Friday, 1 July 2011

In which manners maketh life easier if you know what you're doing

The comprehensive guide to pissing off one’s prospective in-laws email has this week done what everyone in comms wishes their campaign would do, and gone viral. Outed by the majority of the mainstream media, the poor unfortunates involved have had their private bickerings given a thoroughly public airing.‬

Life here has seen the email split opinion, with colleagues heavily backing the beleaguered Heidi, but the majority of Social Circle Blonde coming down firmly on the side of the wicked stepmother-in-law.

But whilst the email provided an afternoon’s incredulous mirth for all those not involved, I can’t help but feel that in sending it, dear Carolyn has rather missed the point.

I’m sure that whatever Heidi’s faults – of which her prospective in-laws clearly think there are many – she’d be far happier knowing that she wasn’t subject to the vast disapproval of her fiancé’s family. And what was required in this case, if feelings were so strongly held, was surely a gentle word here and there; a quiet nudge occasionally that life would be easier for the new family member if she altered her behaviour in a few discreet ways; not putting one’s clear displeasure into a cold, clinical email to be perused in horror for perpetuity – by the rest of the world.

Because it’s true that the English – and, more accurately, a certain class of the English – have a catalogue of behaviours and etiquette, the specifics of which can be utterly baffling if they’re not something you’ve come across before.

But what might seem to some to be outdated and stuffily-held onto manners are, I would argue, like any other culturally accepted behaviours; when I was spending time in Tanzania, I knew it was the done thing in the locality to greet older women – and any man – in a specific way involving a slightly convoluted system of specific gestures and handshakes before I started a conversation, and that I should never accept food with my left hand. In the same way, there’s a certain type of person in England who’ll raise an eyebrow if the port’s going in the wrong direction. You might find it a strange and pointless tradition, but to other people it’s an important cultural nicety, and one to be observed*.

But manners – and especially the elaborate structure of upper-middle class English manners – should be about everyone knowing what’s what and how things are done for the sole purpose of making everyone feel comfortable. A case in point is the brilliant, if probably apocryphal, story about a guy who was invited to attend a grand dinner party. Being unaware of what the finger bowl was for, he picked it up and drank the water. Without batting an eyelid the hostess did precisely the same, leading everyone else to copy her – purely to ensure that the guest wasn’t left embarrassed.

Essentially it boils down to the fact being polite and well-mannered is about adapting your behaviour to your surroundings, whatever they may be. If you were invited to the home of a strictly vegan family, you wouldn’t turn up wearing a fur coat, gnawing on a rare steak; equally, as Carolyn noted in her email, if your hosts are early risers, you don’t stay in bed until mid-morning. It’s about the basic courtesy of abiding by other people’s rules when you're in their houses.

And not getting married in a castle unless you own it. Obviously.

*We’ll leave it there. Arguments about cultural relativism are best left as vague memories from university Philosophy seminars.


Anonymous said...

I think there's a bit in Drusilla Beyfus' 'Lady Behave' that says, 'Etiquette is knowing which fork to use, manners are not mentioning if someone doesn't.'
That came to mind when I read the email, although the mother does have a few valid points.

Gin Operated said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head here - I was brought up with the drinking the fingerbowl story too, and once I'd stopped cackling with glee at the email (this did take a while), that was the thought I was left with. Although my parents did make sure I had a reasonable grip of old-fashioned etiquette, the thing that stuck most was my mother saying "Nothing is as ill-mannered as pointing out another's bad manners".

So in fact, it looks as thought the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law are pretty much at the same level.

Martin said...

This was what I was trying to phrase in the comment box of the original email post, and failed. Whilst poor manners are reprehensible, pointing them out in such blunt terms is, in my (humble) opinion, just as rude.

Seeing as this chap clearly intends to marry Heidi, I can only wince at the awful, eggshell-like tension that will be hovering in the air on their wedding day, the most probable outcome being their eventual elopement and dearest Mother-in-Law will miss her little treasure being married to the strumpet.

To me, it's simple - the MiL raised the boy, he's made his decision about who to marry, for whatever reason, so put up or shut up. Remember, he probably got most of his reasoning skills from you and Father.

Redbookish said...

Much as it pains me to disagree with Social Circle Blonde, I'm afraid the prospective mother-in-law reveals herself as a vulgar "would-be-if-she-could-be." The tone of her email reads as a socially insecure (dare I say, lower-middle class << gasp >> ) and downright unpleasant woman.

nuttycow said...

When discussing the email with Family Cow, we, like Social Circle Blonde, also came down on the side of the evil step-mother-in-law. However, like the rest of the comments above (and your post) we were also of the opinion that it is, in fact, incredibly bad manners to point out the bad manners of others.

I've also grown up with the finger-bowl story and I think the moral of the story is one worth heeding.

So we're all in agreement. Super!

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