Several years ago my mother heard one of her ‘heroes of the faith’ Earl Palmer mention George Washington’s Basic Rules of Civility And Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. They are not Washington’s composition, though he adopted them at sixteen when his schoolmaster asked him to copy them by hand for an exercise in penmanship and chivalry. They were created by French Jesuits in 1595 and translated to English initially in 1640.
My mother has observed codes of behavior all her life, some handed down from her parents, particularly her school teacher mother, and some that she has picked up in the course of living. She listened to Dr. Palmer’s reading of a few rules and laughed at the language, but not the sentiment. She was in full agreement with nearly every one that she heard. And few could argue with these mostly gentle admonitions For example:
# 2 When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.
#3 Show nothing to your friend that may affright him.
# 4 In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise nor drum with your fingers or feet. (I would personally add, nor shout into your cell phone forcing the community around you to endure your side of a conversation)
# 53 Run not in the streets, neither go too slowly with your mouth open, go not shaking your arms, kick not the dirt with your feet, go not upon the toes nor in a dancing fashion.
# 97 Put not another bite into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls.
# 100 Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth napkin, fork or knife but if others do it, let it be done without a peep to them.
All of the 110 rules have in common consideration of those in our immediate vicinity. These days, formal training in deportment has been largely discarded in our culture, perhaps because it seems pretentious and inauthentic. But I, my rebel heart not withstanding, labored to teach my children good manners. I sent them to Cotillion to learn basic ballroom dancing steps and how to set an elaborate table—things I knew they would not tolerate learning from me. I asked them to respond to their elders with ‘yes ma’am and yes sir’ and I urged them away from shoe gazing and into direct eye contact and firm—but not painful—handshakes. I did it for two reasons. I wanted them to venture out into the world with a certain level of comfort in social interaction and I wanted them to begin to look away from themselves and towards those around them with respect and regard.
They openly despised Cotillion and said they were the only kids they knew in Williamson County that were forced to go to the advanced class. They deliberately mis-set the table for holidays and ate with their mouths open when they knew I was watching. I was always watching. I don’t think we finished a single meal without the word ‘manners’ inserted as an imperative, always by me and typically ignored.
But now that they are out of the house and in the world, they all present well and are confident in most any situation that if they don’t know the unwritten rules, they surely know the ones that are posted.
I knew those same rules, my parents saw to it and I am absolutely grateful. I ask my mother if she can distill her etiquette codes down to one hand. She says The Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ is primary. After that, she cites overlooking the lapses of others and not singling out their transgressions as being more despicable than her own. Gratitude is also on her list alongside authenticity because she despises fawning and excessive cheer but is ever on the lookout for ways to be appreciative without being phony. More than anything she says, she wants to be aware of the other person, to help them feel at ease, especially in an unfamiliar setting.
My mother says she has unwittingly caused offense because of her own ignorance and self-involvement, and remembers an interaction with her landlady Mrs Wales when she was living in Scotland. They were having a discussion about the differences between Americans and Brits and
my mother expressed surprise at the infrequency of British bathing. She said, “Americans are always bathing, it’s a national pastime.” Mrs Wales and her daughter exchanged glances but said nothing. In a moment of clarity my mother realized that the reason they were not bathing was because of her own daily lengthy showers and the shortage of hot water. World War two had plunged many parts of the British empire into severe deprivation and Mrs Wales had given what little hot water she was allowed to my mother. On another occasion mom saw Mrs Wales washing a wool suit by hand in a bucket of water and said, “Mrs Wales, why don’t you have that dry-cleaned so that it doesn’t lose its shape?” Mrs Wales said, “Oh we haven’t had a dry cleaner in Edinburgh for some time now, the chemicals were needed for the war effort.” My mother loved Mrs Wales and would not have knowingly offended her for anything but she learned another valuable lesson in etiquette: think before you speak—particularly on foreign soil.
Years later my parents were taking an extended trip in Europe and met up with Mrs Wales and her daughter Mary to drive through the English countryside on a pub crawl. They stopped for lunch at a particularly charming establishment and as they were leaving Mrs Wales excused herself for the loo. She returned, some time later wearing a turban she had fashioned from the toilet paper. My mother carefully inquired about her creation and Mrs. Wales said, “Oh my dear it was just so soft and appealing and I have never seen such a gorgeous shade of pink, far too pretty to be hidden in a stall. It’s quite fetching don’t you agree?” My mother said she did agree and Mrs. Wales settled happily in the back seat of the car, a vision in her head shroud. All was not quite so rosy in the front seat though and my father whispered tersely to my mother that he would not be seen in a pub or anywhere else for that matter with a woman wearing a toilet paper crown.
My mother saw it differently though. She remembered her hard won understanding of the loss of luxuries great and small during the war and she suspected the regulation tissue currently widely available to the middle class was very likely as rough and coarse as a corn cob. Mrs Wales was obviously surprised and delighted to find this small extravagance in the ladies room of all places and she wanted to take a few yards of it with her when she left. Mom deftly turned to Mrs Wales as they parked the car in the next village and suggested that she might want to leave her enchanting creation in the car, to keep it from being crushed. Mrs. Wales agreed and my father breathed a sigh of relief.
In his biography on President Washington, Mason Locke Weems, generally known as Parson Weems, wrote: “….it was no wonder every body honoured him who honoured every body. Not only did Washington practice the rules of civility with companions, but he observed them with the entire nation.” The entire list can be distilled down to the first rule:
#1 Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
And also the last one:
#110 Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience
I am a practiced rule breaker, no doubt, but I have also left trails of offense on the tracks of my life and I am keen to the idea of a living amends, a daily choice not to the moral high road which easily leads to arrogance, but the low road of consideration and kindness. Sometimes I feel it, much of the time, I don’t and often I fall short but I understand and appreciate the effort my parents made to teach me things that would increase my comfort in the world and benefit those around me. As King Solomon writes in the Proverbs: “they are the graceful ornaments on my head and chains about my neck”