Richmond Proper: On courtesy to one’s own family

“A myth exists that one of the pleasures of private life is the ability to drop manners and — as people always put it when they assert the desire to be repulsive — be themselves.”

“A myth exists that one of the pleasures of private life is the ability to drop manners and — as people always put it when they assert the desire to be repulsive — be themselves. On the contrary, that rapidly becomes one of its drawbacks….When the manners of personal respect disappear, and couples feel free to insult each other when they happen to harbor unflattering feelings, they get rapidly worse.”
— Judith Martin

“One face to the world, another at home makes for misery.”
— Amy Vanderbilt

Ah, February. When the holidays and snow days have passed, and the novelty of the season has worn off, you’re still stuck inside avoiding the icy wind. Each year you lift your head up from the December / January whirlwind and find yourself planted firmly in February, though it seems like winter should have stepped courteously aside for spring by now. While you’re waiting for that first warm day when all of Richmond will inevitably turn out wearing pastels and skipping, you’ve got plenty of quality time to spend with your family.

As cabin fever sets in, it’s important to think about the courtesy we show to our own families. Spouses, parents, children, and roommates are some of the most important people in our lives and often they are shown the least civility.  I’m not sure who started this evil rumor, but good manners aren’t meant to be saved for strangers. As Judith Martin observes, “The consequences of violating etiquette in ordinary life are more unpleasant than the effects of small technical errors on formal occasions.”

A lot of people will use the excuse that they need to “let it all hang out” in order to enjoy being comfortable around their families. Nobody is expecting you to be this perfect little plastic-smiley robot family. You can be as open, vulnerable, and real with your family as you like without being crass and inconsiderate. I think summed it up perfectly with this comment:

Give all of us a break. We are so tired of rude, obnoxious tirades, tantrums and behavior semi-justified as being ‘real.’ It’s real alright. Really, really disgusting.

Over time, this kind of behavior reinforces the message that you don’t think highly enough of them to show them your best side.

In truth, your family should be the group you want to show kindness and respect to, above any other group. These are the people you spend your life with. So stop talking over each other, glaring from across the room, and slamming doors. Stop texting at the dinner table, burping loudly between bites of pizza, and bickering about each other’s faults.

Start enjoying your time together. Break out those bar books and finally try those cocktails you’ve been talking about. Start a serious Wii Boxing tournament. Go on long walks and reward yourselves with hot chocolate. Do one of those puzzles that features a picture of a covered bridge. Start a kite-flying society. Or whatever. The point is, cherish these people that you spend most of your life with, and give them the same respect and manners that you would give the Queen.

You might say that you don’t want to be fake, and that the real you blurts out whatever she feels without thinking and clips her fingernails at breakfast. But I argue that the real you wants to treat her family with love and consideration, and wants to put the emphasis on conversation and shared experiences rather than on whose gross-out humor threshold is the highest. Once you eradicate this false you — the you that shows composure and civility only to outsiders — not only will your family know how much you care about them, but you will be setting an example of what a difference a little decency makes. And being considerate is contagious.

Enjoy the rest of the winter, dear Richmond Proper readers. I can see the sun just around the corner.

“Don’t reserve your best behavior for special occasions. You can’t have two sets of manners, two social codes — one for those you admire and want to impress, another for those whom you consider unimportant. You must be the same to all people.”
— Lillian Eichler Watson

“Most people feel they need etiquette only on occasions when they are spending a great deal of money — putting on a wedding, for example.  Otherwise, they can apparently make do with rudeness.”
— Judith Martin

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

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