Manners are a minefield

My kids had been to visit a friend’s house recently and had eaten middags or their evening meal there. All went well but the Mamma pulled me aside afterwards and said that she had to correct my son at the table. Right, I said nervously, hoping that he hadn’t had a fit of regression to babyhood and started flinging food or stuffing it in his pockets. None of the above apparently; eating politely was not the problem but he had left the table when he had finished his food, without asking and before her kids were finished eating. So she called him back and explained that he needed to sit and wait, he didn’t have permission to leave the table until the others were finished.

Once I got over the initial jolt, probably coming from the frank way in which she told me, I was very grateful to her, firstly for telling him the right thing to do and making him do it and secondly, for telling me about it so I could make sure he does it too. You see our house isn’t a haven of Norwegian manners because we are not Norwegian. We are a bit relaxed in the meal department.  There are some basics; without exception, everyone has to say Takk for maten  or thanks for the food as they leave the table. And I’ll be heard bellowing, “ARE YOU FORGETTING SOMETHING::??” if anyone dares leave the table without saying this. I love this Norwegian custom (the manners, I mean, the bellowing is all mine).

We frequently have kids visiting for play-dates with our two and I find it fascinating how kids behave, depending on their cultural background. They are all getting the same Norwegian education, so it’s safe to say that the difference in manners comes from what they are learning at home. And it’s easy to see the immigrant kids who don’t mix a lot with Norwegians as they are usually a lot more casual about eating; the requests to sit and eat on the sofa, the inability to sit and eat without hopping up and down from the table, forgetting to say thanks for the meal, grabbing ice creams from my hands for desert without saying thanks, or even a sister clearing away dishes from the table while a brother would walk off to play which gave me a suspicious insight into who does what at home.

From an integration perspective, how do kids of immigrants have local manners if their parents don’t embrace them or in many cases, don’t even know what local manners are. I don’t want our two kids to stand out for all the wrong reasons when they are going to a Norwegian friend’s house so I absorb all I hear and learn with keen interest.

There are of course universal manners of being polite, being mindful, saying thank you. But manners are also connected to language. It’s not common in Norwegian to say please if you are asking for a second serving or to pass the potatoes. In English, you would be rude if you didn’t. Being the practical folk that they are here, it’s also perfectly fine to tuck into your food as soon as it’s on the table and not wait for everyone to be ready to start. My German in-laws have frequently, albeit unknowingly, put me under stress by not even touching cutlery, let alone food, until we are all ready to reach for them together. It’s a minefield.

And then there’s another layer which is our own personal standard on manners.  I have an abhorrence of noisy eating ever since I was a kid, thanks to my big brother sitting across the dinner table from me for years, scowling and growling at anyone who slurped, chewed loudly, or scraped cutlery off the plate. He and I both carry that low-to-zero tolerance mantle these days. I really, really don’t need to see the food in anyone’s mouth: under-fives are the only ones getting a special dispensation on this one. I’m also not so keen on using a fork as a shovel but that one feels a bit lonely most of the time.

We had kids visiting for the best part of a day recently and I struggled a bit with the fact that they didn’t say thanks or even goodbye to any of us before going off on their merry way home. It’s probably not a big deal here but this is where my Irish cultural crossover comes in. I warned my two kids that they should always say thanks to the grown-up who has been taking care of them before they leave a play-date;  at their age, there’s always a grown up making sure that they don’t burn the house down and that they have food to eat while not doing just that. Just say thanks, that’s all, whatever the language.

We’re going to London for half-term at the end of February and I’ll no doubt be bellowing hisses at different stages as I remind the kids to automatically say please again when we are back in the world of English.

And we have implemented the rule that nobody leaves the table after a meal until everyone is finished or without express permission. Now our boy could spend up to an hour at the table after  every meal as his little sister enjoys her food at a nice, easy, languorous pace. She feels it’s good to take her time and not rush digestion. She’s discovering that there are indeed many ways to terrorise a big brother.


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