letters / manners / memory / mom / writing

Mind Your Manners

When I was 15, my mother wrote me this.

You’re approaching adulthood. Neither boys nor girls automatically know how to behave. Manners will get you through. That’s what social manners are for.

The other night a young woman sharing a table with me burped loudly. She didn’t say excuse me or look around as if someone might have heard. A while later, she burped again. Again without any comment. A few more times she burped and not once did it look as if “excuse me” even crossed her mind.

I found myself annoyed. You should say “excuse me,” I thought. Did she not know any better or did she consciously make a point not to act ladylike? She had a buzz cut and cap. She wore a sweatshirt.

How would I have reacted if she had been a he? I would’ve thought him rude, but I also would’ve found him typical. Ugh. Guys. But for some reason, I expect a girl to know better.

This strikes me as sexist. Low expectations of men and high expectations of women. And I suspect I am old-fashioned. Men should take their hats off inside, no one should slouch, and flip-flops are not for work. And if you burp, say excuse me.

But I wonder what my notions about the way things should be say about my writing. How do biases, pre-conceived ideas, prejudices, and attitudes about girls who burp in public shape your writing? How do you write believable, worthwhile characters if you’re stuck on the way you want people to be?

Or, in a different direction–watching this aspiring writer across from me burp and not say anything made me wonder how polite a write ought to be. Must a woman writer always act like a lady? Is it even ladylike to write?

I say “excuse me” when I burp, but I’m not sure I’m a lady…

4 thoughts on “Mind Your Manners

  1. Well, you’re not alone in this kind of thinking. You can turn it to advantage, in making a hero or heroine of someone who’s rude or unpleasant (or for that matter, making a villain ultra-proper and fastidious).

    As for how polite a writer should or shouldn’t be, I’m afraid I sort of laughed (rude of me!). I kept thinking about your observing these rude folks and then coming back here to tell us about them. Actually, I’m laughing again right now at the irony. 🙂

    (And don’t freak out — it’s not just you; pretty much any of us who blog about everyday life is going to cross that line.)

    I don’t find burping or belching per se rude (burp/belch contests with one’s pre-teen nephews and nieces can be hilarious fun). But I get VERY peeved with people so oblivious to others’ comfort, and so self-unaware, that they just croak away (so to speak) in public. Ditto teeth-picking and so on. I’m convinced that’s why the best barstools come with swivel seats.

    • Yeah, it is rude to talk about people. I felt rude even being bothered by the young woman at all, and that I was proving how prim, proper, and uptight my grandmother helped raise me to be. (I’ve been accused of that often enough!) And while I think, like my grandmother, that things like burping are normal, I can’t shake the feeling that one is supposed to be polite about it. And such things were never exactly funny in my grandmother’s house. And I still can’t find it really funny, though I know that kids do and I try to have a sense of humor about it because that is the normal and okay thing to do.

      Mostly I wondered why it bothered me enough to even think about it.

  2. I don’t think your expectations of the girl were too high, but I do think maybe they were too low for a boy. Why would you not expect a young man to have manners? My kids – both of them – even say “excuse me” in their sleep if they … well, you know. 😉 It’s okay to have reasonable expectations of men and women. Why would you think that’s old fashioned? Your mom was right about that one, manners are what get you through, they are “social lubricant.” And people will respect YOU more when you have them. 🙂

    Everyone fits probably at least one stereotype – that’s why there ARE stereotypes. If I were inventing characters, I’d give them one, and then contrast it with something opposite to that. Like, a woman who forgets to say excuse me when she belches, but obsesses about having to use cloth napkins instead of paper ones.

    • Oh, I expect everyone to have manners equally. My son has manners. I would just say that I can tell I react differently when a girl disappoints me than when a boy does. Unfortunately, boys and young men are so often depicted in commercials and movies as boorish oafs, that it is easy to not be surprised when they have bad manners. You know, men are often excused for sitting on the sofa in stained clothes and belching, and women are often depicted as shrews for wanting their men to act like gentlemen.

      Part of the stereotypes seem to be about the way men and women behave. I think society has different expectations for men and women, and most of that I find irritating, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes fall victim to it myself. I just try to catch myself and question why.

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