My Southern grandmother drilled old-fashioned etiquette into my mother’s head. My mother drilled that same etiquette into mine. Which is weird, really. My mother turned her back on much of her upbringing when she became a liberated woman. She reclaimed her maiden name. She mortified my grandmother by embracing their Cherokee heritage and getting suntans so dark my racist grandmother would insist – in the most DIRE tones — that “her daughter was turning black.” My mother discarded “Mrs.,” bras, hats, gloves, and the idea that all ladies should be competent with a stove or a vacuum.
But somehow, Southern etiquette survived the purging.
Some of the manners I learned were basic:
- “Please” and “thank you” are not optional. (Smacking a kid in the head for forgetting this rule IS optional.)
- Set the table properly and keep your dirty elbows off it.*
- A table is not properly set unless there are red wineglasses. (Overlooking salad forks could be forgiven. Overlooking wineglasses could not.).
- ALWAYS clear the table. Don’t offer, just get up and do it.
- First to reach a manual door at the Smithsonian Museum? Hold it open for everyone behind you, yes, even including the seventy-five seniors bused in from the local retirement community.
- More guests over than chairs? Go get extra chairs from another room.
- Still not enough chairs? Give your seat to an adult and sit on the floor.
- Visiting a friend or relative? Bring a “bread-and-butter” gift.
And some rules seemed ridiculous:
- A properly set table includes at least three spoons, three forks, and two knives per table setting.
- Wipe your mouth before you take a sip of water at the table, otherwise you leave smudges on the glass and you’ll be judged a Neanderthal and so will your mother.
- Always bring out the good china for guests. Never mind if certain guests are horrific four-year-olds who smash plates and laugh. Good breeding trumps Royal Doulton wreckage.
- Under no circumstances EVER should the metal of your utensil touch your teeth. No excuses. Yes, an obnoxious sibling deliberately jostling your elbow is an excuse. Shut up and be more alert next time.
- The soup spoon moves from the front of the bowl to the back before it is lifted to your mouth.
- The soup spoon should never be more than half-full. (If it takes you so long to eat your soup that your brother eats your entrée, so be it.)
- The oldest son must hold the chair and seat his Southern grandmother. (Usually while his little sisters smirked.)
I learned that the soup spoon was my enemy and my mother was inflexible on good manners. Especially when it came to the holy grail of good breeding: the thank you note.
As soon as I could write, my mother insisted I send thank you notes to my grandparents. My first one was an absolute triumph:
My mother never corrected my handwriting, my spelling, my punctuation, or my grammar. (Obviously.) The note didn’t even have to be on pretty paper (a good thing, for our less-than wealthy family). But after every Christmas and every birthday, a thank you note was due to every person who gave me a gift. And I was permanently glued to my kitchen chair until those notes were finished, (probably by the sheer force of my mother’s disapproval).
My mother died when I was a teenager, but by then the indoctrination was complete. My full siblings and I still send each other thank you notes when we receive gifts.
After Christmas with my family in New Hampshire, I handed my Chinese-American fiancée a stack of cards on the airplane home. “You can borrow some of mine.”
Andy’s face was as blank as the cards. “For what?”
Me: “For thank you notes.”
Me: “You’ve never heard of thank you notes? For gifts?”
Andy: “Yes, I have heard of them. Like I’ve heard about dinosaurs.”
Me: “So there’s no thank you notes in China?”
Andy: “Ahem. Born in Hawaii, remember? There’s no thank you notes there.”
Me: “The hell there’s not. I sent at least fifty to my grandparents in Kauai.”
Andy put the cards back on my tray table. “If you’re not white, you don’t write.”
Me: “You made that up.”
Andy: “No way! It’s an ancient pidgin proverb.”
Me: “Really. Have you heard this one? ‘He who angers fiancée sleeps on couch.’” I shoved the cards back at him. “The white people gave you gifts. You send them the thank you notes. If the Chinese people give you gifts, you can slide.”
Andy: “But – but — your Ex-Stepmother gave me towels. So. Many. Towels.”
I smiled. “Hell, yeah she did.” My Ex-stepmother was worried that Andy would feel left out while the rest of her kids were opening lots of presents. So she bought him a whole set of towels, and wrapped each one separately, down to the wash cloths. My Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister also feared Andy would be shafted. She gave Andy a whole set of fancy measuring cups and spoons — also all wrapped separately. By the end of the morning, the rest of us had opened all our gifts and Andy still had a pile of presents. So we cheered him on and played guessing games as to whether the next gift would be a hand towel or wash cloth.
