Utter those words, and some of us probably think of the table, a napkin in the lap, chewing with our lips closed, and eating with a fork rather than with our fingers. Others, a little more antiquated, might envision giving up a seat on the subway to a pregnant woman, holding the door open for elderly man, or saying thank you to the young woman who helps us retrieve our carry-on luggage from the airplane’s overhead compartment.
In “Why Manners Matter: The Case for Civilized Behavior in a Barbarous World,” the delightfully named author Lucida Holdforth even found a few people who consider manners the affectation of snobs, who “immediately tag a defender of manners as (a) authoritarian and (b) nostalgic for a bigoted past.”
Clearly, a broader definition of manners is in order. Near the beginning of “Why Matters Matter,” Holdforth offers the succinct “manners are a civil mode of human interaction.”
If that sounds a little technical or vague, we might turn to the Golden Rule: Do until others as you would have others do unto you. If you don’t want others bullying you, sneering at you, and shoving ahead of you through the library entrance, then you shouldn’t do the same. To win respect, we offer respect. (Of course, if that respect is met with rudeness, then we must sometimes change course.)
My online dictionary offers this succinct definition: “good manners: polite or well-bred social behavior.”
By that definition, most of us probably think of ourselves as possessed of good manners. We may also know someone who displays extraordinary manners. Thirty years ago, a friend of mine married a woman from Long Island. Because I knew few people at the wedding festivities, I had plenty of time to observe the other guests. One, in particular, a man in his mid-20s, struck me as a remarkable practitioner of civility. He made the rounds greeting guests, offered an arm to an elderly woman making her way to the exit, and knelt down to speak to small children. But his treatment of others extended beyond mere gestures. In some mysterious way, he communicated care and concern for all those present. If that young man were a doctor, his bedside manner alone would win him the deep affection of his patients.
So how do human beings acquire manners?
If we look back at that dictionary definition, we note the words “well-bred social behavior.” Good manners, alas, are not part of human nature. Quite the contrary, in fact. Along with laws, manners came into being to curb instincts antithetical to society. Without the hedgerows of law and the customs of civility, we would daily be shooting one another dead in the streets, stealing our neighbor’s goods, and elbowing our way through life under the banner of “devil take the hindmost.”
No—unfortunately, we must be taught manners. Some guide must introduce us to the basic social graces. Many children learn etiquette in the home. Some young adults receive instruction in good manners at certain universities, which now teach such topics as table etiquette as part of their “adulting” courses. And of course, some never learn at all.
Our culture at large offers little instruction or support. It emphasizes rights over responsibilities, individual freedoms over requisite duties. At times, particularly in our media, it extols boorish behavior. Compare the Kennedy–Nixon debates to those of the last few presidential elections. During those first televised debates, we find no ad hominem attacks, no attempts at slander, no real slinging of mud. Those two men had their weaknesses of character, but they debated policy, not personalities. In that same era, profanity in the public square was almost unheard of. Today, of course, obscenities delivered over the air by celebrities and actors are commonplace.
“Ah repression,” Holdforth laments at one point in her book. “So sadly undervalued in modern life.”
When we lack manners, or when we lose control of ourselves, we lose what Holdforth describes as a key element of our personhood. She continues with this comment:
“There’s a rebuke that’s now out of fashion: “Sir, you forget yourself!” It assumes that one’s real self is not necessarily the base authentic creature. Rather, the real self is that artificial self, the thoughtful person who subscribes to higher standards of behavior. And it turns out that to be told you have forgotten yourself is actually something of a compliment—it assumes there’s something valuable to remember.”
Practicing good manners affords us the opportunity to ennoble others while at the same time endowing us with grace and dignity.
If that practice became more widespread, if homes and schools became hothouses for breeding politeness, good manners might then flower in our public life. Gone would be the radio show host who talks over his guests, the politician who rudely berates a man summoned to appear before a congressional committee, the actress who feels that somehow she has the right to curse a sitting president.
As Holdforth tells us, “As individuals and societies, we tread a delicate balance between order and freedom, personal liberty and social stability. Manners are a modest and effective means to help us resolve this complex equation.”
Judith Martin, known as Miss Manners, seconds this idea: “Etiquette is all human social behavior. If you’re a hermit on a mountain, you don’t have to worry about etiquette; if somebody comes up the mountain, then you’ve got a problem. It matters because we want to live in reasonably harmonious communities.”
The United States has more laws on the books than ever before, in part because of our loss of civility toward one another. We as individuals have the power to alter that situation. By extending small courtesies to our fellow citizens, by taking control of our interior selves, we can bring change, however slight, to the culture in which we live.
Manners maketh man, the old adage tells us.
Manners also maketh culture.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, North Carolina. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.