Etiquette and bodies that don’t conform

Manners are nothing more than a set of rules for social situations. The function of a lot of these rules has nothing to do with making social situations flow smoothly, and everything to do with demonstrating that you know the rules.

If something that constitutes good manners could equally be expressed as kindness, and being nice to people, then there’s no issue. Once we get into which fork to use first, and how to eat a banana with said fork, the only point is to demonstrate that enough time and money has been thrown at you to turn you into the sort of person who can eat a banana with a fork, and that you are therefore not a commoner.

I’m a commoner, so, sod that stuff!

What troubles me, is that so often, ‘manners’ are full of assumptions about the kind of body you have. I was sat in the dining room at a school my son attended some years ago, and there was a poster about the proper and polite way to hold a cup. You have to do it daintily, by the handle. You must not grip it in your fist. I have an intermittent shake, and nothing sets it off like overloading a few fingers. If I hold a cup daintily, the odds of my daintily spraying everyone with coffee in a sudden hand judder, are pretty good. I consider it better manners to hold the cup in my hand, or in two hands on really bad days, and not oblige anyone else to wear my beverage.

It’s a small example, but it illustrates the point. The more assumptions there are around acceptable manners about what a body can be asked to do, the more people it excludes. The more demanding the manners are, the more people are pushed out, socially embarrassed, made to feel awkward over things they have no control over. For every daft rule about what we’re supposed to do at the dinner table, there will be people whose bodies really can’t work that way.

My personal standards are based on kindness and utility, not any desire to prove my ‘breeding’. On those terms, I can’t think of many things that are ruder and less polite than shaming people for not being able to jump through pointless etiquette hoops.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

9 responses to “Etiquette and bodies that don’t conform

  • Tracy Kruse

    So true! To boot, an odd thought suddenly popped into my head at the end. WHY do we refer to ‘breeding’, or who schtooped who in the making of us to be important? Why is it used for division??? In my life, breeding usually refers to horses and cattle. Why is breeding so darn important anyway?

  • Siobhan Johnson

    The other thing about manners over kindness is when, as a child, you learn the fatal lesson that pointing out how your stepmother’s being rude is not mannerly, and is therefore worse than being a recipient of many, many backhanded compliments and barefaced insults, sorry, jokes. I’m sure the names and exact circumstances differ between person to person, but I bet we’ve all experienced this at some point.

    • Nimue Brown

      Oh dear gods yes, that we must be polite in face of other people’s appalling behavior – when its things they have plenty of control over and should be told isn’t acceptable. But, don’t rock the boat, right/ Don’t make a fuss, don’t draw attention because that wouldn’t be nice and might make other people feel uncomfortable.

  • Linda Davis

    Hmm…sorry about this but…does anyone know when it became ‘bad manners’ to burp or fart in public, and why? (As one gets older windyness can put one in severe danger of embarrassment!)

    • Nimue Brown

      Ooh, that’s a good one, isn’t it? I don’t know, but I do remember a story about a Victorian gentleman whose innards exploded because he couldn’t get away to anywhere private to let rip.

  • Robin

    on the peculiar matter of ‘breeding’ it is interesting and salient how words for those people on the lower rung of the hierarchy of breeding have been turned into insults, ‘peasant’ ‘villain’ ‘boor’ ‘blaggard’ ‘churl’ etc

  • A rather random roundup of links – Unlocking Words

    […] Etiquette and bodies that don’t conform By Nimue Brown […]

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