On being … well mannered

By Ingrid Sapona

I saw chefs Jeremiah Towers and Anthony Bourdain on a morning news show a couple weeks ago. They were promoting Towers’ new autobiography and a documentary about him that Bourdain executive produced. I knew of Bourdain, but not Towers.

After the interview, I looked up Towers on my public library’s website. When I typed in his name, up came two titles. I added my name to the waiting list for his autobiography. The other book, Table Manners, was immediately available in an audio version. I love audio books, so I downloaded it.

The next day at the gym, I started listening. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I was surprised that the book’s about – well – table manners. I realized this when Towers, who narrates the audio edition, said the full title: Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother. When I checked out the book, the title on the thumbnail picture was hard to read.

Once I realized the subject, my next thought was: “I wonder how old the book is?” In an age where disruption is a virtue and in a culture where rights of the individual trump the collective good, who writes about manners these days? As unbelievable as it seems, the book was published in 2016.

Well, Towers had me hooked from the dedication: “… to anyone else who is interested in how to behave to everyone’s advantage.” In the Introduction he makes it clear that manners are not a rigid set of rules. He says manners are continually – and should be – adapted. He also addresses the claim that paying attention to manners is mere pretention. To this he says, “The whole point of manners, especially table manners, is the opposite of pretension … when any behavior makes other people feel uncomfortable, it’s the behaviour that needs to change, not the people.”  Too true, I think.

I love that the book focuses on the purpose of manners. I always find that if I understand the purpose or rationale for something, it’s much easier for me to accept it and remember it. Clearly, Towers subscribes to this belief too. The book is replete with amusing anecdotes that illustrate how to handle various awkward situations so as to forward what he terms “The Platinum Rule”, which is: “do unto others as they would have you do.”

For example, he notes that often the first question someone asks the stranger sitting next to them at a dinner party is: “What do you do?” While that’s a perfectly normal question, Towers points out that it often invites a monolog and can kill conversation. But, that’s clearly not the worst of it. He learned his lesson the hard way when he asked this of a forensic pathologist he was seated next to at a dinner. Just as guests were about to dig into red, bloody roast beef, the pathologist relayed a story about a case involving a serial killer with a fascination for crucifixions. Towers concluded the story with the understatement: “some were quite put off the meal”.  On the topic of conversation starters, Towers’ imminently practical advice is to pick a topic that will allow both of you to contribute.

On things like cell phones at the dining table, Towers believes that technological changes shouldn’t be used as an excuse for bad manners. Stressing that good manners are about making others feel welcome and valued, he explains, “It’s not so much checking your e-mail that’s rude; it’s the fact that you’ve ceased paying attention to those with whom you are breaking bread.” Hear- hear, I say!

Everything Towers’ wrote about hit home with me (though I don’t know if I’d ever eat asparagus with my fingers in front of others, which he thinks is fine). So, from Chapter 1 I knew I’d make manners the topic for a column. But, as I always do, I worried about whether my readers would find the topic relevant today.

Then on Wednesday, an announcement by Uber about a change it’s made caught my eye. Uber has always “invited” riders and drivers to rate the ride experience, but there’s been more stress on riders rating drivers. Wednesday’s announcement was that Uber has modified its app so that now the rider’s rating is automatically displayed, under the rider’s name on the app’s menu. A less-than-subtle reminder to riders that both rider and driver play a role in the ride experience.

Uber explained that the reason for the change was to “encourage better rider behaviour” because, “… Uber is better for all when both drivers and riders do their part”. Interesting, eh? Sounds like a variation on Towers’ theme that, “… manners are a two-way street – it’s up to everyone to keep things running smoothly.”

So, maybe there’s hope. Maybe the pendulum is swinging back and folks are once again realizing the societal value of manners. Maybe we’ll see more books and articles on the topic and maybe technology can be harnessed to encourage better manners – just the way it has been used to encourage fitness.

Just think how much nicer daily life would be if everyone took Towers’ Platinum Rule to heart. I say: Here’s to better manners – at the table, in the taxi, in the check-out line at the grocery store, and every other place where people interact.   

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


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