A Tragedy of Manners

I think the first person I hated was also the first person who tried to teach me manners.

In retrospect, the poor lady – who died relatively young – was absolutely right.  At eight, when she met me, I had the vaguest hints of civilization overlaid on a willful personality and all the grace and gentleness of an untamed monkey.  In a country like Portugal, which only isn’t as formal and tradition bound as Japan because… well, it’s Portugal and people can’t do the same thing in the exact same way twice, I must have been an offensive creature and also something really hard to understand.

Though honestly, it shouldn’t have been that hard to understand.  My parents talked routinely of how bad my manners were and how by the time he was three my brother could be taken into any company and behave like a perfect gentleman.

I’ve never fully understood if this was part of their illusion that, because I was smarter than the average bear, I should be able to pick up things I’d never been taught – for instance, they were disappointed I couldn’t play the very first time I saw a piano, and they dismissed my art talent when I didn’t draw like DaVinci by five – or if it was because I was ten years younger than my brother, who, in turn, was the youngest of the extended family.

I think it was a combination.  In retrospect, I wonder how much they taught my brother his manners, and how much he picked up from the cousins who were just five or four years older, and who would have, in the way of kids, found it funny to teach the toddler.

Anyway, I came afterwards, and it had certain advantages, like the ability to learn whatever the older kids were learning in high school and college, by serving as checker of answers; like the inheriting of a vast library that had grown with each cousin; like not being taken very seriously and therefore being able to disappear for the whole day into the depths of the backyard with a book, and not having anyone do anything but be relieved you’re not tagging along and bugging them.

It had the same disadvantages, though.  Perhaps my parents thought that by letting me grow up as I wished, I’d pick up manners through observation.  In which case, they failed to note I had the world’s worst visual memory and lived most of the time in a world of my own that did not intrude on reality.

The lady who tried to teach me manners was probably in her thirties and childless – the friend of one of mom’s best friends – and she went about it entirely the wrong way.  In retrospect, I think she was a deeply conventional person who liked things in their proper places at their proper time.

The problem was not that she told me things like “You should say thank you when someone gives you something” or “The proper answer to ‘would you like some cake?’ is ‘no, thank you’ not ‘no’ or even ‘you should say excuse me before entering a room’ (a Portuguese thing.  Go with it.  It’s actually “do I have permission.”)  No, the problem is that instead of informing me of these rules, she assumed I KNEW the rules and was breaking them willfully, which was furthermore – in her opinion – proof of a low character.  So she accosted eight year old me in corners and hallways with such charming diatribes as “You are the rudest child I’ve ever met.  Why will you not ask permission to enter a room?”  Or “You are the most ingrate person in the world.  Why don’t you say thank you when someone hands you a glass of water?” or, my ever favorite “If I had you a week under my command, I’d teach you not to be such a vile, self centered little monster.”

As I said, I hated her.  I spent hours plotting horrible deaths for her.

Because I hated her, I extended my hatred to all manners.  For a while, in pre-adolescence, I did go out of my way to be as rude as humanly possible.  You see, I was wounded because I was actually full of good intentions.  The first money I earned I used to buy gifts for my family; I was always trying to think of ways to help the people I liked; I TRIED not to be a selfish little beast.  But here was someone telling me I was the world’s most self-centered person because I’d not thought to say “Thank you” when handed a glass of water I hadn’t asked for.

For a while I became like Rousseau and his ilk, full of explanations that the “natural man” was better than all this mannered and carefully cultivated society.

Fortunately, somewhere between eight and ten I realized I was wrong.  I think what made me realize it was leaving the village where people wrote off a lot of what I did because I came from an eccentric family, and going to middle school about ten miles away…  where people didn’t know me.

Also, my best friend came from an impoverished family of aristocratic background and I noted people – just common people, on the street – treated us differently.  It wasn’t her clothes or her looks, so it must be her manners.  For the next five years, I watched her family like a hawk, and studied to behave as she did, with all the little flourishes of manners and mode.

And it worked.

I never met the lady who wanted to teach me manners after I was about ten – my parents were probably afraid I’d kill her – but I run into anyone who commented adversely on my manners, after that.

So, what is this long disquisition?

I came to understand, particularly through changing cultures, that manners are more than a senseless form.  They are things people do to let each other know that they belong – that they are part of the group.

Humans are a social animal.  Little meaningless rituals are built in to us, as a way of saying “I belong in the nest, don’t throw me out.”  Also, while manners are slightly different in each country (for instance, I think Americans would think I was out of my raving mind if I asked “Do I have permission to enter this room” – except in SFF, where they’d probably stake me through the heart.  While Portuguese would find it bizarre for a shop attendant to thank them for buying something.) they are also not entirely meaningless.  They are things that get automated, at a trained-in level, so you don’t have to think about it and don’t unwittingly offend someone.  I could be dead tired, for instance, or in the hospital, but if someone does some minor favor for me, I’m going to say “Thank you” out of automated reflex.  And that thank you lets the other person – no matter how tired or dead on their feet THEY are – know their action was seen and appreciated.

As Heinlein put it, it makes things run smoother.  In the same way, I might not be aware of the shopper coming out of the store behind me, both arms loaded with parcels.  But I am aware someone is behind me, and at this point it is a reflex to hold the door open so they pass.  When I’m the one on the receiving end of this kindness, that manners-reflex is much appreciated.

Why this matters – since the sixties we’ve gone on something like my tantrum between eight and ten.  We have been worshipping the natural man, saying exactly what one feels, and the total lack of artificiality and “meaningless ritual” as a supreme good.

Where this is probably the worst is in politics, where one side tends to come from places where they were taught – or taught themselves manners – while the other side worships the “natural man” and is therefore free to throw tantrums and scream.  (Hint, only one side thinks papier mache puppets are a masterful political argument.)

