Culture and manners are completely subjective. For example, if you’re dining on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan you may actually be able to identify a pickle fork and know exactly when to use it.
Conversely, where I grew up it was considered a display of good culture and proper etiquette to at least wrap a napkin around the bottom of your pickle so it wouldn’t drip all over the floor.
Fancy people also use a special butter spreader instrument that doesn’t look one bit like a butter knife. In my house growing up we often buttered corn on the cob just by spinning it on the stick of the butter in the dish. I thank my father for that one.
I would generally agree the stereotype of people from smaller places not having as good a handle on etiquette and culture as folks from larger cities is true to some degree. Perhaps that’s simply because there are more opportunities to go to fancy affairs.
I grew up Gautier, Miss., about 50 miles from Mobile. We too have Mardi Gras in our area, but it’s not the big deal as over here. In fact one of our bigger soirees in The Bowlers Ball, which is — you guessed it — put on by bowlers for bowlers. It’s a fun time, but there’s not a pickle fork in sight. At the last one I attended I saw a woman point angrily at her husband, pull off her wedding ring and scream, “I’m drinking tonight!” I’m not sure Emily Post ever offered advice on what exactly to do when informing your spouse you’re upset and preparing to get wildly intoxicated, but I’ve got a feeling that’s not it.
I bring all this up because apparently in Mobile it’s not out of the ordinary for Middle School aged boys and girls to take etiquette classes and ballroom dancing. My daughter is lined up for etiquette next year and my son is already two weeks into ballroom.
The thing that’s really amazing to me is that he and his friends are actually excited about ballroom dancing. It’s a brave new world, I guess. I can’t imagine anything that would have caused more of an uproar when I was in sixth grade than having to change into “church” clothes and dance to waltzes and the like. In the ‘80s in Gautier a break dancing class would have been the only dance class anyone would have wanted to attend.
That would have been cool, especially if someone had taught me how to Moonwalk properly. The only break dance move I ever quasi mastered was the “worm,” but that’s rarely come in handy in social settings. OK, occasionally.
It’s hard for me to fathom a bunch of 11-year-old boys knowing how to foxtrot and waltz. Far too suave — almost James Bond-like. I suppose kids are just more together theses days. After all they already market deodorants and colognes to little boys, so it’s no wonder they’re growing up faster, or at least less smelly. What seventh grader wouldn’t be a stone cold player doused with a bunch of cologne and a mean portfolio of classic dances ready to go?
Middle school dances in the days when Journey roamed the Earth urging us not to stop believing were made up primarily of a bunch of girls dancing together and a few cool guys who weren’t scared to get out on the floor getting all the chicks.
Dancing essentially was just stepping left and right to the rhythm. You could get fancy and bump hips on the beat, but that was likely to end in disaster.
Any kind of slow dance was simply an opportunity to pull a girl as close as possible and sway. I’m not so sure some middle school pregnancies weren’t a direct result of that form of dancing coupled with some especially long-play songs at the end of the evening. Let’s hope these waltzes are a bit less exciting.
As if learning to dance isn’t fancy enough, etiquette classes sound positively high brow. Once my children complete those classes I’m afraid they’ll ask me to put a shirt on at the table during dinner and stop eating with my hands.
As the oldest of five — four boys followed by my baby sister — table manners weren’t something the Holberts were known for.
My mother tried, but it was hard with the example my father set of bolting his food as quickly as possible. We all followed suit, primarily because if you wanted thirds you had to eat quickly. That last pork chop would be fought over in a way reminiscent of hyenas working on the final bits of wildebeest.
People sometimes got hurt even. Once my mother was trying to stop one of my brothers from waving a knife around, so she instinctively grabbed the blade. Then my brother instinctively pulled the knife back, slicing her hand deeply across the palm.
There was also the Lazy Susan incident in which a tussle over which direction the Susan would turn ended with a boiling hot bowl of corn on the cob being launched into my father’s lap, followed by a half ear of corn exploding on the kitchen door frame, hurled at 100 mph as my brother tried to escape the room. Thank goodness there wasn’t a pickle fork handy.
I’m sure when I went to college I had little knowledge about the various silverware, plates and glasses someone with proper etiquette would easily identify. Even today my silverware lexicon is pretty bare-bones. I know when to use the little fork and the big fork, but it gets hazy after that.
I suppose it’s the hope of each generation that their children rise to greater heights and become more impressive people than their parents. I’m not sure how high I’ve set the bar for my kids to overcome, but I have no doubt they’ll easily surpass me — especially with their dancing and fancy manners. But I still know how to do the “worm,” so that’s something I guess.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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