The news descended with crushing force: I must be getting really old. Rising from the dinner table, I had pulled back my wife’s chair, and our waiter complimented me. He complimented me for the kind of civil and reflexive action to which my generation was bred in the post-World War II years? Ah, yes; he said he didn’t see that sort of thing much anymore.
Brothers and sisters, this was Texas—the Old/New South. The restaurant in question caters to the better sort, as this clientele was known in less egalitarian times. Our waiter “doesn’t see” things like men pulling out ladies’ chairs for them? Probably not, I guess. As I said, I’m getting old. (To cinch the point, I can remember when Rosemary Clooney was bigger than Elvis.)
Granted, manners—like mores—have been in decline probably since the sweeping bow—plumed hat in hand, left leg extended—went by the boards. The kind of 20th-century civility to which I was bred, 40 years ago, might have disgusted the truly gentle men of President Washington’s day. They might have supposed the thing we needed most—we greased-up swains in our white sport coats—was a good hiding with a malacca cane. They might have been right—notwithstanding the great rule of life that you do your best with what you have.
What we had in the South, in the 1950’s, was a quaint, very much inherited, notion: a notion of relationships. It is likely we never expressed it just so, but that is what it came to —relationships; touchings, bumpings, scrapings; intersections of every sort. For all of us, there were, not laws, not statutes and commandments, but guidelines. The guidelines were called “manners.”
“What happened,” you ask? I’m curious, too. why don’t we think this thing through? A waiter smilingly commends a customer—and not yet an elderly one, either!—for pulling out his wife’s chair. This says to me that relationships between men and women (not to mention those between customers and waiters) are not what they were, and thus the guidelines for those relationships have also changed—less so in my Southland than elsewhere, but I’ll get back to that.
It has to be feminism —the thing we males, with calculated offensiveness, once called “women’s lib.” That’s what did it. Feminism made a comeback—as yon will recall, in our history, feminism has ebbed and flowed —somewhere around 1970, when everything else seemed to be falling apart. Feminism embodies, among other things, the notion of women as an oppressed class. The distinctiveness of women was a thing we all had understood and most had valued: women especially. That was not feminism’s point. The point was, we men had exploited that distinctiveness; by—allegedly—putting women on pedestals, by bowing and scraping to them, and praising their feminine attributes to the skies, we had, in effect, disabled them in their grand quest to lead lives just like our own. In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote of the “problem that has no name,” whose nature was that “American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities.” Among the consequences she enumerated were alcoholism, emotional breakdown, and suicide.
All because we held chairs and rose to our feet when women entered the room? In the years that followed, it came to seem so. Manners undermined opportunity and growth and fulfillment. The womenfolk would open their own doors, plunging through them to joyous fulfillment, slamming them in the faces of the male louts who didn’t “get it.”
Manners, everywhere and always, depend on degree and distinctiveness. But these were the very attributes our culture was trying to wipe from the face of the earth —with regard to women, at least. Listen, a woman could drive a tank if she wanted to. She could direct a motion picture or climb Mt. Everest. She could argue a case before the Supreme Court— or hear and decide that case with solemn deliberation. She could lead a Fortune 500 company. She could mobilize the village it takes to raise a child. Don’t come around here bothering a woman with minor attentions like pulled-out chairs, you patronizing pig! At the dinner table, our brave new woman was just as likely as the man—likelier, perhaps—to grab the check when it arrived, icily assuming that command she and her sex had for so long been denied. Dainty, white-gloved manners! Grrrrrrr!
There we are, and I’m not sure we are going back any time soon—not in my own lifetime, I feel mournfully confident. But we’re entitled to evaluate the results.
One thing the feminist revolution has cost us is that measure of grace which manners bring to such societal transactions as sitting down and rising. Manners coordinate these routine actions in a kind of corporate way: a team effort, as it were, two working as one.
Plop—according to the modern ideal—goes one diner; then plop goes another. The next thing you know, out come the cell phones. Onto the tabletop go the elbows. The evening is off to a very bad start.
I hate to press this particular point too hard, because when one of you can’t wait to get in that tank and start blasting away with the machine gun, human coordination at the table seems a minor matter. But “seems” is the operative word. There is much more to this. It’s the relationship thing.