For instance, no matter if I were sure that 90% of the people in a room were of my politics, UNLESS it was a political gathering, I’d never tell a convention dinner “Let’s hear it for so and so, our next president” – when the man wasn’t even there, and wasn’t called into the matter at any level.  And yet, a well known science fiction writer did just that in 2003 at the World Fantasy Awards banquet, causing those of you who didn’t want to clap and cheer for the – er… rather screamy – politician to feel deeply uncomfortable and wonder if our editors were marking our reaction.  (They were.  Probably.)

I wouldn’t do it, because it would be bad manners to make people who couldn’t escape (awards banquet) and who weren’t counting on this, were forced to withstand proselytizing with no means of countering or even saying “Yes, but—“.

Part of the problem is that those who worship the “Natural Man” tend to think that if you can control yourself, then you don’t feel strongly enough, and if you don’t feel strongly enough, then you can’t be “right” or, pardon me, “on the right side of history.”

Lately I’ve been wondering if I should have kept that reservoir of “manners are bunk” and used them over the last thirty years whenever I was ambushed by one of the Natural Men – particularly the female ones – in the most unlikely of circumstances.  I’m wondering if that would have made any difference – if puncturing the bubble of self-affirmation and these noises they make for group coherence, (Perhaps they’ve taken that instead of manners) or in the case of the deeper thinkers, questioning their principles, would have made a difference and not have got us where we are: in danger of destroying our kids’ futures because the Natural Man is sure the “Man” (those untrustworthy people who can control themselves and use manners to mask their worst feelings – and who also, occasionally, make more money) is hiding some mysterious stash that could get us all out of trouble and buy everyone a pony.

I don’t know.  I know at least half the people will say “No, no, we must not descend to their level” – but I think it is not a matter of levels, but simply a matter of not communicating.  Like my untutored self, they aren’t even aware that there are rules, or that the rules have any validity.  Instead, they’ve taken this ideal and these feelings, or always being “natural” with no disguise and no self control, and have elevated that to the center of “goodness.”

They get that from stories, of course.  Since at least the sixties, and for high culture before, stories have put “being natural” and “being true to yourself” as the highest good.

But because they get it from stories, unexamined, doesn’t mean we can’t make them examine it.  The problem is, we have to approach them not in a way that impugns their character – like the lady who assumed I was selfish and mean when I was simply ignorant – by saying things like “I won’t lower myself to your level.”

Instead, we might have to lower ourselves to their level – momentarily – and show them why the rules exist, and what they protect.  Unless, of course, we’re all very gifted teachers and can do it only with rhetoric.

Manners are an instrument of civilizational cohesion.  They haven’t been taught in three generations, and that cohesion has fallen apart, except where it’s been replaced by mindless repetition of slogans.

We can let it go on, but the thing is, mindless repetition of slogans doesn’t create a civilization.  Not one of free men.  Sooner or later things fall apart.

Or we can try at this late a date to bring the savage children into civilization and to explain the natural man is all very well in nature, but when dealing with other humans there is this thing called “signals of belonging to the band” and this thing called “Not offending people who don’t need to be offended.”  We need to explain to the wolf-boys and girls that there is such a thing as self control and that it not only can and should, but has to be exerted, unless civilization is to revert to a wilderness with everyone’s hand against everyone else’s.

I wish I had any idea how to do it.  Perhaps for now it is enough to know it has to be done.  Somehow.

Note: The Post over at Mad Genius Club is different and is now up.  (Slow today.  Now #2 son has been hit by dread stomach flu, which means interrupted night.  I seem to finally be okay, though.)

UPDATE: And the blog tour has started.  First post here.  (And I think I completely forgot to mention Darkship Renegades.  Maybe I should sleep more?)

111 responses to “A Tragedy of Manners

  1. You wrote:
    ” we might have to lower ourselves to their level – momentarily – and show them why the rules exist, and what they protect. ”

    I agree that this is a good idea and might work with some people, but, many people will not listen.

    • Wayne Blackburn

      Still, some people, once confronted with their own form of behavior, will see how destructive it is. Even though many will not, getting through to those few will help.

  2. It’s a conundrum that most people have a very hard time embracing; our very human nature likes to brag and show ourselves superior to others, so those little digs are hard to suppress until you’ve learned to squelch them over time. Having been raised a Christian and trying to be a follower of Christ, I recognize it well. So many of our faith have a tendency to shout with their bullhorn, just not comprehending that far from drawing others into the faith, they’re pushing them away with both hands. Might as well be throwing rocks at the poor blighters! It’s the same in politics. Yelling in the opposition’s face accomplishes nothing; picking a pertinent subject and sharing information gets a little further. It would all be so much easier if we didn’t have the ego to deal with. Best answer I can come up with is to teach our children well – the importance of manners, and how to treat others, and try to instill that while Self Esteem is marginally important, of far greater importance is Self Respect. (One of my better posts from a few years ago on my blog, LOL – Self Respect > Self Esteem)

  3. Sarah wrote: “I wish I had any idea how to do it.

    You’re asking the right question. Excellent!

    • Wayne Blackburn

      Sarah, is there a plug-in so we can choose to hide arrogant, condescending comments?

      • I thought it was a demonstration of what not to do…

      • If you don’t like what I write, when you see my name just skip the comment.

        If Sarah would prefer I not comment here then she can let me know and I won’t.

        • Wayne Blackburn

          Now see, emily61, this is probably one of those who won’t benefit from that advice. If you notice, I tried to do it there, but he ignored it, instead of trying to see how rude his original comment was.

          • Some people are immune to self-knowledge, Wayne. They think underarm deodorant is something others ought use.

            • Susan Shepherd

              On the other hand, there’s a subset of the population that takes text at face value, since we tend to indicate sarcasm with tone of voice when speaking and written text cannot convey the tonal component. In which case he’s agreeing with Sarah, I guess.

