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When it comes to matters of polite behavior, I sometimes think the majority of the modern world north of Greenville, South Carolina, and perhaps west of the mighty Mississippi would truly benefit from a good switching with a thin branch from a china-berry tree. My mother kept one in reserve on the plate rail of our family’s kitchen on Sullivan’s Island, should any of us think it was the right moment to let a little sassy mouth take center stage. Properly applied, it worked wonders.
I’m aware my manners aren’t flawless. No doubt they are compromised because I have lived and worked for nearly three decades in the cold-hearted, über-competitive, shamelessly arrogant tundra of Yankee territory. (This applies to everyone with the exception of my dearest friends and colleagues.) The point is this, as Miss Lavinia in my novel Plantation said, “Remember, good manners are the moisturizer of life.” And boy is that ever the truth.
Who among us has not suffered the horror of a dinner guest who thinks it’s perfectly fine to commandeer the conversation for the entire meal? The hostess has cooked for days, polished her silver, starched her linens, fixed her flowers and, heaven help us, here comes old Mr. or Mrs. Loquacious. They arrive, perhaps pre-hydrated, grab the microphone, and begin espousing their opinions—political, religious, financial, medical, you name it—from the moment the she-crab soup is ladled into the hostess’ grandmother’s china to the removal of the last crumb of caramel pound cake.
You want to say to the louts, “Believe me, you’re not that interesting.” But you don’t. You don’t because your mother taught you better. Remember this: you do not have to invite them back. You really, really don’t. Unless they’re blood and then you’re stuck with them until the Grim Reaper calls you or them.
There is an art form to being a good dinner guest, and if you were reared in Charleston you know the drill—mainly encouraging others to tell a short story about a recent vacation, a great book they’ve read, or any number of appropriate topics that emphatically do not include rearranged body parts, infidelities, and various indiscretions. Also, know who’s at the table—it’s why God invented Google!
And don’t forget one of the most important rules by far—the thank-you note. Yes, even if the guests are a snore and the food is dreadful, you still have to thank the hostess. But here’s where manners have changed slightly. While there’s nothing lovelier than a handwritten note, one composed with a fountain pen on cards that crack when you bend them, I think a phone call or an e-mail is okay among close friends and family members. People are busy these days, and personally I’d rather spend a few minutes talking about the event with my girlfriend than receive a note that encapsulates the evening with: “The food was delicious, the company superb, and we can’t wait to see y’all again!” Are you kidding? I want a post-mortem! But that’s me.
Yes, indeed, the outside world has gone mad! People not holding elevator doors when they clearly see you coming carrying packages; people on cell phones blasting their icky personal lives at ear-splitting levels; people who push by you in theaters, airports, and in line waiting for that first glass of wine at the bar. Let me assure you, my Aunt Caroline would never have had to approach a bar for her triple straight bourbon. A gentleman would’ve asked her if she would do him the honor of allowing him to bring her something for her renowned hollow leg.
But all that’s changed now. Lord! North of the Mason-Dixon, the ladies are getting pushed around as though women’s rights gave the opposite sex the liberty to behave like cretins. Ten years ago, I might’ve kept my mouth shut, but my advancing age has given birth to a new brand of Southern chutzpah. Now I say, “Oh, I’m sorry, did you want to get ahead of me?” Or depending on the aggressiveness level, “Forgive me! Did you need to go ahead?”
Back to the round table of manners, when you find yourself, be it a wedding or a convention, at a table where you don’t know a soul, it is customary to go around and introduce yourself to your table mates. This simple ritual should set a congenial tone for the evening. Recently I attended one such dinner for which I was the guest speaker. I arrived early, but my table was already full. I thought, “Well, I’ll just walk around and say hello to these nice people.” I noticed that one of the men was sort of sour faced, so as I reached his side, I said, “Oh, don’t get up, I just....” Before I could introduce myself, he shot back, “Don’t worry. I won’t.” This was one of those times I wished my mother was still alive. A chinaberry-branch moment to be sure. I don’t remember what I said. I probably just moved on to the next guest and pretended it never happened. He couldn’t possibly have been a Charlestonian. Not in a million years. But the point is that bad manners are unforgettable. I can still see his face. Maybe I’ll write about him. Oh wait, I just did.
Very soon I hope to return to my home in Charleston and spend the rest of my days marveling at her great beauty and reacquainting myself with her many charms. I’ll make cheese straws and take them to friends, and I’ll bake all the holiday things my mother made. And, I’ll be able to find decent grits and real sausage, although it won’t be at the Pig.
Over the years I’ve spent living primarily up North, I perhaps have idealized the loveliness of the South a bit (okay, a lot), and I’ve probably overstated the uniqueness of the Lowcountry. But I’m happy to bear the consequences—that I can close my eyes and smell pluff mud and salt. And I can laugh today remembering my mischief, my mother, and her chinaberry switch. These days, I’m thinking that we should all keep one in our pocket as an ever-present reminder. After all, it kept me in line—well, sort of.
The New York Times bestselling author Dorothea Benton Frank is a Sullivan’s Island native who has written 14 novels, including her most recent, The Last Original Wife. She divides her time between the Lowcountry and New Jersey.
illustration by Jordyn E. Moss