As a child, respect, kindness, and manners were modeled by my parents and expected of my brothers and me… I muddled through my elementary years demonstrating enough “manners” to keep the focus off of me and on my brothers.
Then I became a teenager. I am certain my parents would say I pushed the limits of their patience during that time. A “trying” adolescent, with a strong desire not to conform, I scoffed at the idea of etiquette. I wanted to throw convention to the wind: wear what I wanted, say what I wanted, show up when I wanted.
Maturity ultimately settled in, but non-conformity followed me well into early adulthood. Strangely it was my non-conventional life that brought me to an appreciation for social convention, otherwise known as manners. To me, etiquette was somehow synonymous with American snobbery, but overseas travel quickly taught me that manners are universal. Furthermore, it is not snobbery at all; in all their forms, manners are an expression of respect and kindness.
I learned that good manners in practice vary by culture. One of my favorite cross-cultural examples is found in east Africa. Here, one always greets an elder with “Shikamo,”an expression that literally means, “I hold your feet”, to which there is the expected reply of “Marahaba” which roughly translates to “I am delighted. I don’t get that every day.” The first time I was addressed in this way, it did feel very strange, but I soon grew semi comfortable with this African etiquette and still chuckle to myself now whenever I think about offering to hold some of the feet I encounter.
Having spent my childhood in Michigan, I was almost as disconcerted by my first interaction with a child upon settling in Charleston. Shortly after moving into our home here on Daniel Island, I initiated a conversation with the young girl who lived next door. It went roughly like this:
“Hi Dear, how are you?”
“I’m fine, Ma’am.”
“I have a daughter who must be close to your age, maybe you’d like to meet her?”
“Do you go to Daniel Island School?”
…you get the idea. Well, I’ll admit it: I turned around, went back into the house and told my husband “Holy Moly, we’re in serious trouble. Our kids need to work on their manners!” It wasn’t that they were impolite young girls, but up until then they had been raised in the northern US and Cyprus- and I needed to ‘Southernize’ their manners! Those raised in the South might not realize that Northerners are not taught to use “Ma’am” in its polite form. More typically “Ma’am” is used by a snarky teenager giving a sassy comeback to her mother as in, “Well, yes, Ma’am!!” (accompanied by exaggerated eye roll)
Despite cultural differences, the intent of good manners is the same across cultures: a conveyance of respect. And whether you live in east Africa, in northern Michigan or here on Daniel Island, demonstrations of respect for those around you are equally important.
When children learn to practice situation specific etiquette, they demonstrate expressions of respect and kindness that are appropriate in our society. Being able to project these intentions is not always as easy as it would seem. I have met many children who are kind hearted and well-intentioned, but are unable to interact with adults (or peers) in a manner that conveys it. Particularly these days, when electronics are replacing a chunk of what would otherwise be practiced in social interactions, children need guidance in presenting themselves in a way that reflects strong character and ethics. Young people who have learned how to do this are more comfortable and confident in their ability to relate to different people and social situations.
Providing children, ours and yours, with the means to be kind, respectful and confident in all social interactions is the goal of GEM. And in our society, part of doing this is teaching children to look an adult in the eye, to show gratitude for service and gifts received, to stand up for friends, and to use a fork to eat your rice (feet holding not required).