              But to borrow a phrase from Sarah, I’m the world’s worst person when it comes to reading sarcastic or condescending text and actually realizing that it isn’t meant neutrally, so I might just be missing something.

              • Susan Shepherd

                Eh, just realized that it’s likely an extension of not getting tone in oral communication, either. So likely a just-me problem.

                • No, not just you. Why else would the emoticon have been invented as a concept and coined as a word? People who don’t use emoticons are kind of handicapped, too — if they tease, it’d better be outrageous, or it might be taken seriously.

                  I like emoticons. 🙂

      • Actually, there is such a plugin, called Trollhammer, but it would require Sarah to configure her WordPress install to use a plugin container called GreaseMonkey, and everyone would have to install it.

  4. Martin L. Shoemaker

    I’ve been thinking for a while that we need a Goldstein League – after Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984, of course. He was the man everyone hated for two minutes per day, not because they had ever met him, but because they were obedient to the State, and the State told them to hate him

    The point of the Goldstein League would be to politely point out to well-meaning but obedient friends and family: “That person you hate, even though you’ve never met him? That’s me. That person you’re sure is a racist even though you know nothing about him? That’s me. You hate me, because you always do as you’re told (all the while prizing your individuality and free thinking). You hate me, because I Am Goldstein.”

    • We should ask Jeff Goldstein over at Protein Wisdom to head it 😉 No, I think that’s part of it. We’ve held back, because we’re polite and we don’t want to cause social distress, but it is time to talk about it.

      • Yes! We’re all too polite! We don’t bring up politics in conversation because it leads to fights, and it’s often rude. But THEY don’t have that problem at all. Which means we need to learn to respond, even educate, in ways that don’t go against our polite natures. (My dad is good at it, he can “And why do you think that?” someone to death, smiling politely the whole time.)

        • It helps that they can be beaten to death with the inherent contradictions of their positions. Regrettably, when you do this to them, no matter how politely (especially when done politely) they will be inclined to call you names.

          • Sadly, yes. And I also find that even if you get them logically, with facts, it does no good. You can argue them to that point, and even get them to agree, but it does no good. They don’t vote, or even “think” based on logic or facts, it’s all about emotion with them, and we rational people don’t do well stirring emotion, at least, not in a way that reaches them.

            • You remind me of a year or two ago, when a friend asked me why I didn’t support utilitarianism as a moral theory. I did a series of three posts on the subject, and he read the first post and told me I thought like a sociopath. . . .

  5. Wayne Blackburn

    Probably one reason that the notion of “fighting words” as a defense against assault charges has been removed from legal doctrine, since if it were still there, those who “have no filter” as they call it, would find themselves nursing a broken nose and missing teeth.

    • “Fighting Words” remains a legal doctrine, its use is simply limited to certain designated groups. For example, any apparently “white” person in the United States who uses a certain taboo word starting with “N” will find that the doctrine remains in effect for his assailant. Similarly, a word once commonly understood to refer to “small sticks and twigs, suitable to starting campfires” is now taboo when referencing an individual.

      Similar words that do not refer to designated victim groups do not similarly enable the “Fighting Words” defense.

  6. Somewhat tangentially, this makes me think of Carly Simon’s fairly early song “The Carter Family.” Its second verse runs

    Grandma used to nag at me to straighten up my spine,
    To act respectful and read good books, to take care of what was mine.
    I hated being criticized and asking her permission;
    So what if her advice was wise? It always hurt to listen.
    I didn’t cry when Granny died; she made me so depressed—
    And then I found I missed her more than I’d ever guessed.

  7. The point is that manners are not a divisive institution but a cohesive one. On the one hand, as Sarah correctly notes, manners signify that one “belongs” to the group which possesses the same set of manners. On the other hand, manners provide a common good–that of amicable cohabitation–in that people without manners tend to be anti-social as well.

    Finally, I should point out one baleful consequence of a lack of manners: when manners are non-existent, a law is sure to follow. To a considerable degree, the proliferation of laws which has been inflicted on our society is a direct consequence of the disappearance of manners through the influence of post-modernism.

    Normally, after such a statement, I would say, “That’s just my opinion; I could be wrong.” In this case, I say no such thing.

  8. I say we bring back the Code Duello, it’s how manners evolved in the first place and and armed society is a polite society.

    • I have long advocated that society should permit every individual one free homicide, non-transferable. It would do wonders to improve the general level of civility and encourage deferment of indulgence.

  9. I was pretty horrified when the first male allowed the door to slam in my face (it was in my twenties). In my family that was the height of rudeness. It was also during the time the feminists were haranguing the males for opening doors.

    The last two generations were not taught manners. The generation who taught the “natural man” and stripped manners from our civilization– which I think is causing a lot of the problems and crimes we are seeing now.

    I noticed the other day when we were in a sporting warehouse in the gun section that I saw more manners than I had seen in years. I can extrapolate on why– but I think it is pretty obvious. Plus in our rural areas where any man or woman can be armed, the police are more polite to their citizenry.

    • I wrote this comment before seeing Patrick’s comment. 😉

    • I’ve observed that when I wear Victorian clothes (teaching or reenacting), a number of young men become much more polite, opening doors, moderating their language, smiling more, that sort of thing. Ditto when I’m wearing vintage (German and Austrian) women’s suits. It is almost, almost, as if they want to play along. They know some of the rules, but perhaps do not feel comfortable following them. So I smile, and am gracious, and do everything I can to encourage them.

      And yes, living in an area with concealed carry and vehicle carry tends to encourage an atmosphere of mutual respect. “An armed society is a polite society,” as so many have observed.

      • Hasn’t there been a simlar reaction to kids in schools that require uniforms? The kids automatically become more polite and well behaved?

      • I was going to say that the politest conventions I’ve seen are steampunk ones. it’s like they give people an EXCUSE to be polite.

