This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of The Four Marks as part of a series called "The Restoration." "The Restoration" is a monthly column dedicated to restoring Christian ideals in our modern culture. For more information on The Four Marks, please click here.
Manners have been out of style for so long that they are finally making it back in as the new “trend.” Well, at least among crusty, fedora-wearing types like myself.
What are manners? They are courtesies that we owe ourselves and each other, and that show our superiority over biologically similar creatures. This month, I thought I might talk about some of these manners so that aspiring cultured young people of either sex might hop on the manners bandwagon as well.
To start at the beginning, we might talk about Introductions.
In Europe, where distinctions of rank were formerly part of the cultural zeitgeist, there is at least a sense of how these introductions should happen. Here in America, where rank is perhaps less obvious, or at least, less willingly observed, a basic rule of thumb is that you should always present the less familiar to the more familiar. For example, if I were introducing a very good friend from school or some other sphere of life to my mother, I would say, “Mother, may I present my friend John. John, my mother.” A less formal, but still proper version would be, “Mom, I’d like you to meet my friend John. John, this is my mom.” A typical American egalitarian response might be, “Who cares?” Who cares, indeed. It’s only the first time you are meeting someone, and first impressions never matter, right?
As these introductions occur, especially in America, inevitably a hand will be extended. Now, if the introduction is man-to-man, hands from both parties should be extended almost simultaneously. The handshake should be firm and how long you sustain it should be in accord with your familiarity with that person, i.e. if you are just meeting them, it should be brief; if it is someone you have not seen for a while or someone you care about deeply, it might be longer, and accompanied by a clasping of an arm. However, if the introduction is between a man and a woman the man should wait for the woman to extend her hand — if she indeed does, for it is a woman’s prerogative.
If she does extend her hand, you certainly should not shake it as you would a man’s hand, in the manner after those who think men and women differ only biologically. Rather, clasp her hand, as you might clasp a set of keys, and squeeze her hand insofar as you are familiar with her. Again, as with the male handshake, a first meeting might involve a brief squeeze, whereas a friend or relative might be held longer. If a woman does not extend her hand, simply bow your head slightly to indicate your pleasure at meeting her.
Women who are new acquaintances will often greet each other in this way, as they should not extend hands to each other. However, a curtsey is just as acceptable as a bow of the head, and a thousand times more attractive and feminine. But, that’s just a man’s opinion.
I’ll speak in terms of a double date, as this allows us to explore some additional situations that a single couple on a date does not allow.
When you escort your dates to the table, one of the men should lead and one should be last. This allows the practicality of a man sizing up the table and making sure it is clean and appropriate. If it isn’t, he can immediately ask the host or hostess to reseat, without troubling the women with it. When escorting women to the table this way, it also preserves the normal order of “protecting” women by creating a dual buffer (much as these imaginary couples might walk on the street – one man closest to the street, to his left his date, next to the other man’s date, while the other man is closest to the storefronts).
When you arrive at the table and everything is in order, rather than waiting for the chaos of people picking their own chairs, a man should select a seat for his date and pull it out, indicating it is where she is to sit. If it is a restaurant that has a coat and bag check, these items will already have been checked. If not, this is a good time to remove her coat and ask the waiter if it is possible to stow it.
Women must also be given preference when ordering — and if your waiter has any class, he will serve them first as well. When a woman has to excuse herself from the table, her date should stand, functionally to pull her chair out, customarily to show the respect due to her as a woman. As with most traditions, there is always a practical reason backing up the form of the gesture. If the other gentleman is not engaged in a separate conversation with his date, he should stand as well, though he will not assist with her chair. This procedure repeats when the woman returns to the table.
I was at a black-tie event not too long ago and a couple of my table-mates were unsure about the dizzying array of flatware and plates in front of them. Here follows a brief summary of what lies in front of you, particularly in America.
Your glasses and goblets should be on your right. Your napkin will sometimes be artfully stuffed in a glass; otherwise you will find your napkin on your plate. If your wait staff does not remove it and place it in your lap, only do so when you have begun to eat or drink anything. On your left will be a plate for bread or cheese. On your left you will also see forks. You should always work outside in, and in the case of multiple courses, the forks should be sized accordingly — small to large. At some functions the salad fork will be brought out right before the salad, as it will have been chilling. Utensils at the top of the plate (in between the bread plate and your glasses) will generally be for dessert and coffee. Use them then and not before. On the right, of course, are all your knives, a soup spoon, and if there are any shellfish, an oyster fork.
