Earlier this year, I watched the made-for-TV movie The Lost World, and a particular scene struck me. The team of scientists had traveled up the Amazon to a missionary outpost, the last point of European civilization they would encounter for the rest of their journey. While sitting around dinner, the discussion turned to dinosaurs and how they had gone extinct 60 million years before. The head of the mission, Reverend Kerr (played by Peter Falk), balked at the date, indicating that the world was only 6,000 years old based on information in the Bible. Professor Summerlee (played by James Fox) retorted that the Bible was nothing but a collection of fairy tales, and the discussion became heated.
I’m not going to touch on the age of the Earth and any debate over evolution vs. creationism, but what struck me was how very uncivil both Reverend Kerr and Professor Summerlee had been. It is the responsibility of the host not to antagonize, harrass, or embarrass the guest. Likewise, it is the responsibility of the guest not to antagonize, harrass, or embarrass the host. Anything else is unacceptably borish behavior, and I’m afraid that we as a society have lost track of our sense of propriety when it comes to acting properly in the role of guest or host.
There is a section in Chapter XXVII of the book The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein, where Zeb takes Jacob to task for being rude:
“The first time I laid eyes on you, you were trying to start a fight in Sharpie’s ballroom.”
“Huh? But I was justi–”
“Dreck. No one is ever justified in starting a fight under a host’s roof. The very most that can be justified under extreme provocation is to tell the other party privately that you are ready to meet him at another time and place….”
I visited a mosque once while I was in Singapore. At the entrance, I was told that wearing shoes was not permitted, so I removed my shoes before entering. While it was not a holy place for me, it was a holy place for many others, and as a guest, I was responsible for acting on my best behavior. Not being a Muslim, I didn’t participate, but I was quiet and unobtrusive. Likewise, when visiting some European cathedrals, I was respectful and reverent as befitting a guest, and I would expect the same degree of respect if someone else were to visit my places of worship. At no time should I or any other visitor do anything that would distract from the religious observances of the people present. The last thing you would want to do in such a place would be to create a scene.
Likewise, whether you are a guest or a host, it is your responsibility to make things run as smoothly as possible. We recently had some kids over at our house to give their parents a break while their mother was recovering from knee surgery. Since the kids would be staying during lunchtime, we asked their parents if it would be all right to fix them lunch. We then asked about any food allergies or great dislikes of which we should be aware. If you know your visitor has some dietary needs such as being vegetarian, keeping kosher, or adhering to a lactose- and gluten-free diet, it is quite rude to slap down a medium-rare steak, something treyf, or a sandwich and a glass of milk in front of your guest.
And it is the guest’s responsibility to alert the host plenty of time in advance if there are any serious dietary issues of which the host should be aware. As a guest, you should not be overly picky about food you merely dislike. If you don’t like peas, and the hostess is serving a pea-intensive dish, then smile and eat it. You don’t have to ask for seconds, but you should appreciate what the hostess spent time making. I’ve eaten some pretty disgusting things in my day, but I hope the people around me never noticed that I wasn’t really enjoying myself. If you are the host, and you know that peas make your guest want to ralph, how about making something with corn instead? All this boils down to some common courtesy, but I’m spelling this out because I believe common courtesy is becoming less than common.
Here’s a simple rule for following proper etiquette at any meal: watch the hostess and follow her example. If she’s using a mallet to bash open her lobster, then you can, too. If she is using her knife and fork to eat her fried chicken, then you should follow suit.
I drove slightly over a thousand miles last week, and to cut down on costs, I picked up two passengers who were willing to pay for gas for the duration of the trip. Because we didn’t know each other, our conversations were limited to relatively safe topics like school, work, and families. Based on their appearance and a few off-hand phrases, I’m sure they were part of the young and liberal crowd. I could have spent some time while they were captive in my car to harangue them about liberal fallacies, but that would have been rude. I was reminded of a brief few minutes of Trading Spouses I’d once seen while flipping through the TV channels. The man in the car was driving the visiting wife through town in his van, and he pointed out the church that he and his wife attended. When he found out his visitor was an atheist, he proceeded to question and, quite frankly, harass her over her beliefs. I was astounded at his rudeness, but I don’t think he would have recognized that he was even being rude. If you are in a conversation with your guest or host, you should steer the conversation away from discussion of politics or religion. These are the two topics that are both the most personal and the most likely to start an argument.
And starting an argument while you are the host or guest is the height of rudeness.