Monday, August 22, 2011

A drop of kindness

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, manners

In her blog post for June 16, Dee Garcia rants about the behavior of the crowd in a sports bar. Plenty of bumping and shoving going on, and nobody ever says, "Excuse me." And that is just the start. Are we really a great deal less mannerly than our parents or earlier folks?

Lucinda Holdforth would say that we are, at least in the West, including Australia where she lives. She published Why Manners Matter: The Case for Civilized Behavior in a Barbarous World in 2007 in the UK and dependencies, and in the U.S. in 2009. I would say, rather "Yes and no", because there have been times when rudeness was even more widespread than we see today, and times in which great courtliness was the norm.

This is the first book relating to manners that was not a "how to", prescriptive work. It is instead a book about manners themselves, and why they are not just good but necessary.

People today think that "letting it all hang out" is somehow more genuine. That is true if all that you are is a human animal with an animal's habits and nothing more. Why, you don't even have to speak to live like an animal. Just grunt to warn others to stay out of the way, and take what you want. That'll last until someone has had quite enough and knocks your block off.

Where I work, a course is offered for those preparing to travel overseas for the first time on business, called "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands?" In Eastern Europe and Latin America, an air kiss is the preferred greeting when you first meet; thereafter two-cheek smackeroos are often expected. Try that in Japan, where a bow is expected, and even close friends may never have had physical contact! And by the way, when presented to a Monarch, do remember to bow or curtsey, as one must never touch a sovereign.

Throughout the book, the author deals again and again with the arguments many make, that manners are somehow hypocritical, or they take up too much time, or that all the rules are hard to remember. Manners do change with the times, making that last point doubly cogent: Do I need to remember different rules of etiquette with each generation, the elderly, the Boomers, generations X and Y? Not really. Kindness and thoughtfulness underlie most mannerly rules. We are just out of the habit of being thoughtful. A thoughtful person will defer to others, yet knows how to make a point in conversation; will acknowledge a kindness, including sending thank-you notes; will remember to say "Please" and "Thank you", without getting too hung up on the niceties of "perfect manners." Nobody is perfect.

And I guess this is the bottom-line lesson. We can make our own day, and the day of those we meet, a little better by some common courtesies. Self-control wins more friends than self-assertion, and "self esteem" is so very over-hyped that it leads to more rudeness than any other single quality. But self-respect leads to respect for others.

It seems that one current trend may lead to more mannerly behavior in the future. Americans are arming themselves, and the two most polite eras in Western history were times in which everyone who could afford to went about armed at all times. In pre-Victorian times, it was de rigeur to carry at least a dagger, and a sword if you had one, and in America at least, the "Old West" was a time that any slight infraction in politeness might be answered with hot lead. In some neighborhoods, if you "diss" someone, you'd better be capable of catching bullets. This is spreading, and there are towns and counties that have passed laws that require citizens to go about armed. When your life depends on your manners, you will suddenly become an etiquette expert!

But I am also reminded of a story that made the rounds a few years back: a man held the door for a woman to enter, and she said, "Oh, you don't have to hold the door for me because I am a lady." He replied, "It is not because you are a lady, but because I am a gentleman." Ms Holdforth's last chapter is titled "Because manners give us dignity". That alone is reason enough. Letting it all hang out may genuinely express our animal nature, but gentlemanly behavior expresses a higher ideal, that we are better than beasts.

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