Every-Day Manners at Home
JUST as no chain is stronger than its weakest link, no manners can be expected to stand a strain beyond their daily test at home.
Those who are used to losing their temper in the bosom of their family will sooner or later lose it in public. Families which exert neither courtesy nor charm when alone, can no more deceive other people into believing that either attribute belongs to them than they could hope to make painted faces look like “real” complexions.
A mother should exact precisely the same behavior at home and every day, that she would like her children to display in public, and she herself, if she expects them to take good manners seriously, must show the same manners to them alone that she shows to “company.”
A really charming woman exerts her charm nowhere more than upon her husband and children, and a noble nature through daily though unconscious example is of course the greatest influence for good that there is in the world. No preacher, no matter how saint-like his precept or golden his voice, can equal the home influence of admirable parents.
It is not merely in such matters as getting up when their mother or other older relatives enter a room, answering civilly and having good table manners, but in forming habits of admirable living and thinking that a parent’s example makes or mars.
If children see temper uncontrolled, hear gossip, uncharitableness and suspicion of neighbors, witness arrogant sharp-dealing or lax honor, their own characters can scarcely escape perversion. In the same way others can not easily fail to be thoroughbred who have never seen or heard their parents do or say an ignoble thing.
No child will ever accept a maxim that is preached but not followed by the preacher. It is a waste of breath for the father to order his sons to keep their temper, to behave like gentlemen, or to be good sportsmen, if he does or is himself none of these things.
In the present day of rush and hurry, there is little time for “home” example. To the over-busy or gaily fashionable, “home” might as well be a railroad station, and members of a family passengers who see each other only for a few hurried minutes before taking trains in opposite directions. The days are gone when the family sat in the evening around the fire, or a “table with a lamp,” when it was customary to read aloud or to talk. Few people “talk well” in these days; fewer read aloud, and fewer still endure listening to any book literally word by word.
Railroad station reading is as much in vogue as railroad station bolting of meals. Magazines—“picture” ones—are all that the hurried have time for, and even those who profess to “love reading” dart tourist-fashion from page to page only pausing at attractive paragraphs; and family relationships are followed somewhat in the same way.
Any number of busy men scarcely know their children at all, and have not even stopped to realize that they seldom or never talk to them, never exert themselves to be sympathetic with them, or in the slightest degree to influence them. To growl “mornin’,” or “Don’t, Johnny,” or “Be quiet, Alice!” is very, very far from being “an influence” on your children’s morals, minds or manners.
A Supreme Court Justice whose education had been cut short in his youth by the Civil War, when asked how, under the circumstances, his scholastic attainments had been acquired, answered: “My father believed it was the duty of every gentleman to bequeath the wealth of his intellect, no less than that of his pocket, to his children. Wealth might be acquired by ‘luck,’ but proper cultivation was the birthright of every child born of cultivated parents. We learned Latin and Greek by having him talk and read them to us. He wrote doggerel rhymes of history which took the place of Mother Goose. He also told us ‘bed-time stories’ of history, and read classics to us after supper. When there was company, we were brought down from the nursery so that we might profit by the conversation of our betters.”
Volumes full of “manners” acquired after they are grown are not worth half so much as the simplest precepts acquired through lifelong habits and through having known nothing else.
THE OLD GRAY WRAPPER HABIT
How many times has one heard some one say: “I won’t dress for dinner—no one is coming in.” Or, “That old dress will do!” Old clothes! No manners! And what is the result? One wife more wonders why her husband neglects her! Curious how the habit of careless manners and the habit of old clothes go together. If you doubt it, put the question to yourself: “Who could possibly have the manners of a queen in a gray flannel wrapper? And how many women really lovely and good—especially good—commit esthetic suicide by letting themselves slide down to where they “feel natural” in an old gray flannel wrapper, not only actually but mentally.
The woman of charm in “company” is the woman of fastidiousness at home; she who dresses for her children and “prinks” for her husband’s home-coming, is sure to greet them with greater charm than she who thinks whatever she happens to have on is “good enough.” Any old thing good enough for those she loves most! Think of it!
