“We are all born charming, fresh, and spontaneous and must be civilized before we are fit to participate in society.” – Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”)
I was complaining — not too long ago — about the bad manners of a friend of one of my sons. I was trying to explain why so many of the rude and inconsiderate things this person did were disturbing to me. “You don’t understand,” my offspring said sympathetically, “she is just up front with her emotions.”
I paused, amused. “They invented something for that,” I answered. “Many, many years ago.”
He looked at me curiously.
“Manners,” I told him.
A system of manners is the cultural blueprint of what it takes to live a successful life in a difficult world with the least amount of pain and bloodshed. Good manners are not arrived at arbitrarily. They are created by trial and error, by noting which actions lead to resentment and/or reprisals and which to warm feelings and good wishes.
I was talking to KY about this. She agrees. “There is no excuse,” she said, “for talking in a movie theater … ignoring the “please/thank you” basics … not respecting/listening to/offering seats to elders … engaging in a variety of cell-phone infractions … or serving yourself before offering to others.”
“Hmm,” I thought. I tried to remember the last time KY ate chez moi. I hoped I’d served her first.
And I agreed with her about everything but talking in movies. That seems to be a cultural thing. In movie houses populated by African-Americans, talking is the rule. It is expected — almost mandatory. It adds to the fun. If you don’t participate verbally, you simply haven’t done your share. Something similar is true of another cultural group — the cultists who go regularly to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” So, it seems to me that while some manners are universal and absolute, some are local and relative.
For example, it is bad manners to cut into a line. And anyone who cuts into a line is — at least for the moment — a bad person. You are a bad person for cutting into a line because you are doing something that if imitated by everyone would result in the end of the very sensible and useful function of lines.
And in most civilized countries, we want and use lines.
Yet, cutting in line is not — or was not — an accepted cultural standard in Chad during the 1970s. I know, because I was there. If you wanted to withdraw money from your bank account, you had to push your way into a crowd that had massed in front of the bank teller’s window. By jostling and shoving, you’d eventually make your way to the teller. But if you merely waited on what you thought was a line, you’d wait all day.
I was once able, for example, to cash a check quickly in Chad by simply shouting my request to the assembled mob — which responded by passing my checkbook and then the money hand to hand above their heads much like the way you buy a hot dog at a ballpark in New York.
So, no, I don’t believe in absolute manners. But I do believe absolutely in manners.
Give yourself this Good Manners test. See how strongly you find yourself identifying with the following comments.
1. “If I’m in a rush, I don’t have any trouble cutting into a line.”
2. “I see nothing wrong with farting or belching at the dinner table.”
3. “Forks and knives — chopsticks too — are merely tools to assist nature’s finest cutlery: the fingers.”
4. “It’s such a bother to get out of the car and go up to the doorbell. I’d rather just honk the horn till she looks out.”
5. “If my spouse can’t wait an extra half-hour while I change my outfit for the 16th time, screw him and his insensitivity.”
6. “A good way to get a bartender’s attention is to shout, ‘Yo!'”
7. “When you are introduced to someone who couldn’t possibly do you any good, it’s a good idea to give them the coldest shoulder possible.”
How did you do? How many of these comments do you agree with?
If you scored a perfect “7” (i.e., you “completely agree” with all of the comments), consider yourself an amazingly interesting person. If you scored between “3” and “7,” you may not know it but almost nobody that you like likes you. If you scored low on this test (less than one, for example), you don’t need any advice about good manners from me.