You’ve already heard Dad’s life advice, and now it’s my mother’s turn. Happy birthday, Mom!
My mom grew up on a farm in south Georgia with older relatives who would revere Emily Post as a hero if she wasn’t born a Yankee. Mom always emphasized the importance of writing thank you notes, answering the phone appropriately, and using the correct fork at dinner. Once, she threatened to buy my sister a silver food pusher because she couldn’t seem to keep her fingers off her plate.
Mom always says the point of etiquette is to make other people feel comfortable. In that spirit, I’m giving you the highlights of Mom’s Guide to Functioning in Polite Society.
You attract more flies with honey than vinegar.
When a customer service rep on the phone tells you something you don’t want to hear, you can either spout off some strongly worded language or you can kill them with kindness. Though I’ve heard my mother’s assertive voice many times, she always starts with the Sweet Southern Belle Sneak Attack. You don’t have to start negative; people are more likely to want to help you if you’re friendly and nice to talk to. This also applies to meeting boys, or so says my mother. “But, M, were you nice to him? You should be nice to these boys. They don’t like sarcastic girls.”
Yeah, right, Mom. Of course, I am still single. So maybe she’s right. Again.
Pretty is as pretty does.
Mom stole this one from her Granny, and she used it most when I was a cute moppet with attitude problems. She would costume me in sweet smocked dresses and brush my hair and then I would say something nasty and roll my eyes and she would coo, “Now, now, pretty is as pretty does.” This expression would come back later in life when I would cry that I was ugly and the other girls at school teased me for my skin or my clothes or whatever. Then she would remind me again that beauty is only skin deep and if the inside doesn’t match the outside, that’s beauty that won’t last.
To have a friend, be a friend.
You may have figured out that I was not a popular kid. I tended to be shy and wrapped up in my own imagination, but then I would be upset when other kids didn’t want to come over to play. Mom always liked to remind me that you have to go out when other people invite you, you have to ask people how they’re doing and write them notes, and you have to treat other people the way you want to be treated. You can’t just be a taker; you have to be a giver.
The world would be a better place if we all used mouthwash.
This is surprisingly specific advice coming from a woman who usually operates in general maxims. I remember my mother telling me this matter-of-factly while I was getting ready to go to a dance in high school. Maybe some girls got the sex talk or the drunk driving talk, but my mother plunked down a bottle of Scope and told me to sing “Happy Birthday” in my head twice while swishing it around in my mouth. I suppose if you’re going to be in a position to need the other kinds of talks, first you have to be tolerable for close contact with other people.
And now I’ve saved the best for last. Truly, Internet, I am revealing one of my great life secrets, so listen well.
When you don’t know what else to say, say “How nice for you.”
I have a sharp tongue and that can get me into trouble. My parents warned me against bragging when I was very young, and I was easily irritated when other kids started listing off their great vacations or their fabulous new clothes or their amazing weekend plans. I would whine to my mom that it wasn’t fair that they got to talk about the cool stuff in their lives and no one told them how rude they were being. I’d already been chastised for attempting to be the etiquette police. My mother made the mistake of arming me with the single most passive aggressive response one can use: “How Nice For You.”
“If you don’t have anything nice to say back to them, just say, ‘how nice for you’,” Mom told me. “You’re not saying you’re happy for them or that you approve of what they’re doing. You’re just telling them want they want to hear.”
She didn’t know what she was starting. At the time, I’m sure she just wanted to give me something to say that would end the bragging conversation and appease the other person. But in my mind, when I was saying, “How Nice For You,” with a poisonous smile on my face, I was taking great pleasure in secretly telling the other person to Eff Off. I started to abuse the power. It became less of a tool for dealing with rude people and more of a thing to say when I was terribly, terribly jealous.
“Oh, you got a great, well-paying job after your first interview out of college and you love your co-workers and it’s everything you ever wanted? How Nice For You.”
“Your successful husband got a job overseas and you got to hang out and travel for a couple of years and you accidentally made contacts there who set you up to run your own successful business when you returned to the US? How Nice For You.”
“You don’t have to blow dry your hair for thirty minutes with a roll brush and then spray the roots with lifting spray and continually fuss with it all day? Your hair just dries naturally that way? How Nice For You.”
“Despite slacking off in school and making fun of other people who did work hard, you used your social contacts to get a great job with flexible hours and ridiculous pay? How Nice For You.”
“You wrote a terrible book about sparkling vampires from your dreams and some how touched a cultural nerve and now you never have to work again even though you’re not even a good writer? How Nice For You.”
I should note that it’s not a mistake to capitalize the first letter of each word in the expression; it’s meant to be said that way. Also, the emphasis is on the “Nice.” How NICE For You.
Other people in my life started to pick up on my little trick. My high school friend Diette would tell me about a bitchy former classmate’s incredible wedding and wonderful husband and four page spread on her charming new house in a local magazine, and I would growl over the phone, “How Nice For Her.” And Diette would laugh and repeat back to me, “Yeah, how nice for her.” It was shorthand for all the awful things we really wanted to say. My friends from college made me a video for my birthday one year in which they identified my secret power as “Polighning”- I could disarm an army of mean sorority girls with my use of extreme etiquette and my favorite expression. I got a good laugh out of that, but my mother wasn’t so amused.
“I didn’t mean for you to use that as a way to be mean to people,” she cried. “It was supposed to make you nicer! It’s not supposed to help you to be more bitter.”
But it worked, Mom! I don’t say the mean things I’m thinking, and the use has actually now expanded to situations when I’m not jealous at all but I think someone is making big mistakes.
“Oh, he’s getting married to his stripper girlfriend even though he’s cheated on her at least twice and now she’s pregnant and they’re moving to Florida to start fresh? How Nice For Him.”
Also, I really have started to use it when something is nice for someone and I really don’t know what else to say. It’s losing its power of passive aggression.
“You re-arranged your pantry and alphabetized all your canned goods and used your labeling gun to organize the shelves…. How Nice For You?”
Whether you’re using it to defend against jealousy or fill the silence, you are preventing discord in conversation, and didn’t Mom say that the point of etiquette is to make other people feel comfortable? I rest my case. I encourage you to spread the Gospel of “How Nice For You.” Let these words speak for you when you don’t have anything nice to say but the situation won’t allow you to say nothing at all. Sure, it would be better if I just didn’t get jealous at all and found my own personal fulfillment, but in the meantime….
Happy birthday, Mom. You’re a classy lady, and I’ve always aspired to be like you even though you’re much kinder and more naturally good. Eventually, I’m going to say, “How Nice For You,” and really mean it. I promise.