Andy shot me a look of growing horror. “I don’t have to write a thank you note for every individual gift, do I?”
“Absolutely,” I told him. I let him suffer for several minutes before admitting that one note to each giver was acceptable. Because suffering deters people from making up bogus proverbs, right?
Ten months later, Andy and I were on our way back to New Hampshire for our wedding. We’d cashed in thousands of airline miles and we were flying first class.
Andy had a drink, a bowl of warm nuts, and a blissful smile on his face. “Just think, honey. For the next six hours, no one can call and bother us with any questions or problems with the wedding.”
I handed him a stack of cards. “I know! We can get all the thank yous done for the registry gifts that have already arrived!”
Andy recoiled. “Nooo!”
“Yessss,” I gloated. “And you cannot escape now.”
One of the flight attendants stifled a giggle as she walked by. Andy groaned.
I held out a pen. “What? Do you really think it’s fair that I write them all?”
“But you’re a good writer.”
“But your handwriting is prettier. Perhaps YOU should write them ALL.”
“I don’t see why anyone has to write them,” Andy sulked.
“First, it’s courteous to let people know their gift has arrived—”
“They could track it online,” Andy argued.
“–second, a note allows you to express your appreciation—”
“Uh-huh. Cuz I so appreciate the cheap-ass imitation lava lamp with fake fish we got from my father’s second cousin.”
“—and third, it’s just good manners!” I glared.
Andy waved the cards and envelopes at me. “But honey! Think of the trees! The carbon footprint!”
“That’s why we’re going to do them on the plane and mail them at the airport in Boston. Most of them are going to New England or down the Eastern Seaboard. And they are made from recycled paper.”
Andy sighed. “So…I’m in charge of thanking my family?”
“Sure. You thank your family, and I’ll thank mine.”
After I finished my first card, I looked over. Andy had his ear buds in. He was watching cars explode on his monitor. I poked him with a pen.
“Dude! You are supposed to be thanking people!”
Andy smugly shook his head. “After Christmas, you said,” and here the man brought out the AIR QUOTES, “‘if the Chinese people give you gifts, you can slide.’” He put the cards on my tray table and patted my hand. “But you go ahead and thank all your people following your own customs.”
I fumed, but he was right. Damn it. How dare the man actually listen to me. “You could help, you know. You’re the one who uses that giant Calphalon pot set my grandparents sent.”
“But we agreed. You thank your family. I’ll handle mine.” Andy sipped his drink and smiled at me.
I smiled back. “Fine. You can handle all of our friends. If they are Chinese, slide away. If they aren’t Chinese, though…” I put the cards back on his tray table.
Too bad most of our friends are either white or Japanese.
*Taco night excepted. On taco night, we set the table with only one thing: newspaper. Elbows on the table were encouraged. Clearing the table involved rolling up the newspaper and throwing it away. Taco night was awesome.
31 thoughts on “No Thank You (#65)”
I am so glad not to be a southerner (or a descendent of one). It’s like a whole other world down there!
I kinda think Thank You notes are stupid. Where did this custom start and is it practiced in most western countries?
One of the other foreigners living in the Chinese city I live in was rather distressed to find you couldn’t buy Thank You cards here. I think she had her mom send her some in the mail! I, on the other hand, have fully embraced the Chinese tradition of NOT giving them. No one would appreciate it anyways. If it’s not a red envelope stuffed full of cash, what’s the point?
I think originally it might have made sense — if you were sending a package all the way across the country on a train, you’d probably want to know it arrived. But back then, you’d be sending letters back and forth anyway. It’s also a simple extension of a verbal thank you, which Western culture considers important.
In my family, though, I’m pretty sure my mother harped on it because the grandparents also sent money to help keep our family afloat and she wanted to make sure that the money kept coming! So it was a way of reminding far-off grandparents that these grandchildren still existed and they had good manners. Ergo, please pay for ballet, gymnastics, swimming, etc.
Perhaps there was also a desire to try and build a relationship between child and grandparent, as well.
Yeah, I haven’t made Andy write a thank you note since the wedding. Especially after he pointed out that my father doesn’t write any! But with me, the brainwashing is hard to break.
