Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Now, what do we say?

I was running late for work this morning and I shared the elevator with a little boy from down the hall, all rugged up in his stroller. He was heading out for his morning constitutional with his nanny. I have seen this pair before and they are just adorable. While the little boy is cocooned under mountains of blankets, his little sneakers poking out the bottom, he chats away happily – mostly to himself, but occasionally to his nanny too. Usually he just stares at me. I poke my tongue out. He laughs.

We missed that little pantomime this morning because the little boy was having a late breakfast on the go. As his nanny leant forward to hand him the piece of buttered toast, she uttered that truly international phrase “now, what do we say?”. Obediently the little boy responded, “thank you”. Okay admittedly, his response was more a “fank goo”, but I’m giving him some leeway here.

It’s so weird that kids all over the world are schooled this way. We all get conditioned with “now, what do we say?” (thank you) and occasionally, “what’s the magic word?” (please). Weirder still is how we all start this way, but as our adult personalities develop and change, so too does our observence of basic good manners.

Old school etiquette put a lot of pressure on men – holding doors open for women, walking on the gutter-side of the street, standing up whenever women came into (or left) a room or a dining table. Those practices haven't entirely disappeared but they have slackened off - sign of the times and all that. But hey, good manners aren't just the domain of men. Women can just as easily hold doors open for people, give up their bus seats for the ancients, and cover their mouths when they sneeze. And when I witness these simple acts of kindness in my modern day life, I ask myself “now, what do we say?”, and of course I respond accordingly. You can't undo that sort of conditioning.

When I lived in Chicago I adopted the very American practice of writing thank you notes. Is this an American custom? It seemed so to me – I don’t recall Aussies doling out too many thank you cards on a regular basis. I do recall however that when I lived in Chi-town, Hallmark made millions from me. I had boxes of thank you cards of all different designs and whenever I attended dinner parties or birthday parties, or even if friends just did something nice for me, I’d send a follow-up note to formally acknowledge the kindness. It wasn’t even forced either. For me, it had become another US custom that I’d adopted and it was borne of a sentiment so sincere, that it felt good to be able to express it.

While I take care to remember my manners at all times, I have admittedly slackened off on the card-giving these days. But as my attention turns to the fast-approaching Thanksgiving holiday, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just reinstitute the practice. It won’t save me from the ghastly hand-holding, saying-what-you’re-thankful-for Thanksgiving lunch tradition, but it will be a nice thing to do. And let’s face it, it doesn’t really matter where you’re from – “fank goo” is always nice to hear.

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