        • Indeed… Because it’s “part of the party” and “cool in context”, so to speak. You’re not weird for playing along – you’re adding to the experience.

          Put that down for *two* pluses for steampunk: improved manners and people generally look very good.

    • What really annoys me is the men who hold the door too wide for me to take it.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        Mary, I’m a “bad person”. My first thought about your post was “men can’t win”. [Wink]

    • We may, finally, be getting over this. I no longer see that look of surprise when I thank a man for opening a door.

  10. We do seem to find ourselves in a difficult situation. One one hand, a well mannered society helps us to get along with strangers, and people we may not agree with or like. One the other hand, we are debating with ill-mannered people who use our good manners against us.

    A prime example is the recent election. Mitt Romney may not have been all that I wanted from a policy viewpoint. But, he is about as honest and decent a man as you could want to meet. The Democrats called him a tax cheat, a felon, and accused him of causing a woman to die. All of those were flat out lies. Yet, they got away with it. IMHO, Barack Obama is a cold, arrogant, dishonest, racist, liar. Romney chose to be well mannered and say that Obama is a nice guy, just in over his head. We saw how that worked out.

    So, can we still be well mannered and hit back twice as hard. Or, do we need to start playing hardball the way the other side does? I don’t know. I need to think on it. Perhaps we can take a lesson from Cyn’s example about people in the gun section at the sporting goods store. Let them know we are well manned, but can be dangerous if need be.

    • I think the key is to not allow them to define good manners. We need not (can not, some would argue) stoop to their level. Nor do we need play Margaret Dumont to their Groucho. Steadfastly and politely standing our ground and defending our positions is sufficient, provided we do not accept their definitions of what is “proper and fit” topics for discussion and debate. We should strive:

      To place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.

      • “Steadfastly and politely standing our ground and defending our positions is sufficient”

        I’ve long tried to explain to people (to varying degrees of success) that humility and weakness are not the same thing. Knowing when you are right, refusing to concede your principles, these are essential to true humility. One can be firm in conviction without being harsh or abusive. As a Christian I look to the example of Jesus – He was perfectly humble, knowing who He was and what was right and holding to it unfailingly. Imagine if you will a great, smooth stone: no rough edges to abrade those who oppose it, but solid and immovable.

        PS Pardon the very formal language. I get this way when I’m sleep deprived.

    • “So, can we still be well mannered and hit back twice as hard.”

      Of course — but it would make more sense to hit where it does the most harm, regardless of how much actual force is applied.

      It would help if more people understood: There is a corollary to The Golden Rule, which reads, “As others have done unto you, do unto them”. Someone deals straight with you, you deal straight with him; someone plays games with you, crush the motherfucker. >:) (And seeing that guy get crushed — well, to borrow a line from an HBO Original Movie: “There’s fifty guys who think they’re the next Hitler. We can’t get fifty guys — but if we get *one* guy, the other forty-nine don’t sleep so well.” >:) )

  11. Actually, Miss Manners says that the correct thing is for the customer to say “thank you” whereupon the sales clerk says “You’re welcome.”

    However, the rudeness of customers has driven them to come up with a different way to be less blunt about, “I’m done with you.”

    • Actually I usually say “thank you” and then we get into sort of a war of the thank yous. Also, it’s amazing how many clerks, hotel cleaners and check in people look startled when I say “thank you.”

    • When I’m at school store, I say “thank you” to the kids because they’re handing me money!

  12. I read a quote a long time ago and I’m sure this is no longer exact but it explained SO much to me. Republicans consider politics to be a gentleman’s game and behave accordingly; Democrats consider politics to be a blood sport, and also behave accordingly.

  13. My advisor and I used to go round and round over my calling him “sir.” It is a reflex. I cannot not refer to a gentleman who is 1) older than I am and 2) in a position of authority as “sir,” or reply, “Yes, Dr. So-and-so; no, Dr. So-and-so.” Drives him nuts, because he is a child of the 1960s who prefers a casual approach to the world. His attitude drives me nuts because it seems disrespectful.

    • Susan Shepherd

      Yep, I’ve had this too. Sir / Ma’am was reflexive for a while, if you were older than me and worthy of respect. But I’ve had lots of folks tell me not to say “sir” or “ma’am,” so now I tend to use those terms less often. 😦

      Weirdly, while bowing to people is seen as formal, more people seem willing to dismiss that as a quirk (well . . . it is; to be fair, it’s a habit I’ve retained from high school, but most people have never been bowed to and haven’t seen it except in movies) and I’ve only had one person ask me not to bow because it made him uncomfortable.

      • I learned to bow with hands together in Japan. The waitstaff at some of our Asian restaurants are surprised and pleased when I know who to do it. 😉

        **NOTE– I do not agree with our head of State bowing to other heads of States. (I wouldn’t bow to a king or queen for that reason– however in Japan it was a sign of respect and status.)

      • I was never taught to say Sir/Ma’am, but as a kid I picked it up from books and movies (an advantage of the older westerns). Somewhere along the line, without actually realizing it I kind of developed my own protocol. If I don’t know the person, or not well, I use Sir/Ma’am kind of instinctually as a sign of respect and acknowledgement. If I do know them well, I don’t tend to use unless either I disagree with them, but still respect them, in which case the Sir/Ma’am is a sign of respect, showing that I don’t agree but I still respect your knowledge/authority/position/etc. or if I know them and don’t respect them, the Sirs and Ma’ams tend to fly thick and fast; slathered it so much sarcasm that it is dripping onto the floor.

  14. My mother was like you, she didn’t learn much in the way of manners at home (unlike you, she came from a dirt poor family), but she went to a good high school (in the days when there were good public high schools) and watched and learned from her friends. (Mom also points out that the movies, in the 30s and 40s, showed class and elegance, unlike today, and she learned a lot from Katherine Hepburn and Fred Astaire).

