Minding Your Manners:
“Manners are the basic building blocks of a civil society.” —Alexander McCall Smith
Although I think I behave reasonably well in social situations, I’ve never taken particular pride in my manners. My estimation of my manners took a nosedive, however, when I moved to France.
The reassessment began with a bus trip downtown with the Wizard. When we entered the bus, he said “Bonjour” to the driver. I gave the same greeting, although my version didn’t sound nearly as authentic.
When we got off the bus, the Wizard thanked the driver and said goodbye. I followed suit, although again, my “Merci” and “Au revoir” sounded fake to my ears.
Saying hello, thank you, and farewell to a public bus driver struck me as odd. From my unenlightened perspective, the bus driver was simply doing his job and should have remained invisible unless he screwed up and ran off the road or hit another vehicle.
When I asked the Wizard about the curious custom, I could tell he was disappointed at my insensitivity. As if talking to a child, he patiently explained that the bus driver should be acknowledged as an individual—hence the greeting. Plus, he’d delivered us safely; surely that warranted a few words of appreciation and a farewell.
The Wizard confessed that he had once exited the bus without thanking the driver or saying goodbye. The bus driver didn’t move. He opened the door and said in French, for all to hear, “What? No thank you and no goodbye?” The Wizard never forgot his manners again.
The bus routine is but one example. If I board a bus and there is no vacant seat, I can pick a seat and say to the occupant, “S’il vous plait,” or “Please” in English. Because I am older, the person is obliged to give up their seat.
As an elder, I also get preferential seating at the dining table. Before anyone takes the last of any item—whether water from a pitcher or the last portion of food—he offers to share it with others. If anyone is still eating, no one leaves the table. The height of rudeness would be finishing one’s meal and departing.
On one occasion when I chose to have dinner alone in my apartment, Hugbug came by to join me. “It isn’t right,” he said, “for a person to eat alone.” Eating is a social occasion—the pleasure of others’ company is as nourishing as the food itself.
I have yet to walk more than fifty yards from my apartment without meeting someone. A greeting—“Bonjour” during the daytime or “Bonsoir” in the evening—is required. Hurrying by and ignoring the person would be grossly impolite.
France is over three times more densely populated than the United States. Maybe that’s why manners seem to be important here. Living in harmony is so much easier with the glue of good manners—I’m hoping mine gets stickier.