Manners, bloody manners


Calvin & HobbesI was in a local grocery store not long ago, standing mid-aisle and peering at shelves of canned products, trying to find the ones I wanted for my cart. As I reached out to snag a can in front of me, a cart appeared between me and the display. To my right, a woman – talking on a cell phone – had pushed the cart in front of me and turned away. She was now busily chattering rather loudly to someone while she absently looked over a shelf in another area.

She was completely oblivious of other shoppers. Never looked over to see where her cart had landed.

No concern, no social awareness. No manners.

Manners are an expression of social awareness, of your role in the community, in the social whole. They are not some outdated, outmoded or arcane form of behaviour. No more than being aware of – and responding or reacting to – other drivers on a highway is outmoded. Manners are a form of social consciousness, of awareness that we live in a shared space. Awareness that others matter.

Manners are also a choice. We hope the behaviour that they manifest will become automatic, like saying please and thank you, or excuse me when interrupting. But manners are foremost a choice we make on how to behave: socially or anti-socially.

Etiquette is the various forms and actions we use to express manners. Etiquette is opening the door for someone; letting someone back out of a parking space in front of you. Etiquette changes with technology, age, class, culture and context. Doffing one’s cap or tugging the forelock have gone out of style, because etiquette is fluid. But making a gesture of respect or support for another has not gone out of style, nor ever will.

Etiquette is saying thank you when handed your order in the coffee shop. Manners is knowing that social interaction depends on recognizing that such interactions deserve recognition. And knowing such recognition is the glue for societies.

Manners is knowing we need to interact on a positive level; we need to recognize one another, to survive and grow together.

How you do so is less important than actually knowing that you should do so, and following through.

As Wisegeek defines them:

Manners involve general behavioral guidelines, such as treating the elderly with respect and courtesy. Etiquette is a specific code of behavior, with an example of etiquette being knowledge of the proper mode of address for a queen, which is, incidentally “Your Majesty.” In some societies, people regard etiquette as elitist and unnecessarily refined, but this is actually not the case. Many of the rules of etiquette are already practiced by people with good manners, and a demonstration of familiarity with good manners will mark someone as cultured, polite company.

Lynne Truss, author of Talk to the Hand, wrote on her blog,

I’d also written talks about the burden of choice and the pernicious effect of the internet on the way people think of themselves in relation to “society”… Talk to the Hand is emphatically not about an us-and-them situation, or not straightforwardly. It’s about us all not knowing any more how to share space with each other, or treat each other respectfully.

The full title of Truss’ book is, Talk to the Hand – The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life (or six good reasons to stay at home and bolt the door.)* A reviewer in The Independent wrote,

Truss’s conclusion – and she apologises for the lack of surprises – is that good, imaginative, well-mannered behaviour makes the world a better place.

In which I also firmly believe. By better I don’t mean some utopian ideal; just that manners lubricate the social interactions in a way that makes them smoother, generate less friction. Manners are essential for civilized society.

That internet effect Truss mentions has helped in part to create a false sense of intimacy that encourages casual relaxing of manners and etiquette because it appears we’re all among friends. So we don’t always have to be on our best behaviour, like we would at work, or among strangers, right?

But everyone in your Facebook circle really isn’t a friend, even that’s how it gets slanted. Some are acquaintances, most are strangers, regardless of what Facebook labels them. Some are actually enemies.

Without the proper context that actual human interaction brings, without the physiological signals that guide our behaviour among others, social media tends to become a mosh pit where respect is the first casualty. Along with it manners and etiquette soon follow.

That false intimacy leads to a breakdown in basic social structures – the loss of manners . We’ve all seen too well how social media is populated by angry people whose main interaction with others is negative: the puerile personal attack, the undisguised rudeness and the arrogance of the schoolyard bully. Manners long gone.**

Manners facilitate communication because they open avenues for interaction where anger, vituperation and attack block them. If we can talk civilly, we can exchange ideas, not simply fight over them. With manners, we can resolve differences. Without them we can only sputter in intolerance and indignation.

Henry Hitchings wrote in the New Republic, in late 2013 that that false intimacy is troublesome:

…rather than being democratic, intimacy can be troublesome. Today we are obliged to be relaxed. Casualness is mistaken for fairness. The idea that each of us should do what makes us feel comfortable does not result in other people’s comfort and hardly seems to improve our own… The flipside of instant intimacy is instant hostility. We are quick to adopt a hollow or at any rate cool intimacy, as for instance when kissing someone we barely know on the cheek, but quick also to tear into others or pepper them with candid advice and personal remarks… It is but a step from this to rank abuse, the overt hostility we feel able to show people because we don’t know them and expect not to see them again.

Paired with the false intimacy foisted on us by many internet services, we have long been brewing a toxic cult of the self that puts the me before the us in every situation. Once we subscribe to that cult – selfism – and it’s actively promoted online because it drives our consumer society – manners lose their foothold and we stop being aware of the shared space. It ceases to matter what others think or feel. Empathy – the spine of the social skeleton –  dissolves in the acid of narcissism.