    I recently read a book on Improv, recommended by my on-line writing group for character work, and was fascinated by a chapter that said all opening human interaction is about determining status, which is all about manners. Status doesn’t mean inferiority, but say you’re entering someone’s room, we often defer to the other person as owning that territory – as in, Grandma’s in charge of the kitchen, we defer to her there, while she has a higher status. Some very high status people will graciously defer to others, it can even be a sign of power. The Improv chapter talked about great fun assigning status seeking roles in workshops – you are determined to be lower status, no matter what the other person says, which apparently could be hilariously funny when the audience understood what was going on.

    And huge yes, the sixties destroy-all-rules-and-manners natural man crap made things so much worse for geeks like me (who have a hard time figuring out the rules), but that’s minor to the real damage you point to – the person who screams the loudest is believed to have won the point. (Ugh – just saw that Sandra Fluke made the short list for Time’s Person of the Year award – though, as has been pointed out, that’s sadly appropriate.)

    • The important thing is that your Mum did not reject the idea of manners as false and hypocritical. Because we are incapable of not judging a person by their manners — not formal manners, although those matter as well, but informal manners, such as how we address others, how we stand, how we move through a crowd and how we listen while another person speaks (attentively or obviously impatient awaiting our turn.)

      When the Sixties generation rejected manners as such they were rejecting roadmaps and signposts, essentially asserting that “Real Men” navigate by knowing where they are and where they’re going; maps and trails are for sissies.

      The important thing about America up until then was that manners were something people were expected to learn, as evidence of their desire to fit in to society, whereas in Europe manners were expected to be something imbibed with Mother’s (well, Nursie’s) milk and marked you as a member of your particular caste. America’s more flexible social status allowed for people needing to acquire such traits – but expected them to do so.

      There is a great well of American humour derived from this condition, as portrayed in such as the comic strip Bringing Up Father, or films such asMy Man Godfrey and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. There is even a subgenre of American literature and film dealing with American and European interactions and the misunderstandings derived therefrom. The Americanization of Emily, The Canterville Ghost and Ruggles of Res Gap all explore this confusion effectively, as do many others.

      A number of James Cagney films revolve around his character’s refusal to abide by the manners and rules of the group he finds himself in, Captains of the Clouds and The Fighting 69th most notably. Apparently the need to curtail individualism in an effort to work effectively within a group is something Americans are prone to resist.

      • I’ve been told that American books on etiquette were actually quite radical for their time, because they gave out the rules, and that the Europeans, or at least the British, didn’t have etiquette books; you were born to the rules and no outsiders allowed. Americans wanted everyone to learn the rules and made them available.

  15. When my granddaughter went to school, the first day she got in trouble for running on the sidewalk. She said, ” nobody told me it was against the rules, they should have told me the rules.” She was right. Everytime I see children misbehaving, or just being rude in public I think, “someone needs to tell them the rules.” Rules are how we govern ourselves and in turn society. This isn’t in response to the politics part of this blog post, but I think a lot of the Obama voters want no rules on themselves, but want them imposed on others.

  16. So going up to a child and telling them (yes, I’m afraid I’ve finally succumbed to the singular “them”) that they are a horribly rude, selfish monster isn’t the most effective way of teaching them manners? Who knew?

    (And in my 40s I still get hung up occasionally on one manner or another that apparently everyone else knows and I don’t.)

    Even within the US you can have different manners in different areas. Where my husband grew up if you had to enter a church service late, you waited until the prayer, so as not to disturb anyone. Here, if you have to enter late, you wait until after the prayer, so as not to disturb anyone. My husband didn’t realize this until he was roundly told off for being rude and inconsiderate of others.

    Back to politics, this American Thinker post seems apropos: (If I can figure out how to attach it.

    • Well, I honestly think this poor lady was doing what she thought was best. Being of my parents’ class and general circle, it never occurred to her I simply might not have been TAUGHT manners. (There were other extenuating circumstances, including that my parents had two VERY demanding careers and that I spent much of my childhood deathly ill. My younger kid spent much of his childhood deathly ill and it was difficult to remember to discipline him, because, well… sickly.) She thought I was simply flaunting proper behavior and that people let me get away with it, so I was a selfish, spoiled monster. It should however be remembered that Portugal is a lot more formal than the US, so there was a never-end of things to remember. Things you didn’t wear on certain dates, things you had to do/say when you greeted someone you hadn’t seen in x amount of time… stuff like that. To me it was all bewildering. (Much still is. Fortunately I’m now “Abroadned” — Estrangeirada, lit. Strangered — so that I can get away with a lot.

      • I met a Portuguese lady in South Africa many years ago. She loved the freedom of the English language– What I got out of this was that Portugal was so formal that depending on what class you were in depended on how you spoke to another person… It could be bewildering–

        • Oh yes. There are LEVELS of address…

        • A friend of mine, NASA engineer, said, after a work trip to Japan, that everyone spoke in English, even the Japanese scientists, who told her they preferred English because it meant they could all converse as equals and not have to worry about acknowledging everyone’s status.

          • I was in Misawa Japan from 1990-1992 in the Navy– I heard the same thing from the Japanese around the base.

            • I don’t say that we (as Americans) are always informal. That isn’t true– We do have formal address in certain situations. It is still seen in the military (I can’t say what it is like now. We left the bases around the time I became ill in 2003.)

              • Others, more worldly than I, may wish to dispute this, but my understanding is that — compared to the rest of the world — Americans, at our most rigidly formal, barely qualify as formal as practiced by most other cultures.

                • True RES – but I was pointing out that we do formal– sometimes. 😉

                • With the possible exception of Australians – when I came to the US I had issues with the formality: what I was accustomed to thinking of as “formal” seemed closer to “everyday” here.

