Do Manners Matter?

By Leigh Crane-Freeman

Do manners really matter?  That all depends on you and your aspirations, and… your heart. 

About 20 years ago one of my nieces who had not yet reached adolescent, therefore the point in life where one begins to govern one’s tongue, blurted out at the Thanksgiving table (after she had been admonished to put her napkin in her lap prior to eating), “Why do we have to have manners?  What good are they?”  

I gave her then, and I will give you now two reasons why manners matter; one reason is practical, the other a matter of the heart. 

First, the practical.   Manners are a manifestation of class.  More practically put, if you want to represent yourself, your company, or your family well, you will use manners.  The odds are great that a successful company will want you representing them before the public , and if you act like a heathen or eat like a cave man you will not be hired, or if you are already working for them, your exposure and progress in their company will be restricted or compromised.  Your behavior  is a direct reflection on their tastes and their sense of quality.  It’s the truth. If you come from a family that knows the difference between good manners and bad (and granted, there are MANY today that do not), then you might want to reflect on your upbringing in a positive manner, and good manners immediately do this.  

When my son was a senior in high school I was put in charge of the kid’s Sports Banquet.  Charla, the woman who works for me, and I created these cute center pieces, got the food organized and so on.  When it was time to go to the school and decorate the tables we asked for help, and we had a lot of students volunteer for the job.  (Mind you, I understand their eagerness to help was due more to their desire to get out of class than to assist me, but still I’m grateful!) 

After the decorations were on the tables, it was time to set the tables, and I put the kids to work.  In no time they came back to me and said, “It’s all done, Ms. Freeman.”  I said, “Oh good!  Let me go look!”  I should have said, “Oh Lord!  Who taught you that?”,  because each place setting looked like they had tossed knives, forks, spoons, and napkins into the air like Scrabble cubes, and left them where they fell.   

The truth is most of these kids probably hadn’t been taught anything about setting a table.  So, I said, “Do you all want to know how tables are formally set?  Do you want to learn how people that have parties and fine dinners in their homes set their table? May I teach you the honest-to-goodness correct way to set a table?”  I realize in this woke culture we are now enduring, and that we were beginning to notice then,  some kid could have said, “Are you saying that you’re better than me?  You’ve offended me!” However, quite the opposite happened.  These kids jumped on the opportunity to be taught how to correctly set a table.  I don’t know if that reflects on their parents, or them, or both, but these kids were eager and happy to learn.  

The second reason, and I think the real reason for manners is that they show deference for others.  Another way of saying that is, that they are meant to show other people that they are respected and appreciated, and that they are more important than you are. 

You open a door for another and ask them to go first; you are putting them before you.  You sit down at a table and wait for everyone to arrive before you eat.  You place your napkin in your lap.  You use your utensils properly, taking time to slice and chew your food mindfully.  You ask, instead of demand or reach for food, or the salt and pepper.  All these are manners, and all show respect and pleasant words and grace for OTHERS.  And, in the case of table manners, they show appreciation for the one that prepared the meal.  You may not know this, but it takes time to plan a meal, time, money, and energy to purchase and bring home the food, time to prepare it, effort to prepare the table, and time and effort to clean up after people eat.  Manners show that you realize this, and that you appreciate these things. 

Manners are not about you; they are about caring for others.  They are about putting others first, and manners will not only make others feel good, but they will also make you feel good. 

The woman that used to do my nails was from Vietnam, and one day while I was having my cuticles clipped, and my nails trimmed and polished, I asked her about coming to America.  Turns out she’d been here about 10 years, and she told me she liked America so much that she was in the process of bringing her whole family to our country as she was able.  

  “Why do you like America so much?” I asked.  I thought she would say something like, “It offers you the opportunity to prosper, or that she could own her own business instead of the government owning it, or something like that, but instead she replied, “Because people are happy here.”  

“Really?”  I responded.  I mean, I guess I hadn’t considered that.  “Why do you think we are happy?”  Again, I thought she would say something like, because in America you’re free, or  because you don’t have to have papers to go from one state to another, but instead she said, “Because you say ‘Please’ and Thank you.’”  

Manners used to be taught, and both my parents were sticklers for manners.  The summer between my junior and senior year in high school I worked in a drug store where I often answered the phone.  Early one summer afternoon at work the phone rang, and I answered it.  “Doolen’s Drug Store.  Can I help you?”  There was a long pause on the other end. It was my dad who had called, and finally he spoke. “Leigh. I will be right there.” , he said in his most serious and deep voice. 

Oh Lord!  I hung up the phone, and knew I was in trouble.  I did a mental diagnostic quickly reviewing if I’d done anything wrong that my dad could have discovered or been angry about, but I came up blank.

About 20 minutes went by, just the length of time he needed to get from eating lunch at our house to driving by Doolen’s on his way back to work. The drugstore was full of customers. Ruth, the other woman that worked there, and Mr. Doolen stood nearby.  I saw my dad get out of his car, grim-faced, and I stood up straight, watched the door, and waited for him to walk in. 

My dad opened the door, closed it behind him, and  looked at straight me . “Leigh.” He said in that deep voice of his, “ It is not ‘Can I help you’. It is ‘May I help you.’” 

Everyone in the drugstore looked at my dad and then stared at me. I stood motionless, wide-eyed, and quietly said, “Oh.”  Then, my dad turned around and walked out.  

Ruth slapped her knee, and both she and Mr. Doolen  just howled. One of the ladies at the counter said, “I never knew that.  Sure sounds softer doesn’t it?” And me? I’ve never forgotten that lesson.  In fact, I had the minister tell this anecdote at my dad’s funeral.  

My dad taught me.  He took the time to teach me.  Manners matter, and they are not about you, they are about other people.  

Shortly before my father died, he had open heart surgery. Before the operation, and even afterwards, he used good manners.  Open heart surgery isn’t fun, and though my dad never complained, he was clearly uncomfortable.  Yet his manners never vacillated. Whether it was the doctor, the nurses, the cleaning people, or other staff, my dad always said “Please” and “Thank you.”  He never interrupted them, and he always, pleasantly  acknowledged them. The result was that he was treated like a king, and those that helped him felt like royalty.  My dad chose to be pleasant and respectful, deferring to others in a compromised situation, and it had a positive effect.  

After he died, I got a card from the floor staff at the hospital where he had had his surgery. Their comments ranged from how nice my dad was, and how good he made them feel,to one woman who said that she noticed that she always left my dad’s room feeling happy and appreciated.  

Manners are a direct reflection on who you are and who you aspire to be, and they are a window to your humility, kindness, and heart. 

Manners matter.  

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