`MAY I please have some bread?" asks Josh, my five-year-old son.
"Juice, please," says his sister, Alicia, who is two.
"Thank you!" they sing, without being prodded.
At least, that's how it goes on a good day. For the past few years, my husband, Greg, and I have been coaching our children in elementary courtesy. It is an arduous, frustrating task because civilized behavior doesn't come naturally. Although Josh has been required to say please and thank you ever since he could talk, I sometimes have to remind him to do so by giving him "the look," which consists of raised eyebrows and a meaningful stare. And until a few months ago, Ali preferred to kick and scream rath er than use her spoon.
Introducing my children to even the most basic rules of courtesy has been a contest of wills, and I often feel beaten by my small adversaries. Teaching etiquette to children is not for sissies.
But that's my job for the next decade or two. When Josh and Ali eventually learn to behave politely, I expect that life with them will be more pleasant, but they'll also benefit by feeling more comfortable with people in a variety of situations. I know this from experience, because there are many gaps in my own etiquette education that I've been trying to fill over the years.
Among other lapses, I've worn a white dress to someone else's wedding, and I've picked up the wrong fork at a fancy dinner because I didn't learn about these things when I was growing up. My parents aren't rude - they're Korean.
Koreans can wear white to a wedding without being arrested by the etiquette police. Koreans eat with chopsticks, so they don't know the difference between forks.
My problem was that I didn't know about forks or chopsticks; that is, I didn't know enough about either Korean or American etiquette.
The Koreans I met in the United States often seemed rude by Western standards. Some dropped by without calling first, and many asked each other nosy questions. ("When are you having another baby?" "Why aren't your girls married yet?")
WHEN I visited Korea, I realized this was considered normal behavior. Visitors dropped by without calling because they didn't want the host to make elaborate preparations, and personal questions were part of any ordinary conversation.
But most of the time I felt adrift in a sea of arcana as I watched people in their dealings with others. Even something as simple as offering or accepting an object could have significance: To do so with both hands indicates respect.
And not knowing the language didn't help, since good manners includes using the appropriate verb form. It's possible to offend someone by either failing to use the proper honorific form or using one inappropriately, which could be interpreted as mockery.
Gradually I became aware of small courtesies. The first time I stood on a crowded bus, a young man who was sitting in front of me reached for my book bag. After a brief tug-of-war - my New York response to a stranger grabbing my bag - I realized that he was offering to hold it for me, since he had a seat. I soon noticed that his was a common gesture on Seoul buses, which had more standing room than seats.
I suspect that I inadvertently annoyed some Koreans through such misunderstandings or because of my American ways. I doubt that I showed the proper deference to my elders or the modesty expected of a young woman: I probably didn't lower my eyes enough, and I certainly never covered my mouth with my hand when I laughed. It was always a relief to return to the United States, where I had a better, if imperfect, understanding of what correct behavior should be.
My American manners aren't impeccable, but I do my best.
The fact is, all societies have rules of etiquette. Not knowing them makes life more difficult; not caring about them is one step toward anarchy. That's why I try to be polite, even to my own family (I don't always succeed). That's why I expend so much energy teaching Josh and Ali to behave civilly, when it would just be easier to give them whatever they demand.
AT least I'm seeing some progress in the civilization of my children. During the past year, Greg and I have been taking Josh and Ali out to dinner more often. Although we've raced through meals when trouble seemed imminent, we've never had to leave because of misbehavior. In fact, Josh and Ali often display their more sterling manners in public.
During one recent dinner, I expected disaster because they were tired and seemed to be on the edge of crankiness. Instead, they were so charming that I received compliments on their good behavior from people at the next table.
"Fooled ya!" I was tempted to shout. But I restrained myself, and very politely said, "Thank you."