                  Of course, Aussies are aggressively informal in just about everything. “Sir” is only used in the military and the fancier schools. “Ma’am” never. “Miss” is the standard address for female teachers if not calling them “Miss Smith” or “Mrs Smith”. (In my not-short-enough time as a teacher, a shout of “Miss!” would see every female teacher looking that way until it was clear which “Miss” the kid wanted).

                  First name basis is the norm among adults, nicknames between friends. When I was in college, everyone quickly got to calling them by first name. Same with co-workers and superiors. Only the very top level got Mr or Mrs.

                  The way I explain this to Americans is “I’m Australian. We call it the toilet when we’re being polite.” BUT one thing I was taught that works everywhere is “please” for any request, and “thank you”. It took me a while to figure out tipping (Oz is not a tip culture), but thanking the wait staff when they bring my order is natural.

                  • Martin L. Shoemaker

                    Of course, universal informality is just another formality. It’s another variety of “We don’t do it like that around here.”

                  • In Portugal it is normal for males to call each other their last name their whole lives, even if best friends. When they call a woman by their last name, it means she has earned her “spurs” — so to put it — she has the “chops.”

                    I know it’s different in the US but it amuses me my publisher calls me Hoyt.

                    • Interesting, where I went to high school the guys often called their friends by their last name, while everyone else was addressed by their first name. If we called a girl by her last name, or a teacher simply by their last name without the honorific Mr. or Mrs. (Ms. was generally only used in an insulting manner) it was meant as a type of respect, meaning we considered them ‘one of the boys.’

                  • Interesting– my parents friends were always called Uncle or Aunt even though they were unrelated. As a child I was not allowed to call an adult by their first name without an honorific. When I became an adult, that type of manners was already gone in the culture.

                  • Tipping varies from area to area in the US. Where I grew up tipping was considered a way to show appreciation for excellent service, and considered optional. If a waitress (tipping anyone other than restaurant personal wasn’t even considered) provided very good service she would probably get it a tip, otherwise probably not, and the size of the tip was determined by the quality of service, not the size of the bill. (If I got good service I would likely leave a $5 tip, regardless of whether I ordered a cup of coffee, or the most expensive meal on the menu). On the other hand I knew a girl who used to waitress in Colorado, which like many right to work states, did not require waitstaff to be paid minimum wage, in such places tipping was considered almost mandatory, because the vast majority of the money the waitresses and waiters earned was through tips.

                    I still refuse to patronize any restaurant that adds the tip into the bill, regardless of my feelings on tipping I have noticed the quality of service in such restaurants is generally much lower.

          • A Korean airline managed to go from one of the worst safety records in the world to one of the best by having the crew speak English, which lacks the built-in deference.

            Indeed, I’ve heard that some Asian languages imported the English “You” because there are all sorts of polite conditions on using their second-person pronouns. “You” is neutral.

  17. I recommend re-watching one of my favorite movies as a palate cleanser: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0124298/quotes?qt0413287.

  18. I’ve been holding back on this, but I think it’s time I stood up and said it. So, with our kind hostess’ permission (otherwise, delete or block this post), I offer the following:
    We need to return to a God-based morality, instead of all the human-centric psychobabble. I recognize that not everyone “believes” in MY God, or in any god, but ninety percent of all the atheistic, human-centered claptrap, and most of the rise of “paganism” is an attempt to run away from morality. The worst offenders of excessive humanism are the people running away from judgment, knowing they don’t live very ‘moral’ lives. Morality, like manners, is a behavior choice more than a religious choice, but without the underpinning of faith/religion, it has little substance. All the attacks on “dead white males” and their beliefs is essentially a child screaming “I don’t WANT to be good!”.

    Just about every one of the long-term members of this aggregation has read at least some of the commentary about our Constitution (If you haven’t, you’re missing some GREAT fodder for plot ideas). One that stands out to me is James Madison’s comment that the US Constitution was written for a moral people, and that it would “serve no others”.

    Everything — the attack on manners, the attack on morality, the attack on civility, and the attack on humanity itself — is an attempt to reduce man to the status of chattel beasts. It’s much easier to deal with individuals when they’re reduced to nothing but a number in a computer data bank. That has been the purpose of just about every progressive group that has ever existed — to rid the world of all those other “insufferable” attitudes of individuals, and force everyone to the lowest common denominator. The problem is, the human spirit is difficult to break, especially when it’s been given a taste of freedom.

    The way to fight back is to refuse to join the herd. Being an individual is a tough job, but it’s very rewarding. Teach children manners — yours, your neighbor’s, kids in Sunday School, or wherever you can reach them. We’re fighting against a foe that will use every dirty trick they can think of to fight back. I just read this article by John Hawkins, and it adds some suggestions.

    The one thing the Left really, REALLY can’t stand is a Christian that lives his/her faith on a daily basis. One of my friends came up with an idea for a bumper sticker: “Annoy a leftist!//Live your Christian Faith”. Under the same umbrella, if you’re a Taoist, a Buddhist, a Pagan, or an atheist, use manners and mores that show you believe in something better than “grab-all-you-can-take” liberalism. Without rules of manners and morality, humanity is an unchained, destructive beast.

    • Well said Mike.

      I agree that we must maintain our moral standards. As you said, being an individual in a time that values conformity is hard but worth it. We should each try to do it in our own way. I’m not religous, but I respect those whose religion helps them to be better people. I just try to be as honest, forthright and moral as I am able.

      Thanks for the link. Using the lefts tactics against them can be an effective way to combat them. But, we have to be careful that we do not become them.

    • Excellent. Goes along with what I was trying to say (awkwardly) above. We must all appeal to the better nature of everyone we meet by our own behavior – it’s the best way to teach or compel others to behave in a civilized manner.

      • “Never appeal to a man’s better nature; he may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you much more leverage.” — Robert Heinlein aka Lazarus Long

        Which is exactly why an armed society is a polite society…. but every so often, some SOB will need a reminder.

