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On Being Boring

I moved from London to Brussels with my husband nearly 10 years ago. When I told people we were moving, the news was greeted with bemusement: why did we want to move to a city that was possibly the most boring place on earth? Ten years later and I can honestly say that I've had more fun here than I ever did living in London. It might not be the most exciting city in the world but it is a fantastic place to live. It is full of hidden treasures that you probably never get to see as a tourist: wonderful shops, amazing food, great museums and galleries, beautiful architecture, a forest (yes, a whole forest), and so much more... And if that doesn't convince you, well, get on a train and you could be in Paris, Amsterdam, Cologne or, yes, London in no more than a couple of hours... Which other city can you say that about?

Pleases and Thank Yous

There are few things that are non-negotiable for my children, but saying “please” and “thank you” is one of them: you ALWAYS say please when you want something and you ALWAYS say thank you when you are offered something (even if you don’t take it). It’s a fundamental. Unconditional. I thought it was for everyone. It’s the most basic of manners. That and smiling. People who can’t master those three things (please, thank you and acknowledging another person’s existence with a smile) drive me round the bend. Actual smoke comes out of my ears.

Now here’s the thing. I know people who obsess about manners. Manners designed to discriminate and belittle based on arbitrary and archaic rules. Like the shape of your soup spoon. Or if and how you tip your bowl to collect the last of your soup. And whether or not you dunk your bread. I mean seriously people, soup is a frickin’ minefield! And you’re not even on to the main course yet. It’s ridiculous. These are manners that I abhor. Eating with your mouth closed: yes. Tasting your food before declaring you don’t like it: of course. But looking down on someone because they’re not sure which of seven forks to use? No. Never. And wait, it gets worse. Because every time you think you’ve got the hang of all these dictates, they go and invent another one to make sure they can maintain their position of moral superiority over you. And it’s kind of sad, because when you need to make up rules about how to fold your napkin to make yourself feel better about the futility of your own life, well, I guess we should let you have your silly little rules. It’s probably all you’ve got left.***

The strange thing is, it’s often these people with all their airs and graces that seem unable to smile when you hold a door open for them. And it’s people with pretences to intellectual superiority who seem to struggle the most with saying thank you when you’ve done them a favor. Such a simple thing. Even a two year old can manage it. But not them. Maybe they think that because of their position, things aren’t asked for and given. Instead, they are due and overdue, respectively. Maybe they think we should simply be grateful for being able to serve them. But you know what? No. You are just a rude and unpleasant person. You may be rich. You may be incredibly clever. You may be beautiful. But when I meet you, all I see it petty pathetic rudeness. You may well have achieved great success in your life, but if you can’t master please and thank you, you still have a long way to go I’m afraid. Here’s the good news though: it’s not hard. Really not hard at all. You too can join the civilized world! And I’ll tell you how for free because I’m a kind and generous person.

Lesson 1: you can’t go wrong with a smile. You can never thank too much. Don’t worry. No really, it’s very very simple. Try it. Please try it. See, look! There: I just did it. Do you see how it works now? Go forth and inject a little joy into someone’s life today. Look them in the eye, smile and thank them for holding that door, for writing up the minutes to that meeting, for dragging their children to the side of the street so that you can hurry past. I swear to all that is good and mighty that it won’t hurt. It won’t give you wrinkles. It won’t debase you or bring you down to whatever imaginary level you believe the rest of the world lives on. And it won’t cost you a penny. It will just make you a nicer person with better manners. Please just give it a try. Thank you.

*** Edited to say: I was clearly having a rant when I originally wrote this. But I wanted to come back and say that I don’t actually think there is anything wrong with admiring or aspiring to perfect table manners. In fact, I can even see the appeal in studying some of the more archaic rules of etiquette. What I object to is people who use their knowledge of these things to judge others. I love photography, I study it and practice it as much as I can. I’ll go on an on about it if you’ll let me. But I will never use it to belittle someone else. And it would never occur to me that whatever knowledge I have about the subject makes me in any way superior to someone who doesn’t share my passion. That’s what I was objecting to: people who look down on those who don’t share their particular interest.

4 March 2013 - 11:43 PM ralph - amen. I agree 1000% dear Cass, so THANK YOU for saying it so beautifully. Sidenote, I love your writing as much as your photos I think (that's a LOT). XO

8 March 2013 - 8:15 AM vanhookc - How amazing that I have been strongly having these same thoughts lately. Thought you would enjoy this picture I recently posted on flickr: Thank you for spelling it out so clearly...the power of a smile. It has global contagiousness and that's a good thing! I love your blog and photography. Happy to have stumbled on your works and thoughts!

8 March 2013 - 8:08 PM amanda - Come live in NZ Cass, NO ONE knows how to eat with more than one fork, spoon and knife. Marlon goes to school barefoot. It's a simple life with simple pleasures. come!!

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