I was 11 years old and getting ready for my first sleep-away camp experience and all my grandmother seemed to care about were manners.
“Heidi,” Savtah said, “do you know how to introduce yourself to people?”
“Of course, I do,” I said automatically. There were plenty more pressing concerns on my mind, such as surviving homesickness or gross camp food or the fact that I’d be stranded in the boondocks of Michigan with only an ancient wooded shack to protect me from the elements of Mother Nature. Manners, therefore, were the least of my problems.
Savtah continued like I hadn’t spoken. “You put your hand out and say, ‘Hi, I’m Heidi.’ Now pretend I’m someone new and try it.”
I thought this role-playing thing was a bit ridiculous since kids didn’t go around talking like that, but I humored her until she thought I had mastered the skill. Unfortunately, all that hard work flew out the window the first day of camp. When a girl approached me, I just stared at her awkwardly until she made the first move. “You’re new here,” she said, to which I nodded. “The girls in our bunk are really snobby and mean to girls they don’t know. They go to the same school and have known each other forever, so they’re not interested in making new friends.”
“Okay,” I gulped.
“Let me show you the places I go to cry,” she said cheerfully. While our bunkmates unpacked, she led me to a large evergreen tree near the lake’s edge. “This is my favorite place to be alone and cry, but there’s also a deserted trailer behind our cabin that’s good, too.”
“Great,” I nodded. “But at least we’ll have each other!”
“Actually, I’m just here to help my sister get settled. I told my mom that if she made me come back again that I’d kill myself. Okay, bye!”
My throat constricted as I watched my newfound ally run away. This was going to be worse than I had thought.
Back at the cabin, the girls completely ignored me while they laughed and shared memories from years past. I folded and refolded my clothes, pretending to be absorbed by this chore rather than sit on my bed and stare into space. No one bothered with introductions and I was too intimidated to try.
The first few days were pretty scary, but the girls eventually warmed up to me and by the end of the summer, not only did I not want to kill myself, but I left with a handful of addresses and phone numbers and heartfelt promises to keep in touch. That summer taught me a multitude of life lessons, but the one that left the deepest impression was the importance of manners. Those early days of camp would have made the experience markedly easier had we introduced ourselves.
Years later, I discovered that kids aren’t the only ones without manners – there are plenty of adults who could use a refresher on this subject. My husband and I went to a fundraiser and were seated at a table with three couples. After I initiated the introductions and made a few attempts at small talk, two of the women froze me out and even more disturbingly, one of their husbands froze everyone out by scrolling on his phone the entire night.
After two more unsuccessful attempts at conversation, I grabbed my purse and turned to Daniel. “I’m going to the restroom. I may or may not return.”
His eyes grew large. “Don’t leave me here,” he begged.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but right now, it’s every man for himself.”
I locked myself in a bathroom stall and gave myself a much-needed pep talk. You can do this, Heidi. You’re funny and engaging and I reckon that about eighty percent of the people in your life don’t think you’re half bad. Now get back out there and talk to the scary people. You can do it.
Screw that, my less-evolved-self answered. Let’s just hide out here until the banquet is over and everyone leaves for the night. Yes, I decided, that was definitely the way to go. But then I imagined Savtah’s voice. “Heidi, haul your tushy off the toilet and act like a mensch.”
I sighed. There was no arguing with Savtah.
Channeling my grandmother’s strength and lifelong conviction of always doing the right thing, I unlocked the stall door and returned to the table. For her sake – as well as my own – I had to try one more time.
Turning to the woman closest to me, I asked her opinion on a parenting issue. To my surprise, this woman talked to me for the rest of the night and I could tell within seconds that I had misjudged her. Instead of being the snobby, self-serving person I had thought her to be, she was a bubbly, verbose woman who I had lots in common with.
That night I did a lot of thinking. I decided that not all manners are of equal importance; keeping elbows off the table, for example. It doesn’t do much for one’s posture, but no one’s feelings will be hurt by it. Ensuring that people are included in a conversation, however, is an important rule of etiquette. My grandmother, Mrs. Shellie Wexler, recently passed away, and while she was an expert at many things – makeup, fashion, and cooking, to name just a few – she was also someone who placed immense value in manners. So the next time you pass a stranger on the street or are seated next to someone you don’t know or even like very much, think of my Savtah and push yourself to do the right thing. Feigned politeness is much classier than authentic rudeness. And let’s face it – you might just be saving someone from a lockup in a public restroom, and I speak from personal experience when I say being trapped in a stall isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.