    • I am a lifelong atheist, and a longstanding libertarian, without much sympathy for the left. Your comments don’t strike me as living up to the standards of civility you claim to defend. I would never lecture any of my Christian friends on the error of their beliefs in such a manner.

      • I’m okay with calling for standards of MORAL behavior — some sort of ethics. At least one of my atheist friends is one of the most moral people I know, moral being defined as not treating people as things.

        Of course, there are atheists and atheists, just like there are Christians and Christians.

        I’d like to say that the Christian left (Liberation theology, government-forced charity) is more annoying than the Atheist left and possibly more dangerous.

        The difference here is between granting others their freedom to choose their own path and forcing one on them “for their own sake” — the rest is decoration.

      • William – personally I don’t feel that this was intended as a lecture to anyone here regarding the error of their beliefs – but more of a bolstering up of like-minds to encourage that civility can be built if only we are civil to those who are NOT like-minded. But perhaps I misunderstand – I didn’t see an earlier comment by Bret as being a negative one. Sometimes it’s best to give a little grace where emotion can’t be heard or understood.

        • Wayne Blackburn

          I saw Bret’s comment as negative in the context of his previous commentary here. He was acting like a teacher or a parent praising a child who has been very slow to learn.

      • You may have missed this, but in the last paragraph, he includes atheists, along with other non-Christian religions, as on the side of good. 🙂

  19. =====for instance, I think Americans would think I was out of my raving mind if I asked “Do I have permission to enter this room”=====

    Well, before entering *any* room, yeah, it’d be weird, and the syntax is strange, but, at least where I’m from, saying “May I come in?” before you enter someone’s “space”, like a house, or somebody’s office or room or the like is pretty common. I don’t recall it being mentioned in the “manners” class I had to go to, though. I think I just picked it up.

  20. When the Daughtorial Unit was grade-school young we realized she had not grasped that there are unwritten behavioural codes governing human interactions. Understanding how her mind worked we addressed her with the idea and gave her a book on the subject — Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension:

    An examination of various cultural concepts of space and how differences among them affect modern society. Introducing the science of “proxemics,” Hall demonstrates how man’s use of space can affect personal business relations, cross-cultural exchanges, architecture, city planning, and urban renewal.

    Once aware of the existence of nonverbal cues and cultural norms the D.U. was able to work out the basic principles and navigate the social sphere more comfortably. Some people just do better when the underlying paradigm is made overt.

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      A friend with Asperger’s isn’t frustrated so much by the unwritten rules. What frustrates him is the WRITTEN rules that everyone else seems to know when they can ignore, but he doesn’t. It’s a new level of unwritten rules: “The rules we don’t really mean.” The concept of paying lip service is completely incomprehensible to him on an emotional level (though he recognizes it exists on an intellectual level). For him, rules are rules, period.

      • Ah yes – The Rules, like English spelling, have so many exceptions and variations that at times there seem to be more exceptions than words covered by such rules. But the important thing is: there are rules, they are just subject to change without notice. The right to vary the rules is a privilege hard sought and is the primary theme of the musical The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crowd. [ http://www.masterworksbroadway.com/music/the-roar-of-the-greasepaint-the-smell-of-the-crowd ] Note especially the song

        There are so many things to remember
        As you travel the highway of life,
        Like always be kind to your husband
        Or, if you’re a man, to your wife.

        You must never shoot trout in September.
        You must never feed babies on gin.
        Don’t ever play poker on Sundays
        Unless you are certain to win! Ha ha.

        Don’t go out of your way seeking danger –
        Never stand on a crocodile’s tail!
        Never buy London Bridge from a stranger
        Unless you can make a few bob on the sale!

        Don’t waste time with the friends that repel you
        And don’t ever drink soup with a knife!
        Don’t buy what those gypsy girls sell you,
        And if you remember these things that I tell you
        By Hell, you’ll do well all your life!

        When I think of the good things that life has to give,
        I’m reluctantly forced to agree
        That the number of people who know how to live
        Is restricted, quite simply, to me.

        For life is like cricket – we play by the rules –
        But the secret which few people know,
        Which keep men of class well apart from the fools
        Is to think up the rules as you go.

        There are so many things to remember
        When you study the fruit of the vine
        And I am a hell of a student
        And that’s why I drink so much wine.
        (I do beg your pardon).

        Drinking Cointreau with salt beef and mustard
        Is, of course, gastronomically wrong,
        And don’t ever eat curry with custard –
        You’ll find that it never says down very long!

        Don’t drink champagne from soggy old slippers
        Though this barbaric custom is rife.
        Don’t lift up a whale by its flippers
        And only buy claret from certified shippers,
        Avoid eating goulash with ice cream and kippers.
        Remember these things, you obnoxious young nippers,
        And you will do well all your life.

        So cheers, me dears, and here’s to life!
        [tune available at above link.]

  21. Channeling my (OMG, 30+ years ago) anthropological training, manners and their usage constitute an essential element of Culture, the fundamental organization of a society. These behavioural codes operate largely at a subconscious level and shape our modes of address and expectations for every human interaction.

    What we are engaged in is a culture war, an argument over how human interactions will proceed. Very often the cues and behaviours of one side are badly misinterpreted by the other.

    In a culture which relies on dominance displays, for example, the soft-spoken individual will be perceived as weak and unsure. Willingness to negotiate and seek common ground will often be interpreted as unsureness, weakness and insecurity. It is important to understand the cultural behaviours of other parties in order to communicate effectively; even when they know your culture employs different memes they will remain subject to their subconscious expectations and interpretations. Acting otherwise is as effective as saying “BAD DOG” to your Labrador while scratching its ears.

  22. Another important thing to remember about manners is that they effectively communicate important things to ourselves and each other. When a gentlemanman opens a car door for his lady he is not communicating that he thinks her weak and incapable; he is communicating (to himself as much as to her) that her comfort is important to him and that he is committed to do what he can to ensure it. As she by accepting his gesture, communicates in turn (to herself as much as to him) that she accepts and respects his efforts on her behalf. Far from a dominance/submission communication it is an expression of what each values and respects.

