Good Manners are Important

I once had an interesting discussion with a woman, Mrs. Patel, who wanted my advice on how to deal with the racist behaviour of her neighbour, Mrs. Smith (not their real names).

Mrs. Patel told me that her family and Mrs. Smith’s had been good friends. Their daughters were same age, attended the same school, and spent a lot of time in each other’s homes as best friends.

But on this particular occasion, the Patel family was invited over to the Smiths’ house for dinner. At one point during the meal, Mrs. Smith said to Mrs. Patel’s daughter, "Let me show you how to use the knife and fork to cut your meat. It’s important to learn this, in case you’re eating in a restaurant. You want people to know that you have good manners."

Mrs. Patel took offense at this. She felt that Mrs. Smith's remark was racist, because Mrs. Smith had made her feel that because they were from India, they did not have good manners. Mrs. Patel was angry and said to me, "We Indians are very proud of our culture. We don’t have to do things their way. We will teach our children what we want them to learn." But Mrs. Patel added that in the past, Mrs. Smith had never said anything hurtful.

Those of us who have chosen Canada as our new home find that we have to learn many new things in order to survive in this country. We have to learn how to drive here, to wear appropriate outer clothing in the winter, maintain the kinds of homes we live in here, learn about the Canadian school system, and so on. The list of new things we need to learn can be quite long – and yes, learning appropriate table manners is one of those things.

It is also true that nobody on Earth is born knowing how to use a knife and fork correctly! Everyone has to learn how to do that in Canada, regardless of their birthplace or ethnic background - born-Canadians included. So, if you pick up your steak with your fingers or cut it like you were sawing lumber, people in Canada will likely think you haven’t learned appropriate table manners. In all cultures around the world, proper eating manners are important, and each culture has different a different set of acceptable manners and customs.

For example, in Canada people do not use the napkin to blow their noses. Napkins are meant for wiping your lips after eating. In fact, if you are eating something spicy and have a running nose, leave the table and blow your nose elsewhere.

As another point, people in Canada don't consider it polite when someone talks with their mouth full of food. Chewing food with one’s mouth open is also considered bad manners here. Other unacceptable mealtime habits include making chewing noises, slurping food, or digging food out of one’s teeth at the table. Likewise, stuffing a lot of food into one’s mouth and having bulging cheeks many be acceptable in some cultures, but here it is considered bad manners. Some people have been brought up with the custom of belching or burping loudly as an acceptable way of appreciating good food, but in Canada, this too is considered bad manners.

There is so much to learn when we start a new life in a different country, but if we have an open mind and willingness to see the good intent of our new friends, then we will not feel hurt, and in turn we can take the opportunity to teach them something about our own culture.

This same woman, Mrs. Patel, told me that when they had moved into their new home, they bought a new barbecue, and Mr. Smith came over to show them how to use and maintain it. As first-time home owners in Canada they had many new things to learn, and their friends wanted to help them. This is what makes us a strong community.

There is real racism out there, and we should not overlook it; we must not be passive about it. But we should also be mindful that sometimes, when we take offense, it has less to do with what the other person says to us, than with what is going on in our own lives, and inside ourselves.