When I was 15, my father enrolled my brother and me in an etiquette course. For 60 dollars a head, we enjoyed a three-course gourmet dinner while learning the rules of fine dining. While I’ve since forgotten some of the finer points, like how to position one’s spoon between sips and when it’s appropriate to tilt the bowl, I remember the air of silence that pervaded the room. Dishes appeared and disappeared like magic around us as the servers reacted to our barely perceptible signals. One configuration of fork and knife allowed the diner to pause for conversation—another resulted in the unfinished course being silently whisked away. Dropped silverware was immediately replaced. Wine glasses were refilled instantly, the waiter pouring a constant stream until the diner inclined his head to signal he’d had enough.
Early in the meal, I made the mistake of saying “please” and “thank you” as each of these events occurred until I caught the slight frown of the hostess. Ideally, the transactions between server and served should occur with a minimum of verbal interaction. It occurred to me that this silence helped us to take these workers for granted. Without please and thank you, it was possible to assume that dishes arrived and disappeared because that was the natural order of things, or perhaps because the servers loved their work, and not because they needed the money to put food on the table for their own families.
As a rule, the norms of polite society tend to obscure the experiences of marginalized groups. When speaking about his experiences with racism, Barack Obama talks about being mistaken for a valet. Oprah talks about being told she couldn’t afford a purse. Obama could never mention being called a nigger, although it has almost certainly happened. Oprah would never mention the innuendo that black women face simply walking down the street. Although these forms of violence are commonplace, it is not in good taste to mention them.
Censorship is disproportionately directed against the experiences of women and LGBT people. While the “C word” is considered somewhat offensive when referring to male genitalia, the female “C word” is considered downright unspeakable. Movies that allude to a male receiving oral sex frequently escape with a PG-13 rating, while depictions of female pleasure are usually reserved for restricted audiences. Even in 2015, it is rare to see a same-sex couple kiss on shows directed at a “family audience.” While same-sex couples are more and more frequent on TV, their love is often represented through hugs and fond looks. Movies about same-sex couples tend to receive the MPAA’s harshest ratings, regardless of actual sexual content.
Every few months, a controversy emerges, calling into question the “community standards” upheld by major social media platforms. Many of the most important, though quotidian experiences of women, including breastfeeding and menstruation, are routinely excluded on the basis of arguments that they might offend the average viewer’s sensibilities. In order to defend the comfort of the privileged, disempowered populations are expected to keep their most intimate stories to themselves. Until fairly recently, even the word “pregnant” was considered a bit too vulgar for polite society. Like the dishes at dinner, babies were simply “expected,” with no thought given to why or how they came to be.
Perhaps it is time we radically overhaul the concept of good taste. Maybe we should welcome more interruptions into our pleasant evenings of polite conversation and take the limits off our conversations. Instead of devoting our energies to blocking out things we would “rather not think about” we could learn to integrate them into a holistic experience of life.
Perhaps when we go out for dinner, we should experience a moment of discomfort, however fleeting, when we meditate on the arbitrary stroke of luck that separates the person serving from the person being served. In doing so, we would stand to learn a lot about the populations that the conventional rules of etiquette tend to silence.
Taonga R. Leslie ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sociology concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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