Positive Cynicism – Is calling someone out for bad manners really bad manners?

Aaron Davis

Aaron R. Davis

So this email has been circulating on the Internet this week with titles like “Worst Mother-in-Law Ever!!!!” and “Momzilla.”

In this email, one Carolyn Bourne lists a number of, let’s say, oversights in the manners of her future daughter-in-law, Heidi Withers.

As is typical of the Internet, this trifling personal matter between two people has turned into a proving ground where people are taking sides and shouting their opinions at one another. The overwhelming response is that Mrs. Bourne is exceptionally rude to send this email. Personally, I see it differently, and — as I am usually wont to do — I see the overreaction to this as indicative of what’s wrong with Internet society as a whole.

Let’s dive right into this infamous email.

Here are a few examples of your lack of manners:

When you are a guest in another’s house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat – unless you are positively allergic to something.

You do not remark that you do not have enough food.

You do not start before everyone else.

You do not take additional helpings without being invited to by your host.

So far, I’m not seeing the rudeness. I’m seeing firmness, but that’s different. It used to be the prerogative of our elders to point out lapses in manner and etiquette, especially lapses that are egregious and repeated. But I guess that idea belongs to an earlier time period when people could still use words like “prerogative” and “egregious” and “etiquette” as part of their parlance.

It’s bad enough that we’ve degenerated to the point where basic manners are falling by the wayside, but now we’ve gotten to the point where even the expectation of manners is enough to brand someone as rude. But I promise you this: if a guest in my home refuses to eat what is served — except in cases like allergies or diabetes or, I guess, ideals, like if you’re a vegetarian for moral reasons or something, in which case you probably shouldn’t be eating in my home — and doesn’t observe basic table manners, I’d be pretty ticked off, too. This is basic Emily Post stuff here.

When a guest in another’s house, you do not lie in bed until late morning in households that rise early – you fall in line with house norms.

Again, that’s not a rude demand, that’s basic manners. You’re not staying in a hotel, you’re a guest in someone’s home, and no one should have to tiptoe around your late-rising in their own home. I have two sisters with an insane tendency to sleep until one in the afternoon; they’re family, and it’s still rude of them to expect the household to simply pause until they finally deigned to get their butts out of bed. You sleep late, you miss out, it’s that simple. And when you’re a guest, it’s inexcusable.

Granted, I don’t know the particulars, but I hope Miss Withers didn’t rise late in the morning, having slept through breakfast, and then demanded to be fed. Sorry, but my Dad had a simple rule: you sleep through breakfast, you’re on your own.

Unless your jet lag is extreme, there’s really no excuse.

You should never ever insult the family you are about to join at any time and most definitely not in public. I gather you passed this off as a joke but the reaction in the pub was one of shock, not laughter.

This shouldn’t even warrant comment, but I guess in the modern world, it does. This is pure Internet Age infection; everyone has lost their filters, everyone thinks they are much cleverer than they are and everyone thinks their complaints need to be aired, shared and declared.

Now, my family is from the American Midwest, and as such, our senses of humor can be pretty obnoxious. Somehow, we grew to a point where jokingly insulting each other is a way we show love. But that’s me and my family. Not only would I never display that kind of thing in front of other people (such as my sister’s new husband), I would never accept it coming from anyone else. Especially not in public, where it would appear to other people as monstrous; does anyone remember such a thing as public decorum?

Mrs. Bourne, however, is of the opinion that it was not a joke, but an insult passed off as a joke, which is passive-aggressive in an anonymous Internet comment sort of way. Doing it in front of other people only compounds the insult, and if this was done in front of your fiancé, it compounds the insult further. Privately confessing to your future husband that you have a complaint or a discomfort about his family is to be expected in a communicative relationship; blindsiding them with an insult in public and passing it off as a joke is beyond rude.

I also find it interesting that Mrs. Bourne expects Miss Withers to know exactly which incident she’s referencing; apparently this is a sore point that’s been mentioned already.

I think this email — and I’ll concede that it was probably not a good idea to send an email in the first place — is probably a final straw kind of situation.

I have no idea whether you wrote to thank [your future sister-in-law] for the weekend but you should have hand-written a card to her.

You should have hand-written a card to me. You have never written to thank me when you have stayed at Houndspool.