Absolutely, it makes sense to send a card if someone sends you a gift or perhaps even if they don’t see you open it (I will begrudgingly concede). I just don’t get why I have to send one to everyone for everything, especially when I thanked them verbally. I guess it’s good for the USPS though.
Yeah. That’s what Andy says. That my family alone will save the USPS with all our archaic thank you notes.
I think I get where Andy is coming from. My husband has never written a thank you card and probably never will. In Taiwan, a wedding present is considered just a lend of money which needs to be returned at some point. When we got married, all the gift amounts [money in red envelopes] were recorded in a book. Now, whenever someone gets married and the bride or groom or their family attended our wedding, my husband consults the book and matches the amount given at our wedding.
For me, I think the one and only time I wrote a stack of thank you cards was for my wedding in Canada. However, my husband did his part by contacting the card company in Taiwan and he even got a discount because I ordered 50 [oh, and he signed his own name on them. 😉 ] I also included a couple of wedding photos from our Taiwan wedding photo shoot which are provided by the wedding photo shop and are normally given to guests in Taiwan during the wedding reception.
Wedding money is a loan? Really? That is fascinating. Very practical. I have never heard it described that way, but it makes sense, because I have heard about the ledgers. Huh. Now I am wondering if we are supposed to pay back various Aunts, Uncles, and cousins!
I do understand the thank you cards. Nothing pisses me off more than when I send a gift in the mail or even given at an event where it’s not opened and I don’t know if it even got to the recipient. (A friend had a bunch of her wedding gifts stolen at the reception) If I spend time and money on a gift, you can spend it on a thank you note. However, I am open to a very nice email expression of thanks. I like the ledger idea. I am going to a graduation this weekend for a grand nephew and for the life of me I can’t remember what $$ I gave his sister two years ago. I am sure there will be a comparison.
Oh, absolutely. Comparisons are odious, but they will be made. My siblings and I did them all the time. And of course, because we were young, we always thought the amount was on purpose. Never occurred to us that our grandparents might forget what they gave Big Brother two years before.
Yes, some sort of acknowledgment is important. Last year I think there was a rash of thefts on doorsteps, etc.
Ok, that did it. You made me go back through my checkbook to find the amount for the last grad gift. I’m safe now! It’s all even.
LOL, sorry, Kate!
I am sorry but I am old school here and I am proud to be so. I strongly feel like the world is turning into a bunch of savage people incapable of behaving decently in public AND private. I wish there were more people like your mother and you who understand how important it is to show respect to others through simple things like dressing properly, watching out your table manners, keeping a door open and so on. It is really not that hard and it goes a log way.
In my cross-cultural relationship a good amount of arguments are actually related to table manners: when Mr. B starts slurping or shoveling food in his mouth from the bowl it drives me nuts. I can’t help it. He always pulls off the “cultural difference” card, Chinese people eat like this and so on: I call BS.
Being a savage is NOT a cultural difference. Being a savage is just being a savage, period.
/ end of the rant.
Andy does a pretty good job of managing western table manners (he says it’s because he watched a lot of TV). I do not do nearly as well with Chinese manners when we’re at dim sum. And whoa! It completely freaked me out when his sweet little grandmother belched like a sailor. But I don’t mind that the manners are different — I loved Mary’s recent post on Chinese manners v. Japanese manners.
I’m wonky enough to get a kick out of learning different customs and the reasons behind them, even if they are pretty jarring to my delicate southern sensibilities at first.
Also, at least Andy draws the line at wiping his face on the tablecloth.
My Chinese husband had at least two sets of Chinese table manners depending on how formal the event was and–yes–the social class of the Chinese people with whom we were eating. One story he told me: When his younger brother was a child, he was a big eater and (another admission) fat. If his father saw him shoveling his food from the rice bowl into his mouth, he’d be angry and accuse him of acting like a coolie, especially if he sat with one foot on the chair. On the other hand, my husband didn’t mind eating a snack at home like a coolie.
Yeah, Andy can inhale food like a mastiff when he’s hungry. I don’t think he chews. But he manages decent manners in polite company.
“Coolie,” though? That’s pretty harsh from your own dad!
My father-in-law could be harsh, it’s true.
Wow, so many table rules! Most of them are also followed in Spain, although some of them not especifically mentioned (like touching the utensil with your teeth… I don’t think anyone ever told me but I have never done it I think). And a proper set table need to have 3 forks… but does this mean for special occasions or always??
Chinese people slurp noodles, yes. They say is their way of blowing (they do not blow when the food is too hot, but slurp). I told C. he cannot do that in Spain though.
