I was reading a book entitled Why Manners Matter, which concerns the need for some sort of self-restraint and code of behavior in society. I had trouble getting into the book at first, until I caught on that the author is Australian, and so “manners” had a different cultural connotation than in the Southern US culture that I grew up with. “Manners” in Australia carries the sense of class difference and pretensions of rank and station, something that is anathema in Australian popular self-perception. Being polite and decent, on the other hand, is OK.
The book’s author tries hard to avoid religious and philosophical arguments, and instead focuses on practical “because it keeps people from going nuts trying to figure out everything and makes people happier and less stressed” sorts of benefits. She also notes that the military requires manners and self-discipline, something she sees as good. I’m inclined to agree with her on many points, although I’d point out that all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity until they prove otherwise just because they are human and made in the image of G-d. Once they prove otherwise, then especially treated in a way that you maintain your self-respect and dignity. Sometimes the kindest, best thing to do to a rabid dog, once it is proven rabid, is to put it out of its and society’s misery. That can apply to social situations – tossing someone out of a gathering, for example, or ending a relationship, on the mildest end of the spectrum.
Which got me thinking a bit about self-identity. How we see ourselves, how we see our place in culture and society, which bits of culture we accept and which we try hard to stay away from. Readers know that I tend to avoid the easy, casual style of modern day popular media culture, and incline more towards formality and “good manners.” Not quite Victorian or Edwardian levels of politeness — I don’t wear gloves indoors, I drink soda-pop from a can, I’m bad at small talk — but certainly more restrained behavior than most younger people, and than a lot of people my age. Part of it is my being an introvert who gets twitchy around groups of emotional people, part of it is that I prefer having a mental script to fall back on in new situations.
Restraint and distance also help prevent a lot of problems from starting. It’s easier to start “hard” and then relax than it is to back up if you start all hang-loose and casual. In the fraught world of men, women, and “harassment means he looked at me for a half-second too long,” manners and formality are safety.
Self-control is part of good manners. I learned as a teen that letting my emotions show guaranteed trouble. That’s what the bullies wanted. I also realized that I might do something really, really antisocial if I lost my grip on my temper. The two are probably related, but the dark streak may predate my teens. I’m not going to dig in that part of my mind to find out. The point is, if you are in control of your mouth and temper, you are a lot less likely to get in trouble or cause trouble. Good manners are part of that self control. “A gentleman does not . . . A lady never raises her voice in anger.” OK, sometimes increasing the vocal volume is needed just to cut through the roar and get attention, but projection is not yelling. Emoting all over the place is rarely called for, at least in my personal world. Other cultures are different. There’s also a balance between making other people aware of your discontent with the situation and repressing things so much that it causes you problems.
Which led my wandering mind to a comment a reader made about how Arthur’s manners around Lelia changed. In the first two books, he’s more “relaxed” and “casual.” Over time, he becomes more formal, as does she. The clan tends toward formality, partly because of the need to keep intraclan violence to an acceptable level. Formality is Arthur’s default within the clan. As Lelia became more of a dependent, then peer, then family member, Arthur treated her more and more the way he would treat a relative in the clan. Part of Lelia’s persona as glamor [glamour?] goth is formality, likewise André, so she slid into the role relatively easily. It’s armor in a sense, for Lelia, her boss, and her husband. Especially when André is having trouble, formality gives all of them space to sort through what is bothering them and how to deal with it. Both men are predators, both are territorial, and both respect each other, and love Lelia in their different ways. Formality is appropriate. And as in other situations, Lelia and André look to the senior person for cues as to when manners are relaxed.
“An armed society is a polite society,” as Robert Heinlein phrased it. When people are armed and situations can shift quickly from irritating to lethal, civility and manners lubricate things and keep the friction to a minimum. Low friction doesn’t cause combustion.