Manners and The Middle Class

November 4, 2009

I grew up in, what I would consider, an average middle class home. Both my parents worked. My two brothers and I went to private Catholic school. We had two cars, a dog and a fish named Oscar.

Because of our varied schedules, we didn’t eat dinner at the table too often, but when we did, my mother always insisted on everyone using, what she called “restaurant manners”. That meant sitting up straight, no elbows on the table and never, ever starting your meal until everyone at the table had been served. At the dining room table I sat directly to the left of my mother which meant that I was always served my meal first. Then, my mother would rush back into the kitchen, prepare another plate and set in on the table. She did this four times in total before everyone had been served, which meant that my meal was usually cold by the time I was allowed to eat it. I remember staring at my little brother, my eyes red with fire, as he scarfed down his steaming baked potato and I sat there with my lump of cold carbohydrates staring me in the face. When I’d ask my mother why I had to wait to eat my meal, she would dismiss me with “It’s just good manners.” So, I suffered through cold meatloaf, pork tenderloin and my mother’s famous mushroom hamburgers for the sake of “good manners”. It wasn’t until I went to college that I learned there was a different way.

When I was 18, I left the safety of my parent’s house and went off to college. I made it a point to attend a school that required my parents board a plane to visit me. I’d heard too many horror stories of parents dropping in on the their children unannounced at college. This was fine with my parents because my uncle and his boyfriend lived in the same town as my school. My uncles are both highly academic and intimidatingly smart. They know everything about everything, but somehow don’t ever come off as smug or arrogant.

Anyway, the first week that I started college, they invited me over to dinner. Having only met them a handful of times in my life before this, I wasn’t sure what to expect. So, I put on a coat and tie, brushed up on the manners my mother had so instinctively drilled into my brain and took a cab to their house. I would have brought a bottle of wine, but I was underage at the time.

We sat down to a lovely dinner of risotto. As at my own house, I was served first. I sat there, not wanting to disappoint my mother and the manners that I had grown up with. My uncle said “Eat before it gets cold.” “No,” I said “I’ll wait until we’re all served.” My uncle’s boyfriend poked his head out from the kitchen and said “Please, don’t be so middle class.” I sat there for a second completely stunned. I wasn’t sure what had just happened. Was I being chastised for having good manners?

Throughout the meal, which was delicious, my uncle and his boyfriend, in all their scholarly wisdom, disseminated to me that manners were not what I thought they were. It was explained to me that manners, as I knew them today, developed out of the growing middle class of the late 19th and early 20th century Victorians. The middle class, constantly yearning to be upper class had to have a way of discerning themselves from the proletariat of that time. What I thought were just the basis of a civilized world were actually a tool to separate yourself from what you thought was beneath you. Manners were a weapon in the societal war of the class system.

I couldn’t believe it. It was like I had just been let out of prison. I realized that by following all the rules of “polite society”, all I was really doing was trying not be considered white trash. I decided, from then on, that I was going to march to the beat of my own drummer. I wasn’t going to let middle class society tell me that I wasn’t worth while because I didn’t fold my napkin and place it next to my plate every time I stood up from the table. I was going to rebel against the middle class manners machine.

I sailed through the next four years eating with my elbows on the table, picking my teeth with a toothpick and sometimes belching after an especially filling meal. It wasn’t until recently that my manners rebellion became an issue.

I have this group of friends that I love dearly. We get together and have a fun time, reminiscing about old times and the stupid things we did in our early twenties. We drink, we laugh and have an all around merry time. That was, until my disdain and anarchy for the manners of the middle class collided with Miss Middle Class Manners herself.

We were all at a restaurant having dinner when I put my elbows on the table to prop myself up to tell an animated story. From out of nowhere, Miss Middle Class Manners practically lunged from her seat and impaled me with her fork. “What was that for?” I asked as I nursed my wound. “We don’t put our elbows on the table.” she said. “Who’s we?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “The civilized world.” she responded, thinking she had one upped me. I decided to acquiesce to her middle class sensibilities and remove my elbows from the table. I didn’t want to get into it with her and ruin everyone’s time. I returned to my story.

Before the main course was served, I ordered a soda. The waiter asked if I wanted it in a glass with ice. I said no, that I would take it in the can. There’s something about opening a can of soda and feeling the carbonated bubbles hit your nose as you take that first sip.The waiter brought the can to my table and instantly Miss Middle Class Manners tensed up. I saw her whisper to our mutual friend sitting next to her and then point at me. “Is there a problem?” I asked. “Yes. That really bothers me.” “What?” I asked, knowing full well what she was talking about. “If we were in my house, I wouldn’t let you drink out of the can at the table.” she said. “Then, I guess it’s a good thing we’re not at your house.” I said. Everyone laughed a little and I drank my soda, from the can, in the most obvious and obnoxious way I could think of: I used a straw. I don’t know if Miss Middle Class Manners was bothered by that. If she was, she decided to hold her disdain at bay. But not for long.

As the main courses were being served by the waiter, most everyone sat there politely, salivating at their meals as they grew increasingly colder with every passing second. As the waiter placed my piping hot meal in front of me, I decided to throw caution to the wind and dig in. Miss Middle Class Manners’ eyes flared up and her face turned beet red. She didn’t know what to say. I had just committed the cardinal sin. I’m sure she wanted to have me removed from the restaurant for trespassing against her and her middle class mindset so egregiously, but I didn’t give a flip. I continued to eat my meal in all its wonderful hotness. “I really think we should wait to start eating until everyone’s meal is served.” Miss Middle Class Manners announced to the table. I looked up from my plate, my mouth full of food and said “Oh please, don’t be so middle class.” To this, she had no response. She had been defeated. I had found her middle class kryptonite: calling her out for being what she is.

To this, everyone laughed again and started eating their meals as they were served to them. Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll ever be invited out to dinner again by Miss Middle Class Manners, but to that I say I don’t really give a f%#$!

My advice to the middle class:

Don’t try to make yourself feel better by calling out other’s lack of manners or couth. Manners and etiquette were originally meant to make people feel comfortable in otherwise awkward situations. Trying to make someone feel out of place doesn’t make you a well-mannered person; it makes you a jack ass.

My advice to everyone else:

Don’t let society, the middle class, or your mother tell you how you should act. Be your own person. If someone can’t handle the fact that you like ice in your white wine or that you prefer to use a salad fork when eating your entree, then that’s their problem, not yours. Down with the middle class. Up with the proletariat.


4 Responses to “Manners and The Middle Class”

  1. Jarred Says:

    It is bad manners to tell someone that they have bad manners! 🙂

  2. Craig Says:

    “Middle class kryptonite” LOL!

  3. […] was some middle-class guilt trip put onto her by her mother about etiquette and proper manners (see Manners and the Middle Class for more information) said “God bless you.” The client was silent and, again, we all […]

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