Way back in the day (read: autumn of 2010), the carefree college kid that used to be me jetted off to jolly old England for a semester abroad. As I lugged my overstuffed bags through my first Underground station, I paused to wipe my brow directly next to a poster depicting people in fancy dresses. Upon closer inspection — because what girl can resist a good gown? – I discovered it to be a new iTV program set in the early 1900s called Downton Abbey.
As if I needed more encouragement than that to tune in, Dame Maggie Smith was one of the stars.
I was hooked from the first moment I spotted that advert, and, like the rest of the world, followed along diligently for six seasons (though on PBS once I returned Stateside) as the beloved characters endured hardship, loved and lost, navigated the changing world around them, and listened to Maggie Smith’s brilliant one-liners. I admired the skillful way Julian Fellows penned the finale and watched the March 6 concluding episode last month with bittersweet satisfaction.
Though I miss keeping up on the saga and have seen plenty of listicles providing other similar period programs, I haven’t given them much credence. Not because I’m a TV snob (although much of what’s on TV these days is morally questionable at best, but that’s a subject for a different discussion), but because my life doesn’t allow for much television the way it did six years ago. College kids have time on their hands for such things. Moms of two infants don’t. Back then, when I completed assignments, I could carve out an hour to watch something. Now, childcare rightfully takes up most of my schedule, housework eats up the naptime hours, and free time is spent with my husband or with friends. I don’t have time to – nor do I even really want to – invest in a whole new series.
So I’m getting my fix in another way: I’m consciously trying to improve my manners.
I must here give credit to my parents and grandparents for instilling good manners in me from childhood, but as we traipse through life, we naturally lose a little bit of that when bad experiences knock us around. It’s easy to adopt a sour attitude when facing tough situations. Plus, American culture is stamped with a touch of informality. In itself, there is nothing wrong with living informally (I love eating dinner on the couch for movie night as much as the next person) but part of Downton’s incredible success comes from its presenting an era that was steeped in formalities and politeness. The series reminded us that people once greeted each other with “How do you do?” instead of “How ya doin’?”
Naturally, just because everyone was polite on the show, didn’t mean they all treated each other with respect. That would make episodes especially dull and unrealistic. The characters schemed and gossiped like the rest of us and it spiked the ratings. But all that drama didn’t keep viewers tuning in on its own. The time period and its overarching cloak of sophistication had just as much of an appeal. Our society that thinks nothing of people slipping profanities into normal conversations craved the classiness Downton offered. After years of diet soda, it sure was splendid to have champagne again.
I, for one, don’t think we should slip fully back into our pre-Downton habits. Our culture needs a bit of class. And after all, what is being classy all about if not carrying oneself with integrity and expressing our inner dignity in all that we do? The simple fact is, you are respected more if you say please and thank you, apologize when you’re wrong, and refrain from using obscenities in your speech. The Crawleys reminded us to act like ladies, and we shouldn’t be so quick to forget that.
Fortunately, it only takes a few small and utterly painless changes to everyday behaviors to make you feel more refined. Plus, their subtlety won’t make others think you’re being a phony or a snob.
The characters’ postures on Downton, upstairs or down, puts most of America to shame. Aside from looking a bit unkempt, it’s also been reported that slouching contributes to a lack of confidence. Those who stand straight with shoulders back, in what is known as “power poses,” however, have improved confidence in themselves and their decision-making ability. Once I started consciously straightening my spine, I not only felt more sophisticated and less lazy, but I also noticed that the small ache in my lower back lessened dramatically. Indeed, there are myriad health benefits to good posture, including better breathing and decreased risk for neck and spinal problems.
Improved English in Speech
It goes without saying that the language usage and exquisite vocabulary was one of the show’s greatest strengths. Every line sounded so polished and British, even those that weren’t spoken in the Queen’s English. But the Brits don’t have a monopoly on good grammar, and we Yanks don’t have to limit our proper English to college papers or workplace reports. I’ve personally always been a grammar geek, but it tended to only show up in my writings. In speech, I capitulated to the modern slang. But after six years of watching people speak properly, it motivated me to do the same. Now, when conducting normal conversation – yes, even in text messages – I use “shall I” and “may I” instead of “will I” and “can I” whenever appropriate, and am careful about my subject-verb agreements. Although I admit, it does sound extremely silly when I ask my children, “Shall I change your diaper now?”
Politeness reigned supreme in the Crawleys’ world. Even when they plotted and played their trump cards against one another, it was done with plenty of pleases, thank yous, and I beg your pardons. While this sort of behavior is undeniably disingenuous, if we take small steps to be kind on the outside – like a few more uses of please, thank you, and I beg your pardon - sooner or later our interior thoughts will take the hint and follow suit. We’re less inclined to say something nasty or engage in a bit of gossip if we’re making an effort to be polite. Talking behind someone’s back and holding the door for her in the supermarket when you run into her the next day don’t go hand in hand. In our every-man-for-himself world, a little kindness can go a long way.
So as we say farewell to Downton, I also say thank you for giving us back a little class. I shall do my best to keep it up. I just wish I could come up with snappy one-liners as well as Maggie Smith could.