I was raised with strict guidelines on how to act as a hostess. One must always be graceful, tactful, delightful, and set a welcoming table in a stylish house while appearing as beautiful as possible without ever offending anybody as guests enjoy their delicacies which are paired with the proper succession of wines.
It always grated on me, but that is how my mother viewed what being a proper woman was while entertaining. Periodically, she would appear in my room and tell me that we were “expecting guests” and I would have to don my best dress and come downstairs to the dining room. I was expected to engage in scintillating repertoire while being non-threatening to the men around me and being gracious to the women. People would mill around and I had to always respond with precocious responses to any questions regarding my family and educational ambitions while, at all times, be a lady, as my mother used to say.
This was not easy, people, and I was not built for it. I can do it, due to my training, but I absolutely hate it. I would have preferred to run upstairs to my room and snuggle into my bed with a book. My sister had it worse, as she was older and had to bear the brunt of such duties, but she enjoyed it much more than I did. I told my mother often that I hated to be fake, and she would always answer that acting as a Stepford-child (although she didn’t use that term) wasn’t being fake, just being polite or nice.
All of this came to mind this weekend when John and I welcomed some of his family into our home. I madly cleared off the dining room table of all our files and unopened mail, thinking that we would eat there in the formal style that I was used to. Instead, we ended up at the kitchen table munching off of small plates. It was fun, although unexpected on my end.
I then realized that John’s son also seems a little taken aback whenever I set out place settings with napkins and flatware; I saw then that he may think l that do all that for him since we are all settling into new family dynamics, but I don’t. That was simply how I grew up. I was instructed at an early age on what utensils went with which dishes, which beverages should be served with which meals and in what order, and how to properly eat and act during breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In a way, I still eat that way to this day. If anyone cared enough to watch me eat, they would probably notice that I’m very proper, which my close friends have teased me about often. Just like how I have a straight posture whenever I am sitting in a chair (although not nowadays, suffering from a sore back from all the moving). Most of it, though, is due to hours playing the violin and viola; because of it, I tend to sit at the very edge of my chair. It’s great if I need to store my purse anywhere since I have lots of seat space. It’s not when you are at a very fancy restaurant and the waiters are constantly trying to scoot the chair under you. Once, a waiter asked me, “Would Mademoiselle like a pillow for her back? Would Mademoiselle prefer another chair? Would Mademoiselle like me to settle her more comfortably at the table?”
No, Mademoiselle would not. This is how I sit. Do I come to your home and criticize you on how you sit? Back the fuck off, asshat!
I read all about how kids nowadays don’t have any etiquette and how Americans are viewed as hulking, snuffling savages in other countries while they scarf down food in restaurants. And I can’t say I blame the criticizers. Americans, in general, aren’t very delicate diners. And when we are, in country clubs and the like, we seem to do it consciously, as if we were following some Emily Post manual.
I don’t think the right approach is to make kids into tiny etiquette robots. However, at the same time, I don’t think — if I ever have any children — that I would also simply let them eat without any guidance on proper manners. What is that fine line, between complete Stepfords and Viking hordes when it comes to dining room behavior? I’m not sure. Since I don’t have any kids, I’m afforded the luxury of not having to decide that quite yet. But…yes, we Americans in general have terrible, atrocious table manners. Although, perhaps that is what makes us Americans?