Whistler's Mother

When it comes to etiquette, I’m in a muddle. I am happy to doff my hat, wait my turn in a queue or offer my seat to women in the underground, but at the same time I see a problem with the idea of politeness for politeness’ sake. To me, following rules of conduct or social interaction, which get in the way of everyday life, seems daft. Respect for others is one thing but surely there are more important things to do in life than puzzle over questions such as who goes first through a door, who stands where on a pavement, who sits down first at a meal and then, who should pay? Certainly, bothering to get your behaviour ‘right’ in order to avoid the disapproval meted out when you are seen to be in breach, seems silly.

It is clear that rules of social etiquette vary from country to country and change with time so, not surprisingly, keeping abreast with local customs can be difficult. Most often, the problems arise when I am in France. I was at a friend’s house for mid-morning coffee. We had just sat down around the kitchen table when the matriarch, my host’s mother, emerged from behind a curtain. I had no idea she was staying with them and, caught unawares, I lent forward and said, “Good morning, how do you do?” or more precisely, “Bonjour, comment vas-tu?”

A cold silence descended. It was as though a bad smell had suddenly entered the atmosphere. Stares were exchanged and then this serious-looking, grey-haired woman in her mid-eighties slowly walked towards me and putting her hand forward to be shaken said pointedly, “Bonjour Monsieur. Comment allez-vous?”  Then she took a step back, smiled politely and left.

My host and her husband were clearly perturbed, making it clear that I had not shown respect. They suggested that in future, when meeting a new person older than myself, I should stand up and address him or her with the more formal vous – certainly never tu  – adding Monsieur or Madame as appropriate. I tried to make light of my misdemeanour but there was clearly no escaping. Using the excuse that I was foreign certainly didn’t work. A week later and in similar circumstances, I rose to my feet, addressed the mother using Madame and vous, and all was forgiven.

Because of the importance of etiquette to the French and their awareness of  international differences, more than an hour was spent at my French language summer school in June reading an article, watching a film, and discussing the subject of kissing. More exactly, the whys and wherefores of kissing when French people meet. This was not about the kissing of friendship, that’s a different matter; it was about cheek-to-cheek kissing between newly-introduced people – behaviour we learned, that had the same significance as shaking hands in the UK. It appears that there are strict rules, at least amongst the establishment, although these are changing in younger people. Apparently, before being fully integrated into French society one needs to know who starts the kissing process – there are rules relating to class, gender and seniority, and on how many kisses should be exchanged – the number varies between two to four depending on the region of France.

But while societal rules are one thing, conduct in the street can be different. In a Paris suburb I was watching a game of pétanque, the French equivalent of bowls, when one of the players rushed over and kissed the three men next to me. To my surprise, as next-in-line, I was greeted in the same way. Naturally, I kissed him back.

Back in London recently, I was the victim of a breach of etiquette that hurt. I would have been around seven when I learned to whistle and I have been doing it ever since. The confidence to hit the right note was reassuring and the sound was loud too. Not the piercing loudness that some of my friends achieved by putting two fingers between the lips, but loud enough to be heard across the street. I still whistle as the mood takes me and recently, possibly inspired by the Glasgow games, “O flower of Scotland” has been a recurring melody. I was at it again in my local Waitrose supermarket and, as I stretched out to pick a bunch of bananas, a middle-aged woman who I had never seen before came up alongside me and said very loudly, “If anyone has ever complemented you on your whistling they were wrong – it is awful, just awful.” She then walked off.

I have never seen whistling indoors or outdoors as bring rude but some do and perhaps that is what she was saying. However the effect was different. In seconds, a lifelong pleasure had been punctured. In every country rules of conduct are so much part of everyday life that we see them as part of natural behaviour. But, often, such behaviour is odd in the extreme. While being polite can simplify matters there is something very wrong when custom becomes so embedded in society that adherence is something on which one is judged. Ultimately politeness should simply be seen as a system for avoiding hurting others’ feelings, and in this respect the woman in Waitrose certainly overstepped the mark. I wonder if she realised how hurtful she had been?

Or was it me who was the guilty party?


Illustration: Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, James McNeill Whistler, 1871 (Wikimedia Commons)

One thought on “Whistler’s mother

  1. In my opinion the woman in Waitrose was in the wrong. However annoying she may have found your whistling she could easily have said something like “I’m really sorry I’ve got a dreadful headache and your whistling is aggravating it, please could you possibly lower the volume” As it was she was downright rude. She hurt your feelings and that is unkind. I agree that etiquette for etiquette’s sake can be irritating. Your use of the word tu to an old lady was unfortunate but you ARE British and you were making an effort to speak her language! ! So again I think your behaviour was entirely understandable.

    In general my rule of thumb is “when in Rome does as the Romans do” But what is most important in my view is respect and consideration for everyone else. It is never good to deliberately hurt another’s feelings or to do or say something which you know will make someone else uncomfortable. In my experience if one is pleasant and friendly to others they on the whole are pleasant and friendly back. I am sure you have read Charles Kingsley’s “The Water Babies”. In that book there is a “Mrs Do As You Would Be Done By” and “Mrs Be Done By As You Did” I think if we all behaved as “Mrs Da As You Would Be Done Bys” the world would be a much better and happier place.

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