Are manners simply dead rituals? Or are we destroying our society by failing to use them? Luke Davis wants to know.
One of the best explanations for why manners are important I found in a book by Robert A Heinlein – Time Enough For Love (quoted above). It’s a Sci Fi book and not everyone’s cup of tea, but he has a very good point. Manners, politeness, and courtesy exist for a lot of reasons. Trust, respect, dignity, safety, protection, comfort, politics, or sometimes even who-the-hell-knows anymore. As society changes sometimes they make less sense, but at some point there was usually a good reason behind why they existed in the first place.
As a writer at The Good Men Project I get to see a lot of feedback and comments, even discussion amongst fellow authors, about manners in society. Some of it is driven by feminism or civil rights, some by terms like “white knighting” and some by conversations about who pays for the first date.
Are we living in a sick and dying society? Maybe. But I do believe he is correct in a number of respects, so I sat down and thought about what manners, politeness and courtesy aim to achieve. They are all rituals that some people say are irrelevant and no longer needed, but this is what I came up with:
- Manners create a protocol for how people interact
Manners provide a basic protocol of interaction from which trust and openness can be built. For instance, introducing a new staff member at work to colleagues. This basic introduction protocol gives a new staff member the view that this workplace has honest and open people. People say “Hi,” and are friendly so they assume it’s a place they should enjoy working.
- Manners create an expectation for how people will act
Ever walked into a store and encountered a rude staff member? The reason it irks you so much usually isn’t just because they were rude, but because they failed to meet your expectations of how a store staff member should act.
- Manners are designed to ease uncomfortable situations
Ever bumped into someone and said you were sorry? It’s not that you are saying you are responsible, or you genuinely mean you are apologizing. What you are doing is acknowledging that an accident occurred and there was no ill intention behind it.
- Manners are designed to acknowledge others
When you open a door for someone you are simply acknowledging their presence and the need for both of you to use the door at the same time. When you nod, smile, or say “Thanks,” you return that acknowledgement. Don’t complicate opening a door with feminism or being a gentlemen, there isn’t any need in today’s society. Its simply a door that needs opening and it’s rude to shut it in someone’s face.
- Manners are designed to protect those who are weaker
Have you helped an old lady across the road? Checked in on your grandmother from time to time? Made sure there was an adult supervising kids in a local park? These manners are basic protection mechanisms for those in society who are less able to protect themselves.
- Manners are designed to give everyone a fair go.
Wait your turn in line, don’t interrupt someone who is talking, be a good sportsman. These evolved to give everyone a chance and to give everyone an opportunity to participate in something. They introduce an element of fairness and order instead having an all-out free for all.
- Manners reduce conflict
Think about all the times you have been miffed at someone. Maybe while driving, shopping, or walking in a crowded place, catching public transport and so on. There is a good chance you were miffed because the person annoying you wasn’t using basic good manners. You may have even let out a huff or said something to them. Manners reduce the rub between people much like traffic lights reduce accidents at crossings.
- Manners afford strangers a basic level of dignity and respect
Whether they deserve it or not, (and you may not know) would you rather be rude or respectful? The response from people treated with a little respect and dignity is far more likely to be positive than if you treated them rudely. When was the last time you responded with positive comment when someone was rude?
The destruction of society
This may sound like a headline grabber, but I agree with Robert Heinlein on this. When a society starts to decline you start losing the very things afforded by manners—trust, dignity, respect and safety.
If you think about the things you look for when you move to a new neighborhood they are things like:
- Sense of safety and openness (Point #1)
- Kids playing in the gardens neighbors talking over the fence to each other. People are acting like they are part of a neighborhood. (Point #2)
- There doesn’t seem to be any tension or gossip between neighbors. (Point #3)
- People greet each other and introduce themselves. (Point #4)
- Neighbors look out for each others kids and look in on the elderly from time to time. (Point #5)
- Neighbors aren’t squabbling over common grounds, parks, and car parks. (Point #6)
- Conflicts between neighbors are resolved quickly and quietly. (Point #7)
- You are welcomed for who you are, not how much you earn or what you look like. (Point #8)
I realize there is an entire spectrum of people in any given community. But the more those eight points are applied, the more pride people seem to have in their community. They may secretly hate each other sometimes, but they put on their smiles and make the best out of their community.
When a community lacks basic manners two things happen. Good people start moving out looking for a community that meets their standards, and people prepared to accept lower standards move in. If it continues long enough, a once good neighborhood can deteriorate to the point where it is unsafe to walk the streets at night, crime is rife within the community, domestic violence becomes the norm, and neighbors treat each other with distrust and suspicion.
If enough communities across a society experience this decline, then society sickens and starts to decline with it. You may think manners are not important, and I might agree in very specific circumstances, but that does not mean all manners should be thrown out the window, nor does it mean that other standards of manners shouldn’t take their place. If you want to live in a society where you feel comfortable, safe, and have pride, then the answers start with manners. Something all of us can show.
As to whether our society is sick—are there more communities now with lower standards, and less manners than there used to be?
Sometimes I think so, but I hope I’m wrong.
Photo credit: (altered) Flickr/seven resist