We don’t have this thank you notes thing in Spain either, but if someone sends me a gift of course I would send a thank you email or whatsapp as soon as I receive it (and in the old days, a phone call).
Let’s see, forks: fish, main course, salad, cake, and a weird little two-pronged fork which has a use that I cannot remember…probably because we never used it. Maybe it was for snails or cheese? So I guess 3-5 forks, depending on the dishes and the formality of the occasion.
We usually didn’t have fish, but for special occasions, all the silverware came out. And it was a pain, but the table looked pretty!
We also had lovely crystal salt cellars, because salt shakers never work in high humidity (i.e., Washington D.C. 6 months out of the year).
Slurping! Absolutely prohibited in my mother’s house. But totally fine when having Chinese food now.
I had a red egg and ginger on two coasts and I didn’t write one thank you note to my Chinese side!!! YESSSSS.. SCOREEE!
Jealous…but do you have to keep the ledger and do payback when Chinese relatives get married?
I just gotta say, this line killed me: “If you’re not white, you don’t write.”
I agree with Marghi on this one: I’m glad your mom taught you the importance of a thank you card, and I think more of the world should do it (I shudder to think of our next generation–emails all the way, I’m guessing). I always write a thank you card, but it boggles my mind to think just where I got it from. Must have been Irish grandmother or French influenced mother.
Anyway, it means a lot. If I got a thank you card after a wedding (which has yet to happen) I would be elated and touched. Hell, if I get a card/postcard PERIOD I’m pretty damn happy. I think it’s a special treat that much of our world is forgetting about–handwritten letters and cards. Sigh.
As for table manners, I had no idea the south was soooooo strict. Talk about a lot to remember! And that soup rule…!? Crazy!!
One thing that took me FOREVER to get used to in China was the spitting of bones. In America, if we have fish/meat bones we need to remove, we usually do so secretly with a napkin to the lips. Chinese people just hawk it up and spit it right on the table. I even saw my boyfriend do this (mr. asian american himself), and I was really thrown back. It DOES kind of make sense, especially since fishing a bone out with your teeth or spitting it into a napkin is somewhat inconvenient and messy… but spitting it out directly onto the table for everyone to see is just so… so… uncouth…!!
Damn Autumn, you made a post about writing thank you cards so entertaining and thought provoking. You’re awesome.
Oh, the spitting out of the chicken toes! Plink, plink, plink…right on the plate. Yeah, that took some getting used to. Although Popo belching was freakier.
I’d agree that written cards are the way to go, and yet, I did think Andy had a point about the environmental impact.
Maybe someday we will send solar powered drones with plantable thank you cards containing tomato seeds.
I think my grandmother could go for that.
what are your opinions of getting the bone out… using your fingers? In the most discreet way possible, of course.
Hi, Anon! Good question. Are you asking about a chicken bone? Or are we talking chicken toes again? Well, either way, I think The Ultimate Overriding Rule in the Southern Book of Etiquette covers the situation: Be the Best Guest and Host Possible. As a good guest, you try everything, you NEVER make a face, and you emulate the customs of the culture around you. So spit out the toes and belch at dim sum! 🙂
As a good hostess, you always make your guests feel comfortable. I cannot tell you how many freakin’ times I heard the story of President Jimmy Carter and the flower when I was growing up:
At one White House dinner, each place setting had a flower in a bud vase. One of the guests from another continent mistook it for part of the meal, and ate his flower. President Carter promptly ate his own flower.
Even the Republicans were impressed! 🙂
I always enjoy getting thank-you notes from my grandchildren. They’re sweet and sometimes funny.
This is my favorite post by you and I know I haven’t read them all. But I thought this was well-written and I don’t know, maybe I like reading about manners…hahahhaha. It’s endearing. And I like you more for having been raised properly 😛
I think there’s something intriguing about comparing cultures, or even exploring manners in any culture. I’m always fascinated by cultural differences and similarities. It’s one of the reasons I like your blog.
Thanks. Yes, I think you were able to explain it better than me 🙂
Aw, thanks! I bask in fleeting glory, as that will never happen again.
I wonder if anyone actually writes thank you cards here. I guess not. Or… it’s way too rare to do it.
It’s funny how men only listen to what they want and remember exactly that at a very specific point. I think they got some sort of superpower.
Totally. The male super power has always been selective hearing/ memory.