I recently took my niece to her first ballet. We saw the Russian National Ballet perform Cinderella. At age 6, Rose is a little young for a full-length ballet but the stepmother was a large, comic man in a dress and the stepsisters were funny so it was a good way to introduce the theater and fine arts. She sat still longer than I expected and although she thought the girls were too skinny and couldn’t understand why this theater didn’t have popcorn, she liked the fairy godmother’s costume and the pretty music.
When the performance was over, the dancers were still taking their bows when people in the audience started making a beeline for the door. I thought, “These people just danced for you for two hours and you can’t take a minute to show them your appreciation? They are still on the stage, for crying out loud.”
We live in a country where you can see something as extraordinary as a ballet (and the Russian National Ballet no less) for the cost of a week’s worth of Starbucks. Are we showing our children by example that we don’t take that for granted, or are we teaching them that being first out of the parking lot is more important than other people’s feelings?
The problem I had with the ballet exodus is that I’m sure none of those people walking out in view of the performers thought for a minute that it was rude. It was not an intentional snub, just a thoughtless and self-centered action. It occurred to me as I was standing there clapping that you don’t have to be well-versed in theater etiquette to realize that this scene is awkward and unfortunate. Common courtesy tells you that, if you take a moment to see the world around you and not just focus on your own interests. I hate to think what our Russian guests were thinking.
My sister-in-law has a book on her shelf called Etiquette by Emily Post, published in 1946. I enjoy browsing through its helpful rules to live by such as the appropriate attire for your butler and the protocol of leaving a calling card. One of my favorite passages is about the etiquette of leaving someone’s home. “When a visitor is ready to leave, she (or he) merely stands. To one with whom she has been talking, the visitor says, “Good-by. I hope I shall see you again soon” —or “sometime” —or “I’ve enjoyed our talk so much.” Naturally a woman is less effusive in what she says to a man than in what she says to another woman. And yet she may very well exclaim, “I’ve been completely thrilled!” if he has told her anything that can be truthfully described as thrilling, but not otherwise.” The entire book goes on like that and I find it endlessly entertaining.
Obviously social norms have changed since the days of Emily Post. We are no longer bound by rules of how to introduce your guests on arrival or who sits to the right of the host at a dinner party. After wrangling Rose into a dress and tights for the ballet and convincing her that going to the theater was a dressing up occasion, I was a little disappointed to see people arrive in flop flops and jeans. Emily Post would have fainted. However, I have come to accept that any social norms that might suggest control over what you are allowed to do are a thing of the past. I recently had brunch in a fancy restaurant in downtown Los Angeles next to a woman wearing pajamas. Breaking convention doesn’t bother me when it is harmless and you are the only person who looks like a fool eating breakfast in your sleepwear. However, I refuse to give up on the idea that there are standards of politeness and consideration of others. Some rules of etiquette will never die. You may not be required to exclaim, “I’ve been completely thrilled!” when saying goodbye anymore, but you do have to wait for the curtains to close instead of walking out while the performers take their bows.
Employing common decency means thinking about other people, paying attention to the situation around you and setting a good example. I think it might possibly all come down to one word: gratitude. A person who is grateful for the people in their lives, the experiences they encounter and the opportunities that come their way, are not the people who cut in line to get ahead, spray you with food because they are talking with their mouth full or slamming the door back in your face because they couldn’t be bothered to hold it for you, to name a few of my pet peeves. We all are prone to unintentional offense because we are human, but my outing with my niece has inspired me to be a better example of how a thoughtful, considerate person behaves. And I might try to throw “completely thrilled” in there next time I am saying farewell, just for fun.