Manners: Current Day and Fictional

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.

9 thoughts on “Manners: Current Day and Fictional

  1. That’s an interesting revelation concerning Arthur, and in context it makes perfect sense. I could make a case for Lelia becoming a peer, then a dependent, but that seemed to evolve simultaneously. The decision to bring her into the clan meant adding the low and high formality, which also added the “fish out of water” situations (comic and serious). Now it’s the head-shake and polite sighs of “Ah, Cousin Katoka!”, when something doesn’t translate the clan-Goth interface well. She’s one of them, almost-but-not-quite, and gets the forbearance of poor Cousin Radu, who ran into a closed half-door when young.

    In the larger view, the enforced norm of constant informality leaves no room for behavior changes except downward. I prefer not to engage in unfiltered emotional or non-logical incontinence on social media. Your higher standards are much appreciated, as is a slower trigger pull on the carpapult.

  2. Somewhere I remember reading that High Manners started in the Upper Classes but part of being in the Middle Class was using Manners (maybe not to the degree as in the Upper Classes) to show that you weren’t part of the “vulgar class”.

    Plus there was a strong push by Middle/Upper Classes to behave in a mannerly way toward those “below them”.

    American manners were less formal than English but were something that everybody did and were expected to follow.

    IE To show manners was to acknowledge the other person was equally human with “you”.

      • No, it’s “everybody’s a citizen.” Which honestly was something like nobility, in Greece and Rome, because it was the opposite of being a slave. But it was still an expectation that you had lots and lots and lots of equals, and that each of you was needed and wanted as a part of the city’s defenses and its government.

        In America, where so many people were able to homestead and get their own land and house, people took the idea seriously that someone’s home was his castle.

  3. There’s a lot of dimensions here. They seem to be connected by ritual representing something aspired to. In other words, authenticity isn’t enough. But the price is the need to ensure that the pretense actually points upward, not downward. Politicians give us appalling, abyssal examples of pretense for deceit instead of aspiration. Their taint would sicken Rosie Jones.

    Anyone care to make sense of that word salad?

  4. I think a lot of our thinking about manners is colored by the Victorian era, so perhaps Gertrude Himmelfarb’s work on the Victorians is relevant here. In a 1988 essay, she wrote:

    “‘Manners and Morals’-the expression is peculiarly, unrnistakably Victorian. Not ‘manners’ alone: Lord Chesterfield in the 18th century was fond of discoursing to his son on the supreme importance of manners-manners as distinct from (if necessary, in opposition to) morals. And not ‘morals’ alone: Philosophers had always taken this as their special province, had, indeed, made it so elevated a subject that it had little to do with anything so mundane as manners.

    “It was the Victorians who combined these words so that they came trippingly off the tongue, as if they were one word. Manners
    were sanctified and moralized, so to speak, while morals were secularized and domesticated. When William Thackeray earlier in the century, or Anthony Trollope later, protested that manners were taking precedence over morals, that ‘the way we live now’ (in the
    memorable title of one of Trollope’s last novels) encouraged the cultivation of manners at the expense of morals, it was because they themselves attached so much importance not only to morals but to the continuum of manners and morals.”

    She concluded this with a quotation from Edmund Burke:

    “Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarise or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

    Click to access WQ_VOL12_SU_1988_Article_02.pdf

    During the industrial revolution (which also included structural changes in British agriculture; enclosure related changes resulted in masses of rural poor and displaced farm workers becoming urban poor and industrial workers; in many cases these people lived in Hogarthian slums. One of the efforts of the Victorian elites (for reasons both idealistic and self-serving) was to teach, or reteach, bourgeoise values to the masses. Himmelfarb again:

    “To the degree Victorians succeeded in ‘bourgeoisifying’ the ethos, they also democratized it. That ethos was not, to be sure, an exalted or heroic one. Hard work, sobriety, frugality, foresight these were modest, mundane virtues, even lowly ones. But they were virtues within the capacity of everyone; they did not assume any special breeding, or status, or talent, or valor, or grace-or even money. They were common virtues within the reach of common people. They were, so to speak, democratic virtues.

    “They were also liberal virtues. By putting a premium on ordinary virtues attainable by ordinary people, the ethos located responsibility within each individual. It was no longer only the exceptional, the heroic individual who was the master of his fate; every individual could be his own master. So far from promoting social control, the ethos had the effect of promoting self-control. This was at the heart of Victorian morality: self-control, self-help, self-reliance, self-discipline. A liberal society, the Victorians believed, depended upon a moral citizenry. The stronger the voluntary exercise of morality on the part of each individual-the more internalized that morality-the weaker need be the external, coercive instruments of the state. For the Victorians, morality served as a substitute for law, just as law was a substitute for force.”

    Sadly, the law today touches us everywhere and often. Three felonies a day, baby.

    • The Victorian Era/Gilded Age saw the rise of a national culture of sorts across the US as the railroad and publications like Goody’s Ladies Magazine and Harper’s Weekly connected the regions a little more firmly. Regional newspapers and trade publications, as well as various church and Sunday School magazines and papers played a role as well. I can see that spreading ideas, along with the efforts to Americanize immigrants by schools and aid associations (get rid of the peasant mentality, teach everyone English and middle-class manners.)

  5. Manners also confuse the hell of the opposition. When the ‘object’ of their attentions doesn’t react the way they think, it screws them up. 🙂

Comments are closed.