To my mother’s credit, I am probably one of the most well mannered people you’re going to find in this day and age. I always send thank you notes, even to my parents and siblings. I can tell you which fork to use at a formal dinner party (generally speaking work from the outside in). I can tell you that it is rude to butter your entire roll (rather you should butter only the piece you are about to consume). I can properly set a table – bread plate and forks on the left, knife (always with the blade toward the plate), spoon, and drinks on the right. I am the consummate hostess (Martha Stewart aside), always striving to make my guests feel like they are staying at the Four Seasons. It is to the point that I have even been referred to as “Emily Post” by certain friends in a half joking manner. As a matter of fact, I was consulted on etiquette for my own bridal shower.
I must tell you, however, that there are a few draw backs to all of this politeness…
First of all, nowhere in my upbringing do I recall being taught how to gracefully extract myself from a painful conversation. Sure, if you’re in college or on a girls’ night out on the town there should be a “wing man” around to see the look of utter distress on your face. In said situation that person then acts as your out, often creating elaborate excuses (“I am so sorry to interrupt, by my appendix just burst and I need Meredith to drive me to the hospital.”) to allow you to remove yourself from the awkwardness. But what if you’re alone? And even worse, what if the person yammering on and on and on works for you? Oh, and did I mention that the “conversation” (in which I said about 3 words) jumped from details on his wage garnishment for child support to stereotyping his own family to wacky governmental conspiracy theories? Did you know, for instance, that Bush was having dinner with al queda on September 10, 2001? How about that our government is giving our social security to immigrants (who should, apparently, move back to their own country)? Or the ever popular “Obama isn’t an American citizen and he’s trying to make our country Muslim.” So wait, you don’t like Bush or Obama? Nevermind, the follow up about an anarchist society in which the masses overthrow the government pretty much clarified that stand for me. Good Lord, what are you supposed to say to that anyway? Nodding and smiling (my usual back up for any conversation where I can’t understand what the person is talking about) is a bad idea in this instance as it implies agreement. I was truly at a loss and I was utterly alone. Needless to say I didn’t really feel like I had a satisfactory response to the situation. I muttered something about how there is so much information out there and how I needed to do payroll. Yikes! In the end I felt a little powerless and inept. Even now, hours later, I still can’t think of a painless way out of that one.
In addition to that (and perhaps blaming this entirely on being too polite is a bit of an excuse for my less-than-confrontational personality), I have a hard time setting limits. Or, to clarify, I have to be pretty pissed off to not really care if I am coming off as “bitchy.” I think that being a woman in a position of authority really forces you to walk a thin line. There is not much grey area between being a pushover and being a raving tyrant. In particular you find that to be the case in a professional kitchen environment. Ultimately, as my Grandmother would say, “you catch more flies with honey.” And I do find that to be true, but the downside is that you have to cultivate relationships for that approach to work in a kitchen (otherwise you run the risk of being looked down on as someone with no backbone, but if you take a stand…). So when you are new in a location and you have to put your foot down you start getting really creative with your methods. “Can you help me? The maintenance men are removing our oven and I have no idea why they think this is a good idea.” Translation: quit standing around doing nothing. What the hell am I paying you for anyway?
Maybe I should take a firmer stance in general. Maybe it would be beneficial, cathartic even, to say exactly what I want to say when I want to say it. But then again, as Tom Hanks’ character warns Meg Ryan’s in “You’ve Got Mail”: “when you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows.” And so perhaps it’s best to continue minding my manners. Sure, I occasionally get trapped in a corner (sometimes literally), but I think I’m happier being the good guy in the end.