Manners begin with an acknowledgement that we live in a tough world, and sometimes a tragic world. We teach and display manners to help each other through it. There have been many mis-uses of manners, and we’ll deal with those in a moment, but this much – helping each other through a difficult world – is the proper base of manners.
Think of how much in this world thrives on the abuse of human vulnerabilities. The vast bulk of public discourse, in our time, uses human soft spots as tools of commerce, tools of persuasion and tools of manipulation. All of that is, in the proper sense, bad manners.
A couple of centuries ago, Europeans (including the British) would refuse to take advantage of such things, simply because “it was not proper for a gentleman,” or for a lady. Those were manners, far more than style of clothing of speech: It was “conduct becoming a gentleman,” and so on… and it did make the world a better place.
Manners As An Excuse
Above we noted conduct becoming a gentleman. And so it’s probably necessary to explain that, while this is true, there are also bad uses of such concepts. I tend not to focus on those, in harmony with a line from Jeremiah: What is the chaff to the wheat? I care about locating what’s good and useful, not about what abusers do. But there is also a certain value in separating the wheat from the chaff. And so…
The practice of using manners as a cover for your abuses goes back at least to ancient Greece. Greece was a slavery-based culture (because it was a slavery-based economy), and the slave holders developed a habit of justifying their position by adopting elite manners, with demonstrations of “culture.” They ate an elite way, they gathered and discoursed an elite way, and so on. Their high culture was, to a very significant extent, a way to justify keeping humans in slavery. It weaponized and defended border between classes.
This model – elite manners justifying the enslavement and/or abuse of others – has remained, and even pops-up in modern times, with slavery long gone. And so it’s important to make a very clear point:
Fancy manners don’t justify anything you do; they don’t make you a better class of human, at all. And if you try to act like they do, you condemn yourself.
That said, this is also true:
A lack of manners does not demonstrate anything good about you, and in fact demonstrates significant gaps in your development. Poor manners don’t make you “real,” give you “street cred,” or anything of value; they merely made you ill-mannered.
Now, let’s go back to manners and why they matter.
The purpose of manners is not to make your grandmother happy and not to make important people think well of you. The purpose of manners is to make life better. In other words:
Badly mannered people waste your energy.
Well-mannered people conserve your energy.
We live in a busy, interconnected world. Most of us cross paths with hundreds of people on a daily basis. We must cooperate if we want to be successful in anything. So, we use manners to lubricate our interactions with the rest of the world.
- We hold open doors for people who will have a harder time doing so, or simply to make things a bit easier for them.
- We don’t block the sidewalk, so that others can get to their destinations without delays.
- We don’t talk loudly in enclosed places or where we will interfere with the conversations of others.
- We don’t have loud and late outdoor parties, set off fireworks in residential areas, and so on, because these things interrupt our neighbors’ lives.
- We use table manners (chew with mouth closed, etc.) to avoid ruining the appetite of others. (Who wants to watch your half-chewed food?)
- We say please and thank you to keep everyone cooperative and appreciative.
- We pass-over minor and accidental insults to keep life productive and to avoid disputes. We have better things to do than to fight over minor things.
- We help blind people cross streets, crippled people get their wheelchairs up stairs, deaf people to understand what is being said… we help women with strollers, pregnant women always, old people, young children, and so on.
- We reach out to help people who are lost or in trouble.
- We don’t waste the time and energy of others, simply because we can. (This is done, massively, by large corporations.)
- We keep our agreements and meet expectations we set. (Opening our businesses on time, and so on.) This creates a high-trust, reliable world, which makes life massively better for us all.
Manners are how we take the initiative and cooperate with our fellow productive humans. If we do these things, and if they do them for us, life becomes much less frustrating and far more efficient. It is better for us all. That is why the grandmother instilling manners into children is essential to human thriving, even if she doesn’t explain them very well.
So, the true choice facing us is either to lubricate life for those around us, or contribute friction and hassles to the world.