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D.L. Stewart: Some readers still try to mind their manners

The letter in The Washington Post this week seemed charmingly quaint, a throwback to an era in which men stood up and doffed their hats anytime a woman wearing long white gloves entered the room.

“DEAR MISS MANNERS,” the letter began, “I find myself stunned at most people’s table manners. For example: breaking bread/rolls and buttering each bite, using a thumb to push food onto a fork, correct utensil usage (using a place spoon for soup), cutting up an entire entree salad at once, serving coffee after dessert, leaving napkins on the table at end of a meal, passing salt and pepper together, etc.”

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When I spotted the letter I, too, was stunned, because I had no idea people still wrote to newspapers seeking etiquette advice. Or that anyone concerned themselves with table manners, anymore. I just assumed that admitting you cared about table manners and etiquette had become just another way of telling the world, “I’m really old.”

But even before I became really old I did my best to teach my kids table manners when they were growing up. I may not have known what a place spoon was and why using it to eat one’s soup was worse than, say, eating one’s soup with a fork. But my wife and I did have some rules in an attempt to avoid having meals with our four teenage boys turn into dining with Attila and his Huns.

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Some of the rules were not open for debate, such as the one declaring that the request, “Pass the potatoes,” did not mean passing them in the football sense of the word. As anyone who personally has raised a teenager will understand, though, just about every other rule immediately became a challenge to find technicalities for getting around them. And it’s probably a miracle that only one of ours turned out to be a lawyer.

The “no baseball caps at the dinner table” rule, for instance, had to be re-written after a 14-year-sat down at the table wearing a football helmet. The one I thought clearly stated that no one could start to eat until Mom, or whoever cooked the meal, was seated at the table led to endless debates about whether sitting down required one cheek or two. We didn’t even try to have a rule about elbows on the table, because that undoubtedly would have meant at the next dinner all four of them would have their feet on the table.

So if Miss Manners’ “Gentle Reader” was stunned by the sight of salt and pepper shakers being passed together, it’s probably a good thing he or she never ate at our house. He or she would have fainted dead away.

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