    • Certain types of idiots, of course, are inclined to think that because they don’t understand something that thing must be meaningless. And, for them, it is: a basic rule of Social Science is that an act has the meaning each participant (which includes those witnessing it) assigns to it.

      This goes some distance to explain why Social Scientists are generally bonkers. and fall for such twaddle as Deconstructionism.

    • I remember the conversation in college in which a gentleman wanted to know whether to leave the lady on her own to get in, so he could get in more quickly and start the car — and the heat — in the sub-zero weather. . .

      • Wayne Blackburn

        My mother wasn’t one to appreciate someone holding the car door for her, because she saw it as a waste of time, waiting for the man to go around the car. A door to a building, on the other hand, is different, merely requiring a shift in order.

        However, since I have recently seen both Alfonzo Rachel and Steve Harvey talk about it, and bring up the concept of safety, I see both why it’s considered a good thing, as well as why my mom didn’t care for it. They pointed out that it’s a man’s responsibility to see that the woman is safe from harm. Where we lived, though, that wasn’t a real consideration, as we lived in an area where you could leave your doors unlocked and your keys in your car and never have to worry about them.

        • I find it interesting that Steve Harvey is training women about male/female relations and also raising men. 😉

          • Also–during the height of “shutting doors” in women’s faces, I would open doors for men with their hands full. It was also a shock to them. My thing was it was only polite– and in that situation the person who had their hands full needed help. 😉

          • Wayne Blackburn

            Yeah, I’ve been catching him in doctor’s offices lately, and he recently did a segment teaching boys about being gentlemen. I was pleasantly surprised that someone would do that on one of today’s talk shows.

            • He has several children btw (Steve Harvey) and what got him started was when he cornered his twin daughters boyfriends and asked the impertinent question of what are your intentions towards my daughters. It was then that he decided that women needed to understand the male mind so he wrote “Think like a man, act like a woman.” or something like that– I have been pretty pleased with his ideas and segments… (Not everything– but mostly)

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  24. A sort of related tangent. (I don’t promise this will be a coherent ramble, mind. I ought to be in bed right now, I think.)

    But I’m odd about names and other forms of address. I can’t remember if I’ve been more specific about it before, but I know I’ve brushed on the topic before.

    I’m more “formal” when it comes to names than many people are. I’d rather refer to someone as (for example), “Ms. Hoyt” and let them correct me if they want to be “Mrs. Hoyt” or “Sarah” than go straight for the given name. I will turn myself over and inside out to avoid using names if I have to. (There’s a reason why I often refer to you as, “our hostess” when referring to you in response to others in the comments.) I’ll even use full names to avoid it, but when there’s an initial, it becomes difficult. “Sarah A. Hoyt” is clearly and obviously formal. It sticks out much more than, say, “Neil Patrick Harris”.

    And some people try to fix that with blanket invitations. Neil Gaiman has publicly stated he prefers his fans call him “Neil”. Which obviously is an invitation to anyone to call him “Neil”, but I still awkwardly prefer to refer to him as “Neil Gaiman” or “Mr. Gaiman”. Hell, I’d prefer to call him “Mr. Neil” than “Neil”. Somehow, it still feels disrespectful to call him that when we’ve only had one very brief communication.

    My friends’ parents were “Ms. Janet” and “Mr. Joe” or, when they invited me to call them Mom/Mum, they’ve been “Ms. Mom”.

    When I worked at a frozen yogurt store, my first manager was “Ms. (first name)” and her brother, the owner, was “Mr. (first name)”. (My second manager was my best friend/mock husband and younger than me, so he just was himself.) The customers were, “Yes ma’am.” and “No, sir.” and for the more frequent customers, “Mr. [name they introduced themselves as]”.

    What is weird is pretty much all of my co-workers (everyone was younger than I was after the original manager left) had been chewed out by customers at least once for using “ma’am” and very, very occasionally “sir”, but I never was. It can’t have been because they were offended by “a young person” calling them ma’am, since I was about 10 years older than the 16 year old, but people guessed me as the youngest employee. It could be that I was better able to read which person would throw a fit if I used “ma’am” and instead just used, “yes”. Or maybe because they were largely untrained, rough around the edges kids, they had a tone in their voice that set off the ranting customers. But I can tell you that in the South, it can be difficult to work in customer service and dodge and weave amongst those who hold by Southern Politeness (because, yes, those poor kids have also been chewed out for *not* calling someone sir or ma’am) and those who had been raised to treat politeness and respect with aggression.

    • Hehehe, being raised Southern, I completely identify. I don’t mind being called ma’am, nor do I mind saying it. I frequently answer “yes ma’am” even to my daughters, LOL – of course, it’s said tongue in cheek, but even so it indicates to them a respect for whatever they’re saying that provoked the response. Saying ma’am and sir and thank you and please are just as much a part of me as breathing. Another one of those things that many people consider odd is saying “I’m sorry”. Even my hubby didn’t get that for a while. When someone is hurt or hurting, saying “I’m sorry” is natural to me. What surprises me is when they ask why I would say that (indicating that I had nothing to do with “it” whatever “it” was). It seems that some people don’t get that “I’m sorry” can be used as a sign of sharing empathy.

      • Exactly– I used “I’m sorry” that way for years until I was in the military. I just couldn’t use it there because the response was too harsh. So gradually I was weaned of that one.

    • Mrs. Heinlein kept demanding I call her Ginny. “You are a writer. It’s the fans who call me Mrs. Heinlein.” I never could. She was older than I, and she was … well… Mrs. Heinlein. I mean, not worthy of touching the hem of cloak and all that.
      And then she died, and suddenly I could refer to her as Ginny — I THINK because death made her timeless.

      It