A certain very lovely lady whose husband is quite as much her lover as in the days of his courtship, has never in twenty years [slumped into the gray flannel wrapper habit], because of her determination never to let him see her except at her prettiest. Needless to say, he never meets anything but “prettiest” manners either. No matter how “out of sorts” she may be feeling, his key in the door is a signal for her to “put aside everything that is annoying or depressing,” with the result that wild horses couldn’t drag his attention from her—all because neither she nor he has ever slumped into the gray flannel wrapper habit.
So many people save up all their troubles to pour on the one they most love, the idea being, seemingly, that no reserves are necessary between lovers. Nor need there be really. But why, when their house looks out upon a garden that has charming vistas, must she insist on his looking into the clothes-yard and the ash-can?
She who complains incessantly that this is wrong, or that hurts, or any other thing worries or vexes her, so that his inevitable answer to her greeting is, “I’m so sorry, dear,” or “That’s too bad,” or “Poor darling, it’s a shame,” is getting mentally into a gray flannel wrapper!
If something is seriously wrong, if she is really ill, that is different. But of the petty things that are only remembered in order to be told to gain sympathy—beware!
There is a big deposit of sympathy in the bank of love, but don’t draw out little sums every hour or so—so that by and by, when perhaps you need it badly, it is all drawn out and you yourself don’t know how or on what it was spent.
All that has been said to warn a wife from slovenly habits of mind or dress may be adapted to apply with equal force in suggesting a rule for husbands. A man should always remember that a woman’s regard for him is founded on her impressions when seeing him at his best. Even granting that she has no great illusions about men in general, he at his best is at least an approximation to her ideal—and it is his chief duty never to fall below the standard he set for himself in making his most cogent appeal. Consequently he should continue through the years to be scrupulous about his personal appearance and his clothes…It is of importance also that he refrain from burdening his wife with the cares and worries of his business day. Many writers insist that the wife should be ready to receive a complete consignment of all his troubles when the husband comes home at the end of the day. It is a sounder practise for him to save her as much as possible from the trials of his business hours; and, incidentally, it is the best kind of mental training for him to put all business cares behind him as he closes the door of his office and goes home. When it is said that a husband should not fling all the day’s trifling annoyances into the lap of his wife without reflecting that she may have some cares of her own, there is no intention to indicate that a wife should not have a thorough understanding of her husband’s affairs. Complete acquaintance and sympathy with his work is one of the foundation stones of the domestic edifice.
THE FAMILY AT TABLE
Whether “there is company” or whether the family is alone, the linen must be as spotless, the silver as clean, and the table as carefully set as though twenty were coming for dinner. Sloppy service is no more to be tolerated every day at home than at a dinner party, and in so far as etiquette is concerned, you should live in exactly the same way whether there is company or none. “Company manners” and “every-day manners” must be identical in service as well as family behavior. You may not be able to afford quantities of flowers in your house and on your table, or perhaps any, but there is no excuse for wilted flowers or an empty vase that merely accentuates your table’s flowerlessness. There are plenty of table ornaments that need no flowers. In the same way the compotiers can be filled with candies or conserves of the “everlasting” variety; silver-foiled chocolates or nougat, or gum drops or crystalized ginger or conserved fruits—will keep for months! But the table must be decorated and a certain form observed at the dinner hour; otherwise gray flannel wrapper habits become imminent. Letters, newspapers, books have no place at a dinner table. Reading at table is allowable at breakfast and when eating alone, but a man and his wife should no more read at lunch or dinner before each other or their children than they should allow their children to read before them.
THE TABLE NOT A PLACE FOR PRIVATE DISCUSSION
One very bad habit in many families is the discussion of all of their most intimate affairs at table—entirely forgetting whoever may be waiting on it; and nine times out of ten those serving in the dining-room see no harm (if they feel like it) in repeating what is said. Why should they? It scarcely occurs to them that they were “invisible” and that what was openly talked about at the table was supposed to be a secret!
Apart from the stupidity and imprudence of talking before witnesses, it is bad form to discuss one’s private affairs before any one. And it should be unnecessary to add that a man and his wife who quarrel before their children or the servants, deprive the former of good breeding through inheritance, and publish to the latter that they do not belong to the “better class” through any qualification except the possession of a bank account.
Furthermore, parents must never disagree before the children. It simply can’t be! Nor can there be an appeal to one parent against the other by a child…so long as parents are living under the same roof, that roof must shelter unity of opinion, so far as any witnesses are concerned.
Emily Post (1873–1960). Etiquette, Chapter 36. 1922.