All manner of trouble

Carolyn Bourne’s email berating her intended daughter-in-law for her lack of decorum has divided opinion. Esther N McCarthy challenges the strictures of etiquette while Mary Leland insists upon good manners.

GOOD manners means putting up with other people’s bad manners, said H Jackson Brown Jr and if the author of Life’s Little Instruction Book thinks so, it must be true.

When Heidi Withers stayed with her fiancee Freddie’s family for a weekend in Devon, she got a harsh lesson in decorum from her future mother-in-law.

Heidi’s sins, according to Carolyn Bourne, included harping on about her diabetes, not sending a handwritten thank-you card, staying in bed until the late morning and having a laugh in the pub.

I may have identified just a weensy bit with “uncouth” Heidi. Her fiancee runs a bicycle shop. My husband does too. She plans to get married in a castle, to which Mrs Bourne said: “No one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash, celebrity-style behaviour.” I got married in a castle I definitely don’t own, last year.

Heidi got a dressing-down for her eating habits. I once got a single After Eight — the slimmest of all the confectionery — as dessert after a St Stephen’s day dinner with my in-laws. This prompted me to break into an unopened tin of Roses. I was caught with a face full of caramel barrels. I regret nothing.

Let’s get a bit of perspective here. What did she actually do that was so terrible? Surely it’s up to the host to make the visitor feel welcome?. Heidi did not deserve such a vicious character assassination.

This concept of being ladylike is dangerous. Forcing archaic values on contemporary, self-sufficient women reinforces the stereotypical ‘good’ female. Being confident and having a lie-in on a weekend break is not unmannerly. I would suggest giving your husband the nickname Bomber like Bourne did and referring to him like he was the household dog, whining that Heidi’s behaviour left him “so profoundly upset that he is depressed and anxious” is far more egregious a crime. Bomber? Seriously?

Traits that are admirable in males are still seen as unattractive in females. A man who dominates a group conversation is witty and interesting. A woman who does the same is domineering and dull. A bloke moons as a coup de grace exiting a party; it’s hilarious. I do it, it’s traumatising and terrifying and to blame for one sensitive soul to swear off females for life. But I’ve said too much.

The subtext of this manners thing is women should be simpering, delicate creatures with soft skin and ringlets and gentle dispositions. We should cuddle kittens and darn socks and swoon at bad language. We should get hoisted into our girdles at dawn and press flowers and make juniper wine and unicorn cakes. That may sound melodramatic, but that’s chicks for ya.

Berating a future family member and not making her feel welcome is not good manners. And not having the decency to do it in person is rude and cowardly. The thing smacks of a malevolent mother-in-law intent on creating trouble.

But modern manners can be a minefield. As a society, I agree, we need a set of conventions, standards of conduct that allow us to work and live and exist in harmony. But the thing is, what one person considers the height of rudeness, another simply sees as an hilarious fart gag. It depends on culture, geography, occasion and the amount of absinthe consumed.

The problem is there are so many interpretations of good manners. I was on a full bus recently and offered my seat to an elderly man.

He gruffly refused and seemed stung by the offer. I embarrassed him and myself and had to endure the rest of the journey with his arse in my face. There were no winners in this one.

And the hand-written thank-you note saga. I’m a fan. I have a big stock of cards, with coloured pens and little butterfly stickers for the envelopes. But it should be optional.

Is formal correspondence really necessary for staying with your future family? And you didn’t see Carolyn Bourne handwriting her list of complaints, oh no. Email was good enough for that.

When I had my first baby, I sent out roughly 250,000 thank-you cards. With the demented enthusiasm of a first-time mother, I took pictures of everyone who came to visit, holding the baby, and resolved to make individualised cards. Man, did that one bite me in the ass. Because with the equally-demented disorganisation of a first-time mother, I left some people out and ended up with some very pissed-off present-givers. I also managed to send a thank-you card to someone who didn’t even know I was pregnant. So it looked like a sarcastic ‘Thanks For Ignoring My Amazing Ability To Procreate’ sentiment rather than the genuine appreciation that was intended. I’m telling you it’s a manners minefield.

And then, the clincher. I got a thank-you card for my thank-you card. Stop the madness. Because, sometimes, what’s masquerading as manners is plain old one-upmanship. I was tempted to respond with a singing telegram by Michael Buble warbling ‘Thanks for the thank-you for the thank-yoou-ooh card’ but I just didn’t have that kind of cash. If I was a millionaire, I would kill you all with sardonic kindness, have no doubt about it.

Manners are a sensitive subject because it’s a very personal thing. We are molded from birth to adhere to our family’s personal ethics code, we teach our children the unwritten rules to allow them to fit in. My two-year-old has the magic words ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ drilled into him. He uses them not because of his innate, refined soul, but because they usually get him what his little toddler mitts want.

I grew up in a large family; slagging matches were par for the course, roaring over each other considered normal.

If you asked a young me the difference between a fork for your crab and a fork for your melon, my first reaction would have been ‘What’s a melon?’ (Hey, It was the 80s and if it wasn’t in Quinnsworth, it wasn’t in the cupboard). Then, ‘I don’t know.’ Then, ‘Let’s play kick the can.’

But we always said ‘Thank you’ to our mam after the dinner, we always brought our plates to the sink, and we always kissed everyone goodnight. That was good manners to us.

At the end of the day, insisting on rigid rules and regulations of behaviour, wielding the power of polite society over others, means being constantly disappointed. People will fall short and people will fall out.

And, just for the record, I am aware I look like a demented beach ball in the accompanying photo.

And it would be most unmannerly for you, dear reader, to point it out.

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