Manners and Meatballs

Sometimes a simple “please” or “thank you” can be the difference between war and peace.

It was a wild ride to the mecca of brilliant Scandinavian design, where everything is sleek and reasonably priced. You know the one. As my daughter and I left the car in the parking garage of the huge store, we paused to acknowledge the debt of gratitude owed to the navigational skills and the reassuring voice of the GPS lady. Sure, it’s her job, but warning us miles ahead that we needed to get to the far side of the eight-lane interstate, or we would be making a weird left-hand exit, is tremendously helpful when negotiating downtown Atlanta at 75 mph. Though we laughed at ourselves, it seemed like good manners to thank her for going the extra mile to get us there.

Once inside, we resisted the lure of the store’s café as it offered up the tantalizing aroma of its world-renowned meatballs and chose instead to head directly toward throw pillows, picture frames, kitchen tools, luxury bedding and cool doodads we didn’t even know exist. We expected that there would be lots of people, but were taken aback by the lines of shoppers hurling themselves on to the escalator with single-minded purpose, like lemmings to the sea.
As if it was the last day in the world to buy Swedish furniture, baby strollers were reduced to battering rams, their small inhabitants clenching stuffed animals tightly in tiny hands.

Women in fluorescent spandex speed-marched their way through showrooms of perfectly placed accessories, trailed by dazed husbands and cranky children who clearly didn’t view this as the adventure they were promised when dragged out of bed on a Saturday morning.

In fact, there seemed to be an inordinate number of rude and cranky people about. We’re used to a generally mannerly and congenial shopping environment back home (Black Friday notwithstanding). This was nuts. Stranded across the aisle in the curtain department, my daughter waved over a steady stream of buggies speeding through the aisles. She eased her cart into the traffic, only to be abruptly cut off by a woman with a basket full of lampshades. “Whoa! I guess we’re not in South Carolina anymore!” she gasped, righting herself after sliding into the rug section on two wheels.

It was an interesting observation, but I’d have been a sorry Georgia Peach not to stand up for the state of my birth, so I momentarily bowed up in righteous indignation. It was short-lived, though, as I was immediately T-boned by an eight-year-old speeding toward the toy department. With eyebrows hovering just above the buggy’s handle, she drove with the unapologetic determination of a NASCAR driver.

We like to think that we live in the most polite place in the world, and we’re proud that our state actually has awards to prove it (although it is a little impolite to brag outside the South Carolina line). I had manners drilled into me as a child and have apparently done a fair job of passing them on. But it seems that for me the line between good and bad manners can be a bit blurry, causing me to jump from Emily Post to The Terminator when dealing with those who show no regard for small courtesies, which really, when I think about it, is rather impolite.

When someone lets me into a line of traffic, I try always to wave my thanks into the rearview mirror. I’m ridiculously concerned with making sure they’ve seen my salute, sometimes even rolling down the window to do it again. It’s a small thing, but a big deal to me when a person goes out of their way. So when I let someone into traffic, and they don’t make the effort, I immediately want to rescind the gesture, and I fantasize about installing a giant paintball launcher on the front of my car.

Little things, like holding a door or letting someone go first in the grocery line, aren’t world-changing events, but I think they say something about us. Take for example, the zigging and zagging dance and mutual sheepish apology exchanged when we almost collide with someone on a crowded aisle or sidewalk. Polite people do it almost without thinking. It costs nothing but maybe two steps out of the day. What goes through your head when someone barrels into you, scowls and moves on without a word? It takes all my willpower not to stick out my foot to send them sprawling. I don’t do it, but I think about it.

Admit it—you do, too. So does it mean we have bad manners for thinking of the bad behavior in the first place? Or really good manners for thinking about it but not acting on it? Therein lurks the blurry line.

As much as we’d like to, no place can claim an exclusive on the manners market, and regardless of where we’ve been brought up or live in the world, the overwhelming majority of us go out of our way to say please, thank you and excuse me. You wouldn’t think that simple manners might help bring about world peace until you realize how easy it is to want to reward rude behavior with more rude behavior. Fortunately, knowing that my mother would have snatched a knot in my tail helps me control the impulse when all of the mannerless converge in one place.

We were put to the test many times throughout the shopping adventure, and rewarded ourselves at its end by standing in line for the famous Swedish meatballs only to have the woman in front of us lean over and yell the entire contents of the menu past our faces to her family members who were holding a table far behind us in the crowded restaurant. As she waved her arms to hold their attention and take their orders, she put on a virtual play to convince the toddlers in her group of the merits of apple slices over French fries. Shaking my head at her rudeness, I turned to my daughter and whispered, “Somebody ought to bean her with a meatball.”

The man behind us caught my eye, and I was mortified to be caught putting my thoughts out there. Then he looked toward the woman, shook his head, and laughed out loud. Good manners or bad manners? I suppose it depends on your point of view.

I know that I’m not going to let loose a volley of ground meat, but the man behind me has just watched me straddle a very fine line. When it is our turn to pick up our food, I give him a thumbs-up and a smile before getting my meatballs and walking away—just so he was clear about which side of it I’m on.

By Susan Frampton