“An etiquette class, really?” my husband said.
I wanted to register our daughters in an etiquette class I had seen advertised at a local college in Calgary.
“Isn’t that a bit old fashioned?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” I replied. “And it certainly won’t hurt.”
The class was to discuss essentials: good manners, table etiquette and social graces. Our daughters had good manners, but they could certainly use some brushing up. Like many parents know, lessons are better received and heard from an instructor.
Life got in the way and the classes didn’t fit into our schedule, so our girls did not attend. But I always had this idea in the back of my mind, especially as our daughters grew and were spending more time in social situations, often without us. We still had to occasionally remind them to say thank you or shake hands. Many of their friends had similar manners, but this was not the case with all their peers. I’ve been shocked by the lack of manners in some children.
Then I took my girls to France and we witnessed good manners firsthand. The three of us moved to Paris last year so the girls, aged 11 and 8 at the time, could attend school there for a year. I’m half French and was raised in Canada. French language and culture have always played an important role in my life. I wanted to pass this culture on to my daughters, who attend the French lycée in Calgary.
Our lesson in proper manners began when my daughters started bringing their new Parisian friends home. “ Bonjour Madame. Thank you for inviting me over for dinner,” said 11-year-old Louise as she entered our apartment.
I liked being called Madame. I could not remember being called Mrs. Littmann-Tai in Calgary. Children automatically call adults by their first name at home. Even in some schools, teachers are addressed by their first name. This has always seemed inappropriate and disrespectful to me. Now I was being introduced to children who would not dare call me Ingrid.
The first time I met Louise, she shook my hand. After that, I would receive the typical French greeting: a kiss on each cheek, or rather, as my girls love to joke, kissing of air and rubbing of cheeks.
Louise was to spend the night with us and over the next 24 hours, we would be given a lesson in fine manners courtesy of an 11-year-old Parisian girl.
“May I start?” Louise asked at dinner.
I was slightly surprised by this question.
“Yes, bien sur,” I replied.
“Would it be okay if I had some more green beans, madame?” she asked during the meal.
“Of course, help yourself.”
I noticed that Louise had started the meal by taking her serviette, unfolding it properly and meticulously covering her lap. In the meantime, my girls’ serviettes were still sitting on the table while they gulped down their dinners.
Louise finished her meal and gently placed her fork and knife together. During dessert, she piped up, “Is it okay if I do not finish my dessert?”
Once I got over the shock that someone actually would not want to finish their tarte au chocolat, I told her it was completely acceptable. I was just so impressed she had asked.
Louise was not a snooty child, nor a child of a wealthy family. She simply had impeccable manners and I could tell she had been brought up well. And she was not the exception in Paris. Most of the friends my daughters made were exceptionally polite. I was always called Madame and received countless merci’s.
Importantly, my girls noticed that bad manners were frowned upon. They started to emulate their friends, shaking hands or giving kisses on the cheek when being introduced to new people. They would not start eating until the host did, would use their serviettes and would ask to be excused at the end of the meal.
Children love to copy their friends, often to the displeasure of their parents, but this copying pleased me. They were learning subtle life lessons from their friends.
I know the French have the reputation of being rude and snobbish, especially toward non-French speakers. This is true in many public situations. They are not friendly when it comes to strangers. But on the metro and buses, I often noticed teenagers instantly getting up and offering their seat to the elderly or pregnant women. Midway through our year, I was pleased to see my girls offering their seats.
France is definitely a more formal country. Manners count. But in Canada, they count too. As I often remind my girls, you only have one chance to make a first impression. Manners and proper etiquette do not go out of style; we just seem to forget them. Daily I see reminders of our Paris adventure. Our girls ask if they may start before digging into their meals. When they pour themselves a drink, they ask if anyone else would like some. They use their serviettes.
We are not wealthy or old fashioned. We just want our children to be polite, know which fork to use and realize they should let a pregnant woman sit down. What you learn at a young age will follow you through life and open many doors.
So merci Paris and Louise. Learning firsthand from the French was certainly more enjoyable than classes at the local college.
Ingrid Littmann-Tai lives in Calgary.