Conversational Etiquette

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My mother had many friends when I was a child. They often dropped by our house without warning. At those times the unwritten, but very understood rule, was that we children had to make ourselves scarce so that the adults would be able to visit without worrying that we might hear something meant only for their adult ears. We would step into the living room for a brief moment just to say hello and then disappear into our rooms or go outside to play while the ladies talked. 

Of course I was always curious about the muted whispers coming from my mother’s guests but I dared not intrude on the privacy of the conversations. Sometimes I would hear unbridled laughter. Other times the only sound was a kind a rhythmic cadence of voices speaking words that I was unable to decipher. One in awhile I heard mama’s visitors sobbing. Never did I actually attempt to find out the exact nature of the conversations. Those were private moments between the adults and I dared not breach the etiquette of the situation. 

My mother taught me the basics of talking in polite society. She warned me that there were particular topics that were taboo except in very private circumstances with trusted friends or family. According to Mama the big three subjects that I should avoid were politics, religion and sex. Because of that, I have to say that I grew up totally unaware of people’s thoughts on those particular topics. For most of my life I had no idea how people voted, what their religious views were or what their sexual preferences might be. The old school rules kept such discussions at bay. 

Following my mother’s lead I had conversations about the big three with only my closest and most trusted friends and family members. For the most part I was content with my Sunday afternoon tea time chats with my mother-in-law, my more raucous discussions with my brothers, and after dinner chats with my dear friends Pat, Bill, Egon and Marita. Even though I did not always agree with those folks I knew that my comments were safe and would not affect our relationships one way or another. Insofar as everyone else, I had no idea about their views and no inclination to find out what they were. 

I have to admit that there was great comfort in abiding by the protocols that my mother had imbued in me and realizing that somehow everyone else had also received instructions in how to have polite conversations. Nobody ever needed to know about my personal preferences nor did I push them to reveal theirs. All of that began to change about the time that George W. Bush was elected President and the world witnessed the horrors of 9/11. Suddenly it felt as though people began openly taking sides and judging the worth of friendships based on religion, politics and sexuality. I found myself more and more often being prodded to reveal my on thoughts on each of the matters, often by people that I only marginally knew. Worse yet, was the fact that if I demurred to the demands and honestly answered the questions I was often pilloried for not being in agreement with my inquisitors. 

Around the time of President Obama’s election the transparency trend seemed to become even more extreme. I remember being cornered by a coworker, with whom I had only a passing relationship, as he demanded to know how I had voted. When I attempted to remain mum he began a guessing game, using read my facial expressions to determined the truth of my beliefs. I felt as though I was in the hands of an inquisitor who would bludgeon me to the death if I did not comply with the answers that he hoped to get. While I stuck to my silence under duress, I felt incredibly discomfited by the encounter and sadly it would not be my last. 

By the time that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were running against each other in a national race it seemed as though every semblance of old time decorum was gone. Suddenly seemingly everyone was talking about politics, pushing religious ideas, and openly fielding opinions about sex. If these conversations had been reasoned and healthy I would not have minded so much, but the truth is that they were all too often tinged with divisive language that slowly began to pull people apart and parse them into differing camps. The ultimate shocker for me came at a child’s birthday party in which one group felt a sense of triumph over another and ended the fray by jumping in the air giving each other a high five. To say I was disturbed by the demonstration would be an understatement. 

Since that time the lack of traditional propriety has only accelerated. Far too many people have adopted an “in your face” attitude when it comes to talking about the big three that I was taught to keep at bay when in gatherings. I sense that as a society we are now engaged in behaviors that would have been disturbing to my mother. All of the ranting, flag waving, and almost blind allegiance to one point of view over another has become the fair game at any gathering. Nobody can even quietly voice opinions without have to engage in an intense debate that often ends with hurt feelings and broken relationships. Little wonder that perfect strangers feel free to make assumptions and hurl insults at people based on as little evidence of a person’s beliefs as wearing a mask inside a crowded store. 

My best buddies for speaking of delicate topics are now mostly gone. I find refuge with my children and grandchildren these days and even then I have to be somewhat circumspect. I have learned to follow my mother’s rules which means that my conversations are ever so polite. I talk about the weather, the trips, the good news but never ever dare speak of politics, religion or sex. Those subjects are best kept to myself lest they taint the good feelings that my friends and family members still have for each other. Sadly it may take time to forget the shadows that have already threatened our closeness because I said too many things out loud. If only I had stuck with the rules that my mother taught me, I would not have spoke or heard about things that surprised me and those that I love. Sometimes our elders really do know what’s best.