It Costs Nothing to be Polite

When I was thirteen-years-old, my family moved from Oregon to Florida.  To that point in my life, I’d lived in Germany, Washington state, and Oregon.  There is a HUGE cultural difference between the Pacific Northwest and the Southeastern United States, and it manifested itself in my first southern classroom.

My teacher asked me a question and I said, “Yeah.”  I didn’t say, “Yeah,” with an attitude of disrespect; however, the teacher took the simple word to be disrespectful.

She said, “Yeah?”  Emphasizing the word and making it two syllables.  At that point, the rest of the class started chuckling, because they recognized my ignorant faux pax.

I replied with, “Yeeaaahhh,” slowing down the word in a long stretch.

She said, “Yes?”

Not knowing what else to do, I said, “Yes?”

She said, “Yes, what?”

I said, “I don’t understand?”

She said, “What don’t you understand?”

I said, “This entire exchange.  I don’t understand.  Yes, what?”

She finally said, “When you answer me, you say, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ or, ‘No, ma’am.’  Every time.  Do you understand?”

I remember starting to say, “Yeah,” but stopped myself and very slowly said the words for the first time in my life, “Yes, ma’am.”

my father-in-law at the Citadel in South Carolina

My husband Gregg is southern to the core.  His parents hailed from South Carolina.  His father graduated from the Citadel.  He refers to the Civil War as “The Recent Unpleasantness.”  In his parents’ dining room hangs the portrait of a Confederate great-grandfather in his Confederate uniform.  He comes from a proud southern family with proud southern roots.  He takes children speaking to adults with southern manners very seriously.

Gregg will often roll out, with his honey smooth southern accent, a Winston Churchill quote, “When it comes time to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.”

I don’t punish my children for not saying “ma’am” or “sir”.  I just correct them.  Sometimes I wonder what the point is.  Sometimes I think I’m just wasting my breath and they’ll never learn.  But then I watch Kaylee and realize they’re getting it – she did, so they’ll get it.  To me, it is important that they don’t face a teacher like I did, brand new in a brand new school, state, region of the country, and in front of an entire class be broken down like I was.  I want them to know the answer to, “Yes, what?”

For Mothers’ Day weekend, we went to my parents’ house.  All day Saturday, I watched the boys interact with my parents.  And all day, I heard, “Yes, please.”  “No, thank you.”  “Yes, ma’am.”  “No, sir.”  I didn’t have to correct and/or prompt them a single time.  Now, when they spoke to me, I had to prompt them.  But with my parents, I didn’t.  Progress!

Yesterday, I came across this article:  25 Manners Every Child Should Know by Age 9.  I thought it was very well thought out — and also thought that a good chunk of our culture today is lacking in these areas.  So many children are simply rude.  And they’re not rude to be disrespectful, they’re rude by simply not exhibiting these manners.  And I can only think that their parents must not be teaching them these simple manners.

  1. When asking for something, say “Please.”
  2. When receiving something, say “Thank you.”
  3. Do not interrupt grown-ups who are speaking with each other unless there is an emergency. They will notice you and respond when they are finished talking.
  4. If you do need to get somebody’s attention right away, the phrase “excuse me” is the most polite way for you to enter the conversation.
  5. When you have any doubt about doing something, ask permission first. It can save you from many hours of grief later.
  6. The world is not interested in what you dislike. Keep negative opinions to yourself, or between you and your friends, and out of earshot of adults.
  7. Do not comment on other people’s physical characteristics unless, of course, it’s to compliment them, which is always welcome.
  8. When people ask you how you are, tell them and then ask them how they are.
  9. When you have spent time at your friend’s house, remember to thank his or her parents for having you over and for the good time you had.
  10. Knock on closed doors — and wait to see if there’s a response — before entering.
  11. When you make a phone call, introduce yourself first and then ask if you can speak with the person you are calling. (sidenote from the parent of a teenager:  read this post I wrote regarding this issue)
  12. Be appreciative and say “thank you” for any gift you receive. In the age of e-mail, a handwritten thank-you note can have a powerful effect.
  13. Never use foul language in front of adults. Grown-ups already know all those words, and they find them boring and unpleasant.
  14. Don’t call people mean names.
  15. Do not make fun of anyone for any reason. Teasing shows others you are weak, and ganging up on someone else is cruel.
  16. Even if a play or an assembly is boring, sit through it quietly and pretend that you are interested. The performers and presenters are doing their best.
  17. If you bump into somebody, immediately say “Excuse me.”
  18. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and don’t pick your nose in public.
  19. As you walk through a door, look to see if you can hold it open for someone else. (Sidenote from the wife of a southern gentleman:  Gregg will say to Kaylee, “What is a man’s job?”  She’ll answer, “To open the door.”  Gregg will say, “What is the woman’s job?”  Kaylee will answer, “To let him.”)
  20. If you come across a parent, a teacher, or a neighbor working on something, ask if you can help. If they say “yes,” do so — you may learn something new.
  21. When an adult asks you for a favor, do it without grumbling and with a smile.
  22. When someone helps you, say “thank you.” That person will likely want to help you again. This is especially true with teachers!
  23. Use eating utensils properly. If you are unsure how to do so, ask your parents to teach you or watch what adults do.
  24. Keep a napkin on your lap; use it to wipe your mouth when necessary.
  25. Don’t reach for things at the table; ask to have them passed.

Do you push manners on your children?  What do you think of this list?


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