“Relationship” is one of those modern buzzwords that leach the meanings from the ideas they embody. It signifies, to many, that, hey, we’re a couple—or something like that. But what does that mean? A pair who split the rent and the utilities, or two who move as one: man holding chair, woman seating herself? The latter is the ideal, because the marital relationship is the ideal, the goal toward which every human relationship is supposed to point: one flesh, one life, one destination. This is the divine symmetry, if I may coin a phrase. It is that for which we were formed. Manners is a means—not the only means, clearly, but an important means—of attaining to that blissful, honorable, and holy end.
We seem to be getting theological here. Yes, and why not? The problems of the modern world aren’t political or economic; they’re theological. The ultimate relationship problem is Man-to- God-to-Man, and what to do about it.
It is a large claim to make for table manners (which, in any case, are just one branch of a large code of practice); nevertheless, I make it. A show of coordinated respect for the smallest of relationships —man to woman, woman to man—trains the actors as they ascend the great pyramid of larger, always larger, relationships. The last of these is said to have something to do with a great Seat of Judgement—a prospect our present culture seems to find uncongenial. (Judgment? The drawing of distinctions? Black and white instead of woolly, forgiving gray? Shudder!)
For illustrative purposes, let me turn the matter around. Over time, as one individualized plop follows another at the dining table, and cell phones emerge from pocket and purse, and eyes stare vacantly across the table, you have the seeds not of relationship but of relationship disintegration. A relationship requires some acting out—some physical observance (vertical as well as horizontal). Manners provides the stage directions.
You see, perhaps, where this takes us. Manners undermine raw, rank, whoops my-cell-phone-is-ringing individualism. Nor do manners have collectivist implications. Nobody makes you curb your solipsism; you feel led to do so. The stage directions seem persuasive—even, perhaps, appealing.
Naturally, feminism—which seeks to unleash and empower the individual woman—sees manners as a conspiracy, a means of foreclosing rather than broadening choice, a breeding ground for dependency. What is it that makes us Southerners more resistant to this strain of the modernist virus? People from “up North” and “out West” remark on our greater capacity—compared to their own, they mean—for acknowledging relationships through the display of once ordinary courtesies. Often, attempting to describe it, these outside admirers warmly praise Southern “friendliness.”
Not bad, really. Friendliness is a subset of manners, a show of warmth one may not particularly feel just at the moment. Friendliness, in such cases, exists for relational purposes, deeply and sincerely felt. It amounts to brotherly or sisterly consideration: the desire that another should feel comfortable and duly affirmed. Raw individualism retreats, at least temporarily, from view.
Southerners seem somehow to have held onto this viewpoint with greater tenacity than other Americans—that is, when they aren’t waving around the Confederate Battle Flag (the principal preoccupation ascribed to them by the national media). It could properly be asked: “Why the South?” Why not Maine or North Dakota?
I don’t mean to impeach the manners of Mainers and North Dakotans; all I mean to suggest is that the South’s well known bent for Protestant theology may be the main underpinning of its bent for manners. Not for nothing do they call us the “Bible Belt.” Our relationship with the Lord takes on personal aspects that undergird the higher—not the lower— view of human interconnectedness and put a lower, not a higher, premium on isolation and individualism and solipsism than do other regions.
The question, obviously, is open to debate: Resolved, that a region where waiters are surprised to see a man assist his wife with her chair is homogenizing itself I could argue for the affirmative or the negative. Clearly, we ain’t what we used to be. Who is? The point on which to bear down is that theology—the highest of human matters —maintains a presence here. So long as it maintains that presence. Southerners will take some care with relationships.
I would warn that this care, while seeming inbred, needs cultural reinforcement. We are losing our cultural reinforcement —as our waiter’s testimony to me might affirm. Men don’t stand automatically when a woman comes into the room. At the table, they don’t rise automatically, as they once did, when a lady rises. Check-grabbing by women in business situations —one of the dreariest feminist manifestations—has done more than anything else I know of to bolster the feminist agenda of “We’re All Exactly the Same Here.”
The hell we are. Southerners affirm, if a little more weakly under the bombardment we sustain from People magazine. The Sopranos, and Britney Spears. A number of us, having said “hell,” would gulp just a little if the company were mixed. There remain inhibitions about references to the devil’s place of abode, and about similar (not to mention worse) words.
Yes, theology again, you might say: the theology of relationships in a fallen world where we do well to spurn disconnectedness and attitudes that say to others, “I don’t give a damn about you.”
There I go again. Good Southerner that I am (and hope to remain), may I say to the ladies reading these words, “Ma’am, I do most earnestly beg your pardon”?
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