Proper etiquette can be a blessing and a boon to our interactions. . . provided that it is not used as a weapon. This is a lesson I learned at an early age when, as a member of a major metropolitan newspaper’s summer youth program, a brief interaction with one of the newsroom managers led to him inviting me to lunch at a nice restaurant nearby.
During the meal, the man spoke little, leaving me to do the talking, which is rude, but not to the extent of the reason he invited me to dine with him in the first place. I immediately knew that he was watching me like a hawk, especially how I ate my soup, whether I knew which fork to use for salad and how to hold the utensils during the main meal: everything my mother demanded of me to master. the moment when I could feed myself.
It also gave me my first lesson on how etiquette can be used to be classy and racist.
At the end of the meal, he complimented my manners and made a derogatory remark about the rest of the kids on the program—most of whom, like me, are black. A day later, I was assigned to the newspaper’s research department as an assistant, where I interacted regularly with well-known writers, some of whom eventually put me in touch with their editors.
If the context is not clear: this is not a triumphant story. My clear memory of this meal is intertwined with the humiliation associated with it, with the shame of thinking that I somehow cheated the system. When I recounted this to my mother, when I asked her if it was right to accept the opportunity offered to me, she advised me to accept my luck and never forget the circumstances that led to it.
This dinner was instrumental in my first major breakthrough in professional journalism. It also gave me my first lesson on how etiquette can be used to be classy and racist.
The Dutch philosopher and theologian Erasmus articulated the principle from which this view of etiquette probably originated: “For those who are fortunate enough to be born into privilege, it is shameful when their manners do not correspond to their position.” Etiquette expert and host of Netflix’s Mind Your Manners Sarah Jane Ho understands this, which is probably why she often reiterates a central tenet of her philosophy: Good etiquette, she explains, is about making people around you feel comfortable.
Sarah Jane Ho in Mind Your Manners (James Gurley/Netflix)
Don’t clink tea cups with a bang, she calmly informs one of them, or move the cup away from the saucer while serving. Her demeanor is caring and calm. However, at least once per episode, she lures the contestants with mass quizzes to see if they know how to properly use napkins and utensils by inviting them to bite off a bite of food and firmly saying “stop” at the moment they incorrectly take a fork in their hand. . .
This description probably makes Ho look like a taskmaster—accessible, but a drill coach, not the life coach she is. There is some accuracy in this opinion, as perfectionism is central to Ho’s brand.
But there’s something reassuring about Ho’s approach, especially as we enter the holiday season, which is often defined by two things: a formal multi-course meal and the expectation of conflict and discomfort.
If Ho’s belief that her goal is simply to help her clients “be the best version of themselves” is dissonant, it may be due to the cultural association of manners and etiquette with snobbery. It’s not out of base.
The arbiters of class position and power often discriminate by silently observing certain behaviors, especially when sharing meals or even drinking. Ho, to her eternal credit, understands this, even though she subtly uses a critical eye similar to that which the head of the newspaper taught me. Another of her main goals is to help her clients “fit in”, which, in the best interpretation of this concept, means to help them behave like Romans in all situations “in Rome”.
This saying is a reminder that proper etiquette as we know it can be suffocating. Every aspect of the practice is associated with the European nobility and upper class. It’s about “making others feel comfortable”, yes, and depending on the situation, it’s also a way to signal assimilationist behavior.
Sarah Jane Ho in Mind Your Manners (courtesy of Netflix)
For example, when Ho offers an English breakfast to fashionable housewife Rashiel Jones, Ho immediately corrects the way Jones holds her fork and knife, showing the “correct” way to do it, which is to hold the fork to her left. always by hand, always raising the bites with the teeth down. This is known as the continental style. (Thank you mom!)
But what makes it more correct than the American style, i.e. eating with the prongs up and switching the fork from your left hand to your right as soon as you cut your food? It depends on the room you are in and who you are dining with. Figuratively speaking, sometimes Rome is in Italy, and sometimes in Georgia. Knowing how to watch your p’s and q’s in each of these places is essential in order to get by or perhaps advance in this world.
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Indeed, the production itself telegraphs a few thoughts about America’s shared cultural fondness for sloppiness (or “sloppiness” if you want to be a jerk), intentional or not.
Over the course of six episodes of “Mind Your Manners”, Ho gently corrects several subjects whose interpersonal sense of propriety is almost up to par and scrutinizes others. One of her most difficult cases, Stephanie Osifo, is introduced in the first episode.
A drinking party girl whose clothes violate public obscenity laws, Osifo comes to Ho to learn how to behave more elegantly. To this end, Ho teaches her how to walk, dress more modestly, wear less make-up, and in the scene intended to channel My Fair Lady, pronounce her words correctly when she says, “The rain in Spain falls mostly on the plain. .”
There are other embarrassing components as well. There is an episode involving a white guy with an Asian fetish who is helped by Ho to polish his profile on a dating app.
“Mind Your Manners” is a friendly cramming to help anyone get through the unspoken trials that most are unaware of as soon as they enter the room.
I also doubt that Ho had a long history of marginalizing blacks and Hispanics due to their eloquence when she cast Osipho, a black Nigerian, as Eliza Doolittle for her professor, Henry Higgins. On the other hand, maybe she is well aware of such circumstances and is simply trying to provide armor to Osifo to fight them.
In any case, there is something to appreciate, albeit controversial, in the usefulness of a graceful approach to etiquette, especially when we are preparing to share the table with the best family china and silverware with others who do not necessarily think like us. This hints that yes, there is a system set against people who do not know its rules.
Given that most people will never go to graduate school and be taught how to use a napkin properly, Netflix’s Ho also offers friendly cramming to help anyone get through the unspoken trials that most of us don’t know they’re going through due to the moment they enter the room.
To quote a controversial quotation often attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your neighbor. True nobility is to be above yourself.”
Sometimes I wonder if the person who judged my worth by my table manners understood this. It doesn’t matter, because Sarah Jane Ho does it and makes this example widely available to everyone who is learning.
Mind Your Manners is currently streaming on Netflix.
how manners make a man