Blogger Chris Lott wrote about this apparently growing trend:

You’ve seen and read these commentator’s… foul languaged, personal insults, with no regard to intellectual dialogue whatsoever. They try, and many times succeed, in derailing the conversation of a great discussion or article topic towards their own agenda. While I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion they do not. Their ideas are the only ones that count… at least in their own limited mind. This trend in conversation is starting to grow exponentially. Especially in social media.

Ethicist Alexander Cheezem wrote that there is no simple solution for this problem, no rule or technique that will cure everyone and make them all civil, respectful and sociable. What works in intimate human relations probably doesn’t work in complex group situations like social media:

The Golden Rule is a valuable ethics tool. No question about it. Its best feature is that it compels an ethical point of view, causing us to think about the impact of one’s conduct on others. This simple shift of perspective—that’s the other virtue of the Golden Rule: it’s simple; a child can understand it—-distances us from the powerful ethics alarms-muffling effects of non-ethical considerations, which are primarily our subjective wants and needs, and forces us to look past them to more ethical objectives.
The Golden Rule is not, however, a panacea, or even the most useful ethical system. It doesn’t work in complex systems , or when multiple inter-related interests are involved, or when chaos looms.

I suggest it is the individual’s responsibility to choose manners, to choose socially responsible and mature behaviour. We each have to decide where, when and how we will be civil, polite and respectful in our interactions with others. We each have to decide how we want others  – not just individuals but our communal, social whole – to respond to us. We alone create the framework that enables that response. That’s equally true for personal interaction and online, impersonal interaction.

Call it the “golden rule” if you will, but I don’t believe it should be shrugged off as a mere formulaic approach. It is, as I said, a choice we make.

Manners matter not just to individuals, but to the wellbeing of whole societies. As Psychology Today reported in 2012:

Rudeness was reported as the chief cause of stress in a recent poll in France. For 60 percent of the French, it is not the debt crisis or persistent double-digit unemployment that stresses them out, but the behavior of other people…
Humans are highly social creatures and wherever we go we subtly modify our behavior to fit in with others. Rudeness signals that one is not welcome in this group, activating pain regions in the brain as found by Naomi Eisenberger and colleagues at UCLA. Rudeness also shows that others don’t trust us. As I report in my new book The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, when men are distrusted, they experience a sharp spike in testosterone provoking an aggressive response of the type “How dare he….” Women have this response, too, it is just more muted.

Good manners, claims author Lucinda Holdforth in her new book, Why Manners Matter, can even save us from over-legislation:

She shows us that privacy can co-exist with neighbourliness, that intellectual freedom can flourish within agreed social rules, and that civility saves us from over-legislation…
Good manners avert social confusion, she avers. They control narcissism, improve communication, provide social stability and just make life sweeter. Despite the frisson a fine theatrical display of bad manners can produce, proper behavior is a badge of humanity that enhances life, if just for a bit. So if you can’t remove your artfully reversed baseball cap at the dinner table or turn off your iPhone in a crowd, at least try for some other little touch of considerate conduct. It will be good for us all. Who would be churlish enough to dispute that?

Mostly, I believe, good manners save us from ourselves. We are all better, all safer, all more content if we all have manners.


* A terrific book which I recommend for everyone. Truss may be a vox clamantis in deserto, but she has a clear, witty voice that makes  what might have been a jeremiad into a fun read with some calm lessons at the centre. I suspect every reader will find in her words situations – and solutions – that relate to us all.

** “Can childhood bullies change?” asks the author on Etiquette Hell. Then replies, “Can childhood bullies change? Some social research would say they do not. They just become more sophisticated in their bullying.” In other words, they get their own blogs, their own Facebook pages where they have their own bully pulpit. Then the author adds (emphasis added),

The basic definition of bullying is the exploitation of power differentials done repeatedly over time. Etiquette and manners gives us a solid ground or framework of ways to use civility to change the power differential. If you’ve read EHell for years you know the theme of taking control of a situation through authoritative grace and civility is a pervasive one. I’d go so far as to say manners and etiquette, done with confident graciousness, makes one very powerful and changes the power differential considerably. People who are adept practitioners of good manners and graciousness are neither victims nor bullies.

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  1. I was reading Holdforth’s Why Manners Matter again this week, and the introduction alone is worth the price of the book.

    She writes:

    “…(manners) reflect the values of the society from which they spring and they influence the direction that society will take… (manners) matter because they represent an optimal means to preserve our own dignity and the dignity of others… manners connect us to things we cherish, such as health, freedom, order, progress, community and authenticity… if the idea of civilization matters at all, then so do manners.”

  2. A great quote from Edmund Burke (1729-97)

    Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. *125Manners are what vex or sooth, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.

    From Letters on a Regicide Peace

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