[Your future sister-in-law] has quite the most exquisite manners of anyone I have ever come across. You would do well to follow her example.

This could be seen by some as a little rigid. My mother taught me to write thank-you cards, and maybe that’s an art that’s gone by the wayside. I don’t know Miss Withers’ story, of course, and whether she sent any emails to thank anyone (which seems permissible in the Internet Age).

It is disingenuous of Mrs. Bourne to demand hand-written notes (and you should never demand them, you either get them or you don’t) in an email.

You regularly draw attention to yourself. Perhaps you should ask yourself why.

It is tragic that you have diabetes. However, you aren’t the only young person in the world who is a diabetic.

I know quite a few young people who have this condition, one of whom is getting married in June. I have never heard her discuss her condition.

She quietly gets on with it. She doesn’t like being diabetic. Who would? You do not need to regale everyone with the details of your condition or use it as an excuse to draw attention to yourself. It is vulgar.

As a diabetic of long standing you must be acutely aware of the need to prepare yourself for extraordinary eventualities, the walk to Mothecombe beach being an example.

You are experienced enough to have prepared yourself appropriately.

In America, we do have a tendency to go on and on at length about our health conditions, something that was once, long ago, considered rude to talk about. And in America — and especially in the Internet Age, where everything has become fodder for our one-sided conversations — we are endlessly fascinated with the merest scintilla of our personal lives and the problems we have, whether invented or very real. I have diabetic relatives and I’ve had many diabetic students. It’s not fun to live with. I think here there’s a bit of an old-fashioned sensibility showing through. And living with a medical condition does indeed mean preparing yourself for extraordinary eventualities. Ask any school nurse.

This is the one part of the email where I can see some rudeness poking through, and that’s only because I imagine Miss Withers considered herself around family and free to talk about her health.

No one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash, celebrity style behaviour.

I understand your parents are unable to contribute very much towards the cost of your wedding. (There is nothing wrong with that except that convention is such that one might presume they would have saved over the years for their daughters’ marriages.)

If this is the case, it would be most ladylike and gracious to lower your sights and have a modest wedding as befits both your incomes.

Here Mrs. Bourne calls her future daughter-in-law out for being obnoxious, tacky, unrealistic, unladylike and ungracious. But what she does not do, in my opinion, is blow anything out of proportion. In fact, her criticisms are mild, but direct. And yes, it is gracious to lower one’s sights to what one can afford, especially if one is expecting someone else to share in — or perhaps even assume — the financial burden. Never demand a wedding more expensive than you yourself can afford.

Does Mrs. Bourne make some mistakes here? Of course. Is she the worst mother-in-law in the world? Hardly. She obviously feels insulted — and insulting one’s future in-laws in public is beyond the pale, especially if one is demanding to be married in a castle — and a lot of what she mentions is basic manners that a grown person shouldn’t need reminding of.

But the Internet’s reaction to this email is sadly unsurprising. It says a lot about how people behave in their lives that it is now perfectly reasonable to get offended when a stranger is called on their crassness. Some of the reactions I’ve seen are the obvious product of our low-aiming “your best is good enough” education system, and suggest that if Miss Withers was ungracious in her behavior, she’s just being true to herself or being who she is or some such meaningless shit. Decorousness has been murdered and hardly anyone can identify the body.

But though I agree with a lot of what’s in the email, I’m going to be honest and say that both ladies made some terrible decisions here. Whatever points Mrs. Bourne has — and she does have a few — are rendered moot by the way she’s handled the situation. Writing the email may have been cathartic. Sending it defeats its own purpose and doesn’t show the kind of class or manner she’s demanding (and again, as a gracious host, one does not demand etiquette, one either gets it or doesn’t).

But shame on Miss Withers for circulating a private email and thus inviting the world’s comment. Whatever sympathy she may be due is also defeated by ensuring that this little missive went viral in the first place. Which is also a very American behavior: countering rudeness, even perceived rudeness, with more rudeness. And that may be the height of bad manners. No one is taking the high road here.

I think Miss Withers’ future husband is probably wise to keep his mouth shut … in public.

Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at samuraifrog@yahoo.com.

  1. David Chiles July 5, 2011
  2. Jesse July 6, 2011

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