Coming to Terms: Decorum

by Catherine Fournier

When I was a little girl, Sunday school at St. Giles Presbyterian Church began an hour before Sunday services. My mother and little sisters weren't ready to leave that early so I'd walk to the corner, board the bus and travel the few miles from our house to the church alone. While it's unimaginable today that a six year old, in neat Sunday-best-and-matching-hat, would take a bus alone from one downtown neighborhood to another, in the early 1960's it was completely unremarkable.

It was only about six years later, after we'd moved to the suburbs, that my mother followed me in the car the first time I took the bus to a Nature Club at the Science museum. I remember glancing through the back window to see her peering anxiously through the windshield of our blue station wagon, trying to negotiate traffic and keep the bus in sight at the same time. I had absolutely no trouble on that trip or any others, but she was uneasy enough about my travelling alone to follow me.

In another six years, by the time I was eighteen, I had learned to always park near an entrance or under a street light. I had learned to always watch for the dangerous stranger. My little sister was followed one evening walking home from University in downtown Montreal, on and off a bus, in and out of stores. (She didn't want to 'lead' him to her apartment.) Completely unnerved, she eventually walked up to a group of businessmen coming out of a restaurant and asked for help. God bless them all, they hailed and paid for a taxi.

Not only do I vividly remember the pink coat and matching hat I wore to St. Giles, I also remember my mother never left the house without gloves, a hat with a little veil and her handbag, not even to go Len's grocery store on the corner. She had the most beautiful dresses that rustled when she moved; tight waisted bodices with full skirts and fancy sleeves. I couldn't wait to be old enough to wear such dresses.

While following the bus, on my first trip to the Nature Club, she worn a buttoned blouse and those tight capri pants that no-one but Audrey Hepburn should have ever worn. Since it was a Saturday, I was probably wearing jeans and a t-shirt, though my school dress code still specified skirts or dresses for girls and only recently had allowed (clean and pressed) jeans for boys.

Six years later, in the mid-70's, I bought a string bikini for sun bathing. When I showed the bikini to my mother, she never batted an eye.

I'm convinced there is a direct parallel between these two series of anecdotes. As safety, civility and respect for women and children declined, the deportment and dress of women and children lost modesty and self-respect. Who knows which came first? I don't think it really matters.

What does matter is that the congruity exists, and that we - my generation and that of my mother - contributed, encouraged and promoted this loss of proper decorum in society. Our daughters and granddaughters are not as culpable. It is rare to meet a young person who has been taught to give their seat on the bus to a woman, let alone how to stand up straight, look an adult in the eye and speak clearly, concisely and politely.

Though the word 'decorum' calls to mind an outmoded concept from the era of tremulous Victorian ladies, I think it needs to be re-discovered and re-appreciated. Decorum is a skill that can be developed and refined; an attitude that reflects the value you place on yourself and those around you; and a behavior, the way you walk, talk and dress. It 'sums up' modesty, chastity, restraint, reverence, respect and a host of other virtues.

Decorum is the Golden Rule in action: if you want to be treated with respect, learn to behave with respect. If you wish that people would recognize and respect the special role of women and mothers in society, behave as if you are worthy of recognition and respect. It's also simple behavior modification.

Behavior modification theory states that if you want to change someone's attitudes, you shouldn't waste time convincing or educating; simply arrange to modify behavior (think changes in dress code) and attitudes will shift to explain and justify that change in behavior (think loss of respect for women). It explains the changes in society that I've observed in my own life time. It can also be used to reverse the trend and re-introduce decorum the same way it disappeared, one person at a time.

How? Instead of struggling with the stroller, the toddler, the packages and the double doors at the mall, arrange to arrive just in time for someone to open them for you. Look them straight in the eye and say sincerely, "Thank you!" If someone offers to help you with putting oil, windshield fluid, gas or groceries in the car, let him and thank him. (My adult daughter and I call these men the "Can I help you with that, ma'am?" guys. They're still out there.) Make your son give up their seat to an elderly person. Make your sons give up a seat to you.

Dress respectfully and modestly yourself. (I'm not advocating a wholesale return to long skirts and long hair, I think we're all capable of discerning modest dress for ourselves.) Teach your sons and daughters what to wear and when. Ask your mother what to wear to a summer funeral if you don't know. I didn't but she did.

Say "Please" and "Thank You" to your family and waiters. Insist that your children's friends obey your language code in your home. They'll look dumbfounded but comply. If you're feeling feisty, look that sullen clerk in the eye and smile while you say, "Ma'am" when they ask "Can I help you?"

Learn from our Blessed Mother. At the wedding at Cana, when Jesus said. "Woman, what does this have to do with me?" she didn't argue or 'just let it go.' She stood there quietly and waited. (Maybe she quirked an eyebrow at Him.) And the wedding got more wine. Now, that's decorum.

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