Sunday, December 30, 2012

These are Uncivilized Times

Manners separate us from the animals. Some have speculated that it is our ability to accessorize (Steel Magnolias), some that it is our ability to dance (Pride and Prejudice), but face it: manners mark our culture as civil or otherwise.  Maintaining our standards of actions towards others allows us to move freely through the world, without sparking a riot.

In the land where I hail from women with good manners are often referred to as "belles" which is fine, despite the reality that many of them are rough and tumble, tomboy sorts who lack the alluring femininity that "belle" conjures up.  Men typically are called gentlemen when they know enough to behave in public, which again, is something of a misnomer as there are scads of Southern gentlemen who are certainly not gentle in their appearance or upon initial meeting.

Florence King, a fellow Southerner and writer I occasionally read, once wrote something to the effect that ladies and gentlemen are people who use their manners to keep others from feeling uncomfortable.  I couldn't agree more. It matters not if you're high or low born, charging down the hill to 80 or up it to 30, truly if you use your Mama-handed-down maxims to save other peoples' feelings, you are to be commended.

At various times in my life I have confused this civility with being a doormat, have mistakenly believed that if I wasn't in someone's face I was being a coward, wallflower or worse, a follower.  As I've matured I've come to the realization that, shockingly, I was wrong. Turns out I can passionately state and defend a position without making someone else cry. I can draw attention to modern problems without insulting someone's intelligence. I can even, occasionally, refrain from lecturing the poor people of lesser intellect that infest my daily world.

My Mama told me that ladies do not smoke, eat or drink while walking down the street.  I only smoke cigars, always seated, and do most of my illicit eating and drinking in a car, like most Americans.  The one exception I make is at festivals or parades when I will walk around swilling whatever's being poured and eatin Jell-o shots, but at those moments, since everyone else is too intoxicated to notice my lapse in grace, I figure it matters not.

Mama also said, as did her Mama, and I'm assuming hers as well, that ladies cross their legs at the ankle, not the knee, lest the world form inappropriate assumptions about your private life.  It makes me cringe to see younger women violating this rule, but I have hope that with the ascension of the Duchess of Cambridge, perhaps they'll imitate celebrity in an appropriate way going forward.  I personally circumvent this Mama-maxim by wearing pants (a lot) and sitting like a gentleman, with my knee on my ankle.  This is mostly due to a love affair between myself and food, which doesn't allow the slutty knee crossing, but also the love affair of my parents, which resulted in my legs being so short that crossing them at the ankle makes my feet dangle like a kindergartners' in church.

The women who raised me had a whole slew of rules regarding bodily functions, as you might expect.  I never once heard any of them, or any of the men in my life do things that cruder humans find so funny on cable TV.  This one I take to heart, believing that intestinal gas is something best kept to yourself at all times.

Just a year or so ago I was mortified to violate this rule for the first time in public.  Sitting in a sterile exam room, a gastroenterologist snaked a camera down my throat in attempt to discern why I was having trouble swallowing.  I was in a bit of a twilight fog, though it couldn't have been heavy enough, when he removed the camera and to my lasting shame, was treated to an enormous belch to the face.  Automatically, as my cheeks flamed, like any good belle, I followed that expulsion with "Oh, my goodness.  I am so sorry". 

Despite obviously not hailing from my part of the woods, he was a gentleman too, as he assured me that it was of no consequence, and mercifully, thoughtfully, signaled to the nurse to increase my meds, pushing me deeper into the fog where I couldn't be haunted by my very serious show of bad manners. Mama would have approved.

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