manners v. hospitality.

Within five minutes of meeting me you’re likely to discover my three main characteristics – I’m a librarian, I come from a long line of wonderfully stereotypical Texans, and I love food. The combination of these traits means that I am hyper-aware of both manners and hospitality. It may come as news to some, but manners and hospitality are totally different things – often complementary, sometimes mutually exclusive, and always distinguishable. It’s possible to be both incredibly rude and wonderfully gracious at the same time (think Amy Sedaris), while politeness at its worst can end up masquerading as ersatz hospitality.

In Texas, manners and hospitality are crucial aspects of social interaction that serve distinct functions – learning to tell one from the other is therefore essential. Having good manners means that you’ve both mastered the art of being “puh-laaht” and developed a contextual sense of propriety. This goes way beyond knowing what fork to put where – it’s more about learning how not to step on people’s toes (be they literal or figurative) and avoid the deadly tendency to “run on,” i.e. talk or complain too much. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a bone-deep and intensely pleasurable instinct to make sure everyone is totally satisfied, usually achieved by asking “can I get you anything?” not once, not twice, but three times.

My education in manners and hospitality is vast, thanks mostly to the steel magnolia matriarchs in my family. On the manners end, my mother used to pretend she didn’t hear an interrogative if it started with “can I,” and even though I’m a reference librarian I’ve gotten “did you say thank you?” more than any other question in my life. To the horror and/or delight of those around me, I “yes ma’m” and “no sir” with abandon (especially when I’m in trouble). While mercifully not fancy enough to be a teenage debutante, I was nonetheless forced to endure cotillion from the same ancient instructor that taught my mother forty years earlier. On the hospitality end, making people feel completely welcome is an art that my Momma has perfected (as anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting her can confirm), whereas my Grandmother is legendary for creating gigantic feasts out of thin air (and more importantly for letting me into the kitchen to pour cans of Lone Star into the beer biscuit dough).

Speaking of which, both manners and hospitality are inextricably bound up with food. Politeness’ relationship to eating is paradoxical – as a child, attention to manners and the enjoyment of a meal are inversely proportional, although table rules do serve the important function of keeping chaos at bay (a favorite story in my family is about the time my Aunt Margaret stabbed my father in the hand with a fork for eating off her plate). A litany of admonitions runs through my head when I eat to this day – elbows off the table, hand off the saltshaker, napkin in your lap, use silverware, don’t shovel, mouth closed, back straight, don’t belch, never reach across, and on and on. I’ve at least managed to learn how far to roll the manners cart out depending on the company I’m keeping, which suits me fine. That said, I doubt I’ll ever escape the cardinal rule: never, ever take the last piece of anything, lest you deprive your elders and/or betters of it and end up looking grabby in the process.

Despite the fact that my childhood memory tells me that hospitality = pleasure whereas manners = pain, I’m all for politeness. I see it as the self-conscious rejection of rudeness, part of a social contract that makes day-to-day interactions between strangers far less unpleasant than they could be. I have always bristled when people describe southerners as “too nice,” which usually just means that they’re from (in my grandfather’s words) “Yankeeville” and therefore put more value on honestly answering questions like “how are you?” than on the notorious “bless your heart” turn of phrase, which once uttered lets you tear into someone essentially without fear of reproach. Now that I’ve lived in Ohio for a few years I have a bit more sympathy for those who disdain this kind of politeness, and it’s a (usually incorrect) assumption that Texas-style manners are rooted in insincerity that freaks people out. While I don’t agree I suppose I also don’t really blame them – I get why some people would rather be treated rudely than disingenuously.

Whereas the food and Texas connections are obvious, I only recently started thinking about the manners v. hospitality distinction in terms my librarian identity. A few weeks ago on an older episode of The Splendid Table I heard an interview with restaurateur named Danny Meyer, author of Setting the table: the transforming power of hospitality in business. Meyer did a beautiful job of explaining the basic differences between service and hospitality, and how an ethic of hospitality can be applied beyond restaurants to public service in general. I was struck by his description of hospitality as being all about memory – creating experiences so positive that they not only linger in the recipient but build community and reputation through word of mouth.

Whereas manners-based service is all is about etiquette, taking a hospitable approach can help create experiences that invite people to return and revise negative memories such as, for example, a lingering childhood terror of short-tempered librarians. The last thing I want to do is graft another ill-fitting popular business model onto information services, but I definitely think we should spend as much time creating truly hospitable environments as we do honing our Reference Interview manners (and come to think of it, much of my Library school experience was strangely similar to cotillian, right down to the white gloves). This is achieved as easily by removing red tape on our websites as it is by bringing personality, engagement, and humor to service points and classrooms. I’ve sometimes worried that pushing the “user-centered” focus to its extreme runs the risk of making librarians recede too far into the background. I also believe that it’s easy to risk making the idea of “service” ring hollow from simple overuse, resulting in a kind of assembly-line communication. Focusing more closely on an ethic of hospitality can help put us where good hosts should be: always in sight, but never in the way.

It’s the end of the quarter here at OU, the time when even the best of librarians is likely to dish out a few fake smiles. We’re busy, they’re busy, and everyone seems one straw away from breaking down. I’ve caught myself in inapproachable or impatient moments on the desk a few times recently, leading to this exercise in reminding myself that my goal is not just to deliver polite service but to offer those who communicate with me in my capacity as a librarian the same hospitality I show a guest in my home. This time of the year typically ends in me reminding myself that making library users feel welcome, taken care of, and personally valued is not just an aspect of my job but the entire point of what I do, and that helping to make the libraries I inhabit beer-biscuit hospitable is a simple way to preserve the essential free information spaces they provide.

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