reason why we go out of our way to bake a casserole to give to a grieving neighbor is that we want them to know that we care, that we want to reach out to them. We give a weak “hello” to strangers because we recognize that they are there, that they exist, and that they are important individuals. The art of civility is how we extend our deference to others. That was what my father wanted to teach me at his banquet boot camps. He wanted to tell friends his daughter wasn’t a slob, but a respectful young lady.
Writing thank-you letters is almost a lost art, but it is an ancient custom from my family I still feel inclined to honor. My parents’ emphasis on good manners and “proper breeding” is something I relish today, although I did not always understand it. Common regard may take the most unnoticeable form when disguised in good comportment, but it is an important communication tool that serves to express what is often inexpressible: respect.