As a young boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama, my greatest life coach was my Mother. I was the baby of three sons whose ages were separated by seven and eleven years from my own. To say I was spoiled is an understatement of huge proportions. My oldest brother set the bar and expectation level for us by becoming the first in our family to attend college and earned his Bachelor and Master’s Degrees in electrical engineering. My middle brother was a marvel of kindness and possessed the mechanical mind and will to build or repair almost anything. He also was an outstanding middle school teacher and coach.
My Mother raised these three boys of separate generations with one purpose in mind that was neatly packaged to fit all three of us. She was going to make sure we knew and adhered to the knowledge, character and practical application of being a true gentleman. The underlying foundation and principles of this social education was the simplicity of treating everyone with respect, dignity and kindness. “Minding your manners” was Mom’s code phrase for knowing how to act, interact and respond to individuals as well as in social gatherings both public and family. The expectations were high but geared in the interest of making us better sons, husbands, and fathers.
Growing up in the Deep South gave me an appreciation for the niceties and advantages of being a gentleman. So many other things that life has taught me about accepted attitudes and practices within the South have left me bewildered and often ashamed. That however is a story for another day. Being a Southern Gentleman by my Mother’s definition required a high level of behavior and protocols to be learned and practiced daily. This of course required instruction and oversight on her part from the time we were young. My Father provided modeling of most lessons and expectations, but could sometimes slip into a bit of crusty and colorful words and actions.
My sweet Mother had a keen understanding that teaching her sons manners, etiquette and protocols would give them a leg up in the competition for respect in general and quite possibly the heart of a worthy young woman. It was also a window through which society in general judges the pedigree and social awareness of an individual and often their family as well. My education consisted of social graces in general along with the specifics of treating a woman, young or old, like a lady. The core principle on which all others had foundation was that of respect.
Manners don’t just happen. Like any other skill set they must be taught, mirrored in behavior and subjected to practical application. The basics are laid early in the expectations for a young man to master the magic words of please and thank you as well as responding to adults with a yes sir, no ma’am acknowledgement of their questions or directives. One’s tone, attitude and posturing were also required skills. Of course there were always the obligatory lessons of controlling body function sounds, eating with your mouth closed, not reaching across others at the table and sitting properly. Eye contact was expected when speaking to someone, especially an adult, as well as the knowledge to not interrupt conversations.
Mother provided guidance, necessary oversight, critique and adjustments as needed. One key element in perfecting good manners is the recognition that you don’t always have to be first. The discipline and mindset to open a door for someone else to go ahead of you is both an act of kindness and respect. As I aged through this portion of my informal education, I frequently noticed the kind responses and pleasing facial expression of a lady who had her door opened or her chair pulled out at the dinner table. I observed the stimulus-response portion of these acts of good manners and gentlemanly conduct. I quickly learned that we all like to be made to feel special. I experienced firsthand how a few kind words and polite actions can set a tone for a lasting friendship or lifetime relationship.
I can also remember fondly how walking the streets of downtown Mobile with my Mother to stroll to the bank or go shopping would quickly turn into a teachable moment. She schooled me on where a gentleman should position a lady when walking down a street or sidewalk in relation to the traffic. I had to teach these maneuvers to my wife early on as we appeared to do-si-do our way down the sidewalks at times in my efforts to keep her properly positioned. This was just another small thing that signals respect and the willingness to protect in the manner of the chivalrous days of old. A ride on the city bus or a train might provide an opportunity for me to give up my seat willingly to a lady or older person in a gesture of respect and kindness. Manners, it seems always come back to the simple acts of those basics.
As I have grown older, I have come to realize that having been armed with these skills and a conscious awareness by my Mother; I am provided with a daily opportunity to share a bit of sunshine and happiness in the world. Some people these days are almost stunned by a stranger’s willingness to offer them respect and kindness…to allow them to go first…to acknowledge their worth.
I am actually aware that in today’s society, some ladies might read my willingness to open their door or pull out their chair as some type of scripted message as to their personal independence or ability to be self-sufficient. If questioned, I simply reply that it is out of respect for them that I offer these gestures…and that my Mother would be most displeased if I didn’t.
Throughout the years, my wife has been approached by others when I have, at some point, excused myself from our table while we are out for lunch or dinner. They are eager to relay to her how impressed they are with my gentlemanly efforts and gestures. She normally smiles, thanks them, and imparts that my Mother raised me to be a southern gentleman, taught me the finer points of respect and manners and would expect nothing less.
As I walk my daily path, my Mother’s words and teachings echo in my ears. My mind and heart are reminded that good manners are just a proper display and acknowledge of love, respect, and kindness for others. My Father when polished up a bit was a great role model for good manners and gentlemanly behavior despite a few ragged edges. Observing good manners in action and the responses that they most often garner, provide instant feedback on how small, unselfish acts of kindness and respect can raise the joy and spirits of another individual.
The famous writer and activist, Maya Angelou shared, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In a world that appears to be more cynical and divided today, it should be up to all of us to learn and practice good manners. I could care less if you know which fork of the three to use or what glass of water is on the correct side. The goal that I personally reach for daily is to be both an example of good manners and a blessing to those whose paths I might cross.
We can surely use more Moms and Dads who are willing to teach and practice the values of manners, respect and kindness. I’ll close with a thought-provoking quote from the famous actor and dancer, Fred Astaire, “The hardest job that kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.”
Bless you Mom for these precious life lessons.
Fred’s latest book is The Divine Order of Our Random Life: A Collection of Teachable Moments and Human Observation. He is also the author of The Fork in the Road Leads Home: Reflections From My Life's Journeys...A Collection of Essays and The Essential Elements of Successful Coaching