Black Women's Improvement Project (BWIP)

Etiquette 101: Good Manners; What’s race got to do with it?

I had a brief exchange with a woman a while back about how improper behavior and the lack of proper manners is hurtful to people wanting to advance and improve their lives and her response to me was “you can’t impose middle class values on the ghetto!” I was amused at her response, but also a little sad, she clearly did not understand that proper behavior has nothing to do with race or ones financial status, but more in the respect we pay to ourselves and each other.

I find it disconcerting at how a great number of people in the African American community seem to view any type of proper behavior as “selling out” or “acting white” as if carrying oneself respectfully will erase their “identity” from existence. Many also seem to want to disconnect from any type of proper behavior or etiquette with the notion that it has nothing to do with them, when in reality, it has A LOT to do with them.

Etiquette: A Surprising Historical Fact

In my research on the practices involved with training etiquette, I uncovered a tidbit of interesting history thanks to Judith Martin, the original “Miss Manners”. When it came to teaching manners to the children of the wealthy plantation owners guess who was responsible for that? THE SLAVES! This is what Miss Manners had to say on the subject:

“The plantation owners thought they were being English country gentlemen, but who was teaching etiquette to their children? The house slaves. The house slaves often came from a more elevated background than the masters. They were chosen among the slaves as the people who were more refined. They had been captured and brought over from Africa, whereas, of course, voluntary immigrants came because things weren’t so great at home. The house slave, usually the mammy, taught manners to the children. So she taught them the manners she knew. The “y’all come see me” kind of hospitality is an African tradition that they brought over.”

So you see, the culture of proper manners is not our shame, it is our birthright! Sadly while these women were teaching their masters children proper manners, it was a valuable education they could not pass on to their children lest they be accused of being “uppity” and it could have cost them dearly. So what about today? Why do many still shy away from it seeing it as something “they” do but not “us”?

Other Cultures “Get It.”

People of other cultures who are advancing and prospering on a global level understand that if they want to interact with people and expand their influence, they have to refine their manners and social behaviors. According to an article from TIME magazine the #1 course that students from the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade is the manners course, training etiquette. With their new-found prosperity, they understand that their old behaviors are no longer acceptable if they want to stay on the competitive edge. We need to get with the program if we want a place in the global market and the accompanying respect or we will be left behind holding on to our right to “keep it real”.

Speaking of our right to “keep it real”, how has this false code of honor served us? I for one can say not very well. It has done nothing but isolate us and rob us of the things we desire to obtain and achieve and we must take measures to correct this behavior and fast if we want to not just survive but thrive! We can start by correcting our clothing, conversation, and conduct.

“You Are What You Wear.”

I will first address clothing. What we wear sends a message ( I learned that lesson the hard way) I learned recently that the “sagging pants” that a lot of young men wear is a prison message that says “I’m available” (you know what I mean). We have to correct this type of dress to be more presentable. The NBA had to reinforce their dress code requiring their players to wear suits when traveling because their attire was sending the wrong message. Someone mentioned to me that a young woman showed up to a job interview with her hair wrapped in a scarf,. If she got the job I would be very surprised. I recently watched a movie where two businessmen from the Middle East were negotiating with an American company in New York. At that meeting , they wore business suits, when they were in their home country, they wore their cultural attire. It is not about conforming, it is about knowing when it is appropriate to compromise for what you are trying to accomplish.

“A Way with Words”

Second, we must fine tune our conversational skills and by the way, conversate is not a word even if Webster’s Dictionary has decided to adopt it as such. We have to discipline ourselves to speak properly when we are doing business or in the workplace and keep the relaxed conversation at home, it does not make us sound hip, it makes us sound foolish! It is not about talking “white”, it is about speaking “right”!

“Act Right!”

Lastly, I have to address our conduct. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but because of the abundance of negative images in the media about us, we have to double our efforts not to reflect that behavior in our public conduct because sadly we are many times judged collectively for what someone does individually. I understand we cannot change every single persons mind about what they want to believe about us, but we can do our part not to feed the stereotypes and entertain peoples worst fears about who we are and what we represent. It is not a fair responsibility to carry, but if we want to change things on a grand scale, somebody has to do it!

In the midst of this quickly changing world, I think it is time to claim the birthright that those that went before us could not pass on to us so that we can pass it on to those who come after us. A legacy of treating ourselves and others well.

What’s race got to do with it? Nothing…….

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