There is that excruciating moment, that moment that all adolescents feel, upon entering a crowded cafeteria or dining hall to discover that all tables are occupied and there is no one with a familiar mug in the vicinity. The prospect of “breaking bread” with strangers may seem intimidating to people of all ages, but to anyone who has put their mingling skills to work at a mixer or fundraiser, it is an art that can be acquired. It is a personal challenge, to make a decent first impression upon meeting someone new. There is something gratifying about making a new acquaintance. A new person avails new insights, perspectives and world views, and what a diverse world we live in. To me, engaging in a healthy discussion with someone new, albeit the initial awkwardness of an introduction, is refreshing.
A few days ago, I found myself on a patio behind my office, in the midst of the bustling lunch hour, and the four lunch tables were occupied. At one sat three businessmen, speaking Chinese and smoking cigarettes. At another, four women in their mid-twenties. A pair of middle-aged women in business suits sat at another, and a lone man reading at the fourth. Perhaps it was because I have an affinity for reading too, or perhaps because he was alone and the most approachable, I angled toward the lone bibliophile. The table was also in full sun, and I was hoping to catch some rays during my hour break.
“Hi, would you mind if I join you?” He had earbuds in. I stood awkwardly for a few seconds and tried again, a bit louder. “Hi! Would you mind if I join you?”
He shrugged. “No, that’s fine.”
“Great.” I sat down, shook his hand, and asked him if he liked the novel he was reading, a series I’m reading as well. He left one ear bud dangling.
“Yeah, it’s great.”
I have an incessant curiosity. I asked him where he worked. He was fresh out of college. What university had he attended? He gave one or two words answers, and eventually he began to read his book again, put his earbud back in, and we were left in silence. So, I pulled out my own book and went about cracking that open. Before I did, I took a look around.
The four women sitting together, also, were not conversing. Two were playing games or texting on their phones, perhaps scrolling through recent Facebook posts. One of the women was obviously watching a video or movie on her phone, with her earbuds screwed in. The fourth woman had an I-pod on.
One of the business women, in a tailored suit, stood up to take a telephone call, leaving her company to also take out her cellphone to scroll through. And in the midst of the traffic from the busy intersection, I heard a bird tweet.
I must admit that I have been guilty of using my phone as a distraction before. I am not exempt from this, but are there modern courtesy guidelines that should guide our interactions with each other? Etiquette for a modern age? Certainly in the past, etiquette was something that was upheld—a sign of your upbringing, your hosting abilities and your civility.
Eating lunch on a patio is no formal dinner, and if the people on the patio were at a formal gathering of some sort, I am certain they would act accordingly. It was their hour lunch break, for crying out loud, not brunch with the Pope. Of course the hour was theirs to do with as they wished, and perhaps the opportunity to recede from the clamoring atmosphere of the office through a video game, book or social media site is what they craved. In fact, I am guilty of carrying my novel-of-the-day into any restaurant where I’ll be dining alone, to distract myself. With all the distraction we carry, in the form of an Internet capable cellphone in our pockets, what are we losing?
Forbes, always a step ahead of me, compiled a 2014 list of 27 etiquette guidelines for our challenging modern world. These rules are not only practical, but are gender-neutral. They boil down to some very Buddhist-approved points: mindfulness and concentration. The ability to unplug and be present is prevalent in this list. So let that text message sit on the cell phone until you are through with dinner, display your social skills in a fearless way, and never, never, never come to a party empty-handed.
“The Art of Manliness” website has also compiled an article, “The Anatomy of Etiquette: How to Be an Old School Gentleman from Head to Toe.” I know this one will send some people into a tizzy. This is a list of etiquette for men, and includes manners such as standing when a lady enters a dining room, pulling out a chair at a seating, or helping a lady on and off with her coat. Old fashioned? Up for interpretation, but any thoughtful gesture that proves that you are invested in the present moment, that the person in your company is worth your attention, will rack up brownie points. Everyone is different, but if I do lend my company to a gentleman for a date, every small etiquette-filled gesture makes me like him that much more. A man doesn’t have to be Mr. Debonair (unless he wants to be Mr. Debonair) but if you are taking anyone out to dinner you would like to impress, small gestures are impressive. These do not necessarily have to be gendered gestures, either. At business meetings and functions, I find it entirely appropriate to stand and greet newcomers to a table setting with a handshake. In fact, it’s always best to rise and shake someone’s hand if you have the capacity to do so. It shows “Yes, I am making an effort to meet you.”
There are so many beliefs pushing for the extinction of etiquette. How many times have you heard “Chivalry is dead”? People are in a hurry, they are rushed; they don’t have time for this or that. “Excuse me, so sorry, I must take this, I’m so busy…”
“The Ins and Outs of Opening a Door for a Woman” is also an article found on “The Art of Manliness” website, and what a touchy, touchy subject this one is. There have been several instances in which I have seen women scoff because a gentleman holds a door open for them. I have heard the words “I can do it myself,” and I cringe. There should be an outcry to feminists (feminist to feminist), a memo sent out: a decent show of manners does not insinuate inferiority. Far from it, ladies. Men know that women are capable of opening a door—it’s not rocket science. And if a man is attracted to women who are incapable of opening doors, this only denotes the man’s detriments. This show of affection, of politeness, should not be scoffed—a simple “thank you” will suffice. When a woman is rude to a man for holding a door, this hits his ego in a big way. Not only was he trying to show kindness, in a very human, useful way, but she just gave him a figurative slap in the face for it. Will that guy hold open the door for the next woman who walks his way, or will he be fearful of an embarrassing backlash at the kind gesture? I have also seen the flip-side: women who are angry when doors are not held open for them, who lollygag around outside of a car until the door is opened for them. The holding of a door should not be belittled, should not be expected, but should be appreciated. Women who have a problem with manners, like the opening of a door, should step it up themselves. Instead of disparaging etiquette as bigotry, they should be opening the doors instead. Instead of putting down someone for being kind, graciously learn to accept and reciprocate. That’s one thing our empowered, bra-burning predecessors should have been a bit more cautious about—one can be powerful and respectful. Hold the door open for him next time. Pull out the chair for your grandmother at the dinner table, and help her on with her coat too. Set down the cell phone and talk with the person at the lunch table.