It appears there’s some confusion about manners. Not only do people debate what are or are not “Good Manners,” they do so imprecisely. I cannot bear imprecise arguments. When one fails to define one’s terms, passionate discussions lead directly into a boggy swamp of opinions. No one advances beyond their own reactions.
Let us then deconstruct “Manners,” with an eye towards understanding what, if anything, matters.
I believe that most people want to have good manners. Of course, in the interest of precision, we must acknowledge that not everyone feels this way. Some are too overwhelmed by distress, or lack of resources. All their capacity absorbed by coping. Others actively rebel against manners in the traditional sense, looking for a new mode of interaction.
So let’s speak to those who care.
Manners are the term for an aspect of human behavior along the spectrum of Good to Bad. And yes, that means we’re in for a diagram.
The left hand side of this spectrum spans cultures. Few societies admire murder. The right hand side, however, is more complex. Right about the point where Nice and Kind enter the picture, Manners rears its well-groomed head. And here’s where deconstruction tells.
Manners consist of Protocol and Common Human Courtesy. These are not the same thing.
Common Human Courtesy
- Put the elderly, the pregnant, the handicapped, ahead of you.
- Greet those you meet with warmth, or respect, or both.
- Calibrate your clothing to your context.
- Say please and thank you.
- Greeting mechanism (handshake, air kiss).
- Table manners (fork left hand, fork left hand, banana leaves).
- Thank you mechanisms (handwritten notes, elaborately wrapped cheap presents, phone calls).
- What To Wear Beyond Aesthetics (no white after Labor Day, no short skirts after 40, business casual, mother of the bride).
I believe that everyone would agree, Common Human Courtesy takes us further along the Bad to Good spectrum than anything else.
The debate about manners usually revolves around Protocol.
Here’s the tricky part. Protocol originates as a way to establish and maintain hierarchies, not as a way to be nice to anyone. Protocol ensures we all stick to our roles, that we acknowledge and bow our heads to societal expectations. As a result people often point out Protocol violations in order to maintain a structure that reinforces their own desire for a formal, hierarchical world. These are false accusation of Bad Manners, and should be ignored as such.
Protocol also ranges from incomprehensible ritual to generally accepted cultural actions. It varies from environment to environment. What happens in an embassy stays in an embassy. What happens in Poland doesn’t often happen in Chicago. Here Jenna of That Wife details her discomfort with the European 3-kiss, for example.
Does that mean you can forget Protocol on the path to Good? Throw it all out the window as an outmoded artifact of a pre-Freudian, repressed, colonial era? Is life that simple? Unfortunately, no. When understood and agreed to by all participants, Protocol does simplify difficult interactions. There’s something to be said for simplifying. Being human is tough.
Even beyond simplification, there are those who feel Protocol ensures their safety, smooths their way, and signifies that all is well in the world. It’s their “Fuffy,” if you will. And when you ignore Protocol you cause them distress. They may then take the position that you are definitively In The Wrong. You’re not, in a moral sense. Protocol is situational. But if you willfully flout Protocol, you may upset someone. Just make sure it’s a conscious choice on your part. One that’s worth distress in others.
I call it the “Because Grandmama Cares” approach. I have evolved into this late in life. As a young woman I chafed against the strictures of protocol, all the while absorbing the entire How To from my family background. I believed that much protocol was evil, designed only to shame us and deny us our hearts. That may in fact be true. But at the next level, sometimes determined flouting of protocol becomes inconsiderate, failing at Common Human Courtesy. Which is, of course, the most important part of Good Manners.
The Privilege[d] Manifesto on Good Manners
- Common Human Courtesy matters most, but doesn’t suffice for Good Manners.
- Blind adherence to Protocol isn’t enough either.
- Some rules are downright dumb, not to mention vestiges of a society invested in hierarchy and brutal power structures.
- Yet human beings do better under shared behavior codes.
- The question is what protocols to follow, and why? Each of us must make our own choices. Each of us should try to respect the choices of others. Even choices we don’t like. I personally have trouble with eyebrow piercing. I keep it to myself when in the supermarket checkout line at Whole Foods.
- When you next want to accuse someone of Bad Manners, stop, and consider whether they are violating Protocol or failing Common Human Courtesy.
One final thought. Saints are apt to ignore protocol. Think about it. St. Patrick wasn’t terribly well-behaved when he sent away all those snakes, now was he? St. Joan certainly didn’t speak politely to those in authority.
What part of manners do you pay the most attention to?