Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Mold of Manners

We've been watching the old TV show Poirot. A brilliant, stout, impeccably polite detective (the Belgian Hercule Poirot) finds himself around complicated murders and proceeds to solve them through observation and conversation. He is the epitome of class, good manners, and gentle dry humor, and if he weren't an old guy, I'd have a crush on him. He's like a favorite uncle that I want everyone to meet.

The stories (based on Agatha Christie novels, which are even more excellent than the show) take place in the early twentieth century and mostly in Europe. As such, everyone is Just So. The men, even on their days off, wear three piece suits and carry themselves with perfect posture. They pay their debts, watch their language, and rise to their feet when ladies enter the room. The women exude poise, pride, and propriety to the point that it's palpable. Their dresses are flimsy and flowy and they wouldn't dream of leaving the house looking a wreck or failing to offer a guest tea.

I've also been using The Dick Van Dyke Show as my mindless, while-I-chop-veggies-for-salad show. (Gabe doesn't care for it, but I grew up watching reruns so it's basically comfort TV.) Though that takes place in the '50s, I think, it's got that same air of class. If people are invited to dinner, they put on a suit or a dress to attend. Men call for ladies at their houses for dates. Words are well-chosen and well-enunciated. Ladies sometimes wear gloves. Houses are neat. Everyone understands what's expected of them to do or say, or not do or not say. It's so...pretty. Life was pretty.

Now, I know I'm supposed to rage at the fact that in Poirot women are treated like dainty, delicate creatures who can't be exposed to nasty words, and in Dick Van Dyke, women are expected to do the housework and look nice for their husbands...but I don't. I just don't.

I wish I lived in one of those times. I just absolutely love the cultures. The more I watch stuff like this, the more I think we've gone too far in the opposite direction. In our quest for "realness," we've completely disregarded tact and presentation. In our quest for equality, we've demonized the idea of women being managers of the home. In our quest for expediency, we've neglected to foster healthy, precise vocabularies.

This paragraph here was originally me admitting that "of course, there are some things I'm glad I can do today that I wouldn't have been able to do in Poirot's day," but I couldn't even come up with anything besides "wear shorts," and I think dresses and skirts are more comfortable anyway. I guess I'd miss some modern medicines and plumbing. Yeah, that's definitely true. But to give up such amenities in return for Such Classiness sounds like a fair trade.

I wish people were still expected to behave well. Sure, it's easier not having to put your napkin in your lap or bring a hostess gift or stand when an older person walks in or say "Excuse me" when you leave a situation, but...just because it's easier doesn't mean it's better. I get it that honesty, transparency, and genuineness are desirable qualities, but can't we still maintain some discretion? Obviously I want to be able to share my thoughts with my sister or husband or best friend even if said thoughts aren't polite or rosy, but maybe that's where we should draw the line, rather than spewing outright, inarticulate shade to anyone with ears.

Of course, even "back in the day" shade was thrown and insults were spoken (have you ever read a Jane Austen novel?), but it was done more subtly, and almost more fairly too, because people were more aware of expectations. If you did X, Y, or Z, you knew it was considered impolite; you opened the door to just criticism.

Some might say that's worse, that all the manners just made it easier to be phony and passive aggressive and prevented people from becoming fully themselves. Maybe I'm just a sucker for appearances? Or maybe I'm a little bit right. I think when done correctly, the old manners don't just help you appear to be a prettier, better, politer person, they might actually help mold you into a one.



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