In the days before the insipid question, “Are you still working on that?” there was a silent code you could use to communicate to the discerning waiter. If you are still working on something, you should have the fork and knife nearly perpendicular to each other, across the middle of the plate. If you are done, the knife and fork should be set parallel to each other across the center of the plate. That discerning waiter should also serve from the left, remove from the right; this is also the same direction that items should be passed around the table.
If you do need to get up during your meal, put your napkin on your chair, not the table. If you are speaking with anyone, excuse yourself, otherwise, simply leave. Some restaurants will reset your napkin in an artful form on the table before you return. In either case, the napkin should only ever be on the table at the end of the meal.
Honestly, I used to be surprised at men who interpret “Sunday best” as a polo shirt, or worse, a t-shirt. In America, the finest attire for a non-formal event (i.e. black tie) is a suit. It is simply assumed that a man will wear such attire on Sunday or any other First Class Feast Day. While there is certainly allowance for anyone who is coming to daily Mass and then leaving for work immediately thereafter (look no further than the Abbe Trochu biography of the Cure of Ars, available from TAN Books, for a description of farmers who left Mass and went right into the fields) to be wearing less than a suit, this exception applies to a very, very small subset of people on a given Sunday. If someone can only afford one suit, so be it! Better one suit of dignity than the greatest variety of casual wear, like polo shirts, worn on golf courses, or jeans, the height of absurdity on a Sunday. What’s even worse is watching fathers who don’t bother to wear suits on Sunday, because the problem is that their sons look up to them and imitate their dress. If Dad never wears a suit or tie to Mass on Sunday, why should I? Now sloppiness in dress is perpetuated to the next generation.
As for the sticky wicket of women’s dress (a losing topic anytime, but always so among Traditional Catholics) on Sunday or anytime, let me say that I would reiterate the standard given to males: wear the equivalent of a suit. This might be a nice dress, or a classy blouse and classy skirt. This is not to be confused with the jean skirt – the female equivalent of male jeans, and as pointed out above, inappropriate for Mass. It is also not to be confused with the t-shirt top – the male equivalent of a polo shirt. Women, unlike men, have an enormous variety of choices for what they can wear. So, ladies, please exercise that freedom of choice! Women, like men, show their class and maturity by what they wear, especially, by what they wear to Mass for ONE hour on Sunday, when they visit the Lord of Creation.
Speaking of the variety of what women may wear, they, unlike men, may wear hats indoors, and can do so in place of the customary veil. Now, a veil is not to be confused with a napkin. The “napkin veil” does very well to meet the letter of the law (as set down in Scripture: 1 Cor 11:5, but also by long-standing custom in the Roman Rite, and by canon law – canon 1262 in the 1917 Codex), but it does nothing to actually cover a woman’s head. As we’ve alluded to earlier, customs often have a practical component. The practical component here is: helping men to focus! Lovely, lustrous hair is a distraction for any man, no matter how pious. Now, I’m not saying that not completely covering your hair is a “near occasion of sin.” I’m only pointing out that a veil is supposed to cover your head and that there is a majesty and air of mystery that it helps to focus and contribute to when the practice is observed. So please, ladies, save your napkins for dinner? They don’t belong at Mass.
For those who are interested in reading about some other instructions about etiquette and the spirit which vivifies them, viz. an attitude of comeliness rather than some empty show for others, especially from a Catholic perspective, I refer you to two of Dr. Marian Horvat’s books: A Catholic Manual of Civility and Restoring the Family, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. She has a brand new book out, co-authored with Judith Fife Mead, called Courtesy Calls Again. While I do disagree with Tradition in Action on a number of items, they do often put out quality products. This is, no doubt, another one of those. You can find Dr. Horvat's books at http://www.traditioninaction.org/.
In Act IV of Hamlet, the Danish prince looks out upon the army of Fortinbras and wonders: “What is a man, / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more. / Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and god-like reason / To fust in us unused” (IV.iv). Manners help define us as civilized beings. More importantly, they help proclaim who we are as a culture. As this column often tries to suggest – the restoration is not about starting some “movement” akin to a large organization. The restoration is about the morality of your everyday life: not so much worrying about “the other person” as about yourself. What is so elevating about manners is that in being considerate of how you present yourself to others, you edify them, make them ask questions, and perhaps – inspire them to do the same.