Monday, September 20, 2010

Mind Your Manners

Friends and good manners will carry you where money won't go.
—Margaret Walker [1915-98], American poet

The decline of manners, the cynical pursuit without shame or restraint of personal advantage and of money characterizes our times, not without exceptions, of course, but more than we ought to be comfortable with.
—J. Irwin Miller [1909-2004] , American industrialist

Mothers teach their children to mind their manners. And they are absolutely right in doing so.

While good manners and class was the privilege of the aristocrats and old-money families, as part of what used to be designated "good breeding," it is no longer the case. (For an ironically humorous essay on good manners, see A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding by Jonathan Swift, published in 1754 after his death). Good manners and having class is now open to everyone and anyone who deems it important.

A person of good manners is also a person who also exhibits classy behaviour and carries himself with dignity. One of the signs of true class is the ability to make others around you feel comfortable. Characteristics of politeness, kindness and equanimity tend to rule a mannered and classy person. You could have class regardless of whether you are rich or poor. (Although being rich today might be a decided handicap, given the tiresome antics of the super-wealthy and super-privileged.)

To be sure, it depends more on how you view people, the importance that you place on manners, and whether you view a social situation as an opportunity to advance yourself, or an opportunity to show dignity under pressure. And, like all behaviours, one has to nurture good manners.

Courtesy Lacking: High-change in Bond Street,—ou—la Politesse du Grande Monde: Fashionably dressed pedestrians on Bond Street. In the foreground, five men crowd a woman and girl off the sidewalk as they leer at them. The women, seen from the back, are oddly dressed. In the background, three ladies, also in exaggerated costumes, walking arm-in-arm in the roadway.
CREATED/PUBLISHED: [London] : H. Humphrey, 1796 March 27th.Source: United States Library of Congress.
Background: "This is understood to be a very fair attack on the want of courtesy in the gentlemen frequenters of Bond Street (the grand fashionable lounge at the time it was published), some of whom shewed no hesitation in taking the wall, and even the pavement of the ladies, throwing them, as here represented, into the street," says Wright & Evans, in Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray [1851].

Consider the situation of going to a fancy high-priced restaurant and the server gets your meal mixed up. How you respond to that situation, either with understanding and patience, or anger and resentment, says a lot about how you view yourself in relation to others.

Let's compare the two approaches.

Rights-based or sense of entitlement: In a rights-based society, a person looks at a social situation as a need to assert his rights in all personal encounters. Rights comes first, and it matters little if the other person is shamed or belittled. What is important is to let the other person know that he made a mistake, and that he feels it deeply.
So, you might scream at the server, saying that you are not only paying a lot of money for this meal, but also that you are an important person. You might get your meal quickly, and you might justify your behaviour to the other dinner guests, but this approach usually results in everyone being upset, or at least feeling uncomfortable.

Classy manners: Classiness is the opposite of entitlement. You have empathy, because you have the awareness that you are also human, and can easily make mistakes. You want the other person not to feel humiliated, but to have dignity. In each social situation, the dignified person can carry on without feelings of shame and resentment and help you achieve what you want.
In the restaurant scenario, you downplay the importance of the mistake, perhaps use humour, and patiently wait for the meal that you ordered. What often transpires is not only getting the meal that you ordered, but also everyone remains in the right state of mind to enjoy it.
I vote for a return to class and dignity. The discussion on manners might seem trivial to some, given the major problems that we now face, yet manners and civility are the glue of a civilization. It's true that manners alone are not sufficient for a civilization to prosper, but it's equally true that a lack of manners are a sure sign of its decline and potential downfall.

I leave the last word to Laurence Sterne, an 18th century Irish novelist: "Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners."


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