I’m reading Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process, the edition I have being published in 1994, but which is really a compilation of two earlier separate works entitled the History of Manners and State Formation and Civilization both from 1939. It’s a long, involved and complicated book, a detailed historical sociology rivalling Max Weber’s work. At the moment I’m reading his fascinating account of the evolution of the use of table implements like the knife, spoon and fork and their moral implications. He writes that it took centuries from the first appearance of the two pronged fork on the European scene in the early Middle Ages as an implement usually made of gold or silver and strictly used by the upper nobility to its more general use only three centuries later.
Normally I wouldn’t write about a book while still in the process of reading it, but in this case I’m not reviewing his book and it turns out Elias’ analysis provides a great backdrop for something that happened to me today in an elevator. Carolyn and I were rushing around looking for a cash machine in a mall at 555 West 12th Street in Vancouver, BC., not that the location has any particular significance. The same event probably could have happened in a number of similar locations. So what happened was this: We chase around the mall for a bit looking for a cash machine and eventually find one, get some cash and head back to the elevator to get back to the parkade, one floor below. A woman also waited at the elevator. She pushed a stroller into the elevator as the door opened and we all got in, but just before she did that she turned to me and said: “He hasn’t learned yet that it’s impolite to stare at people.” Well, alright. So I asked her, “How old is he?” She replied: “eight months.” At which point, the sociologist in me kicked in and I told her that it was a little too early in his life to be learning manners as complicated as not staring or averting the eyes. She probably thought I was just a nutty old man and left it at that, but she definitely had the old moral wall on her mind. No way was she going to let her son break an inviolable rule of etiquette such as not staring and she just wished she could enforce it on him even at his tender age. At least she didn’t hit him for it.
Granted, the use of forks has very little in common with not staring at someone when it comes to etiquette. Still, they are both things that ‘are not done.’ That is if you want to be accepted as part of a civilized society. Savages and pagans stare and eat with their fingers, but not civilized people. The study of manners is the study of morality, who is part of my world and who isn’t. We struggle constantly with whether or not we ‘fit in.’ In saying that I’m not breaking any social scientific sound barriers. Sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists have long been interested in manners. They open an impressive window into what we will accept as ‘civilized’ behaviour. Their evolution is key to understanding a multitude of other social relations.
That said, I’m a little concerned for the little tike I met in the stroller on the elevator in the mall at 555 West 12th Avenue in Vancouver. His mother seems to be hyper sensitive to etiquette rule violations. If it’s true that children hear ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ 40,000 times before they enter kindergarten, this little guy might be in for maybe 60 or 70 thousand ‘nos and ‘don’ts.’ By the time he gets to kindergarten, he may be so hemmed in by his mother’s imaginary moral wall that he will have difficulty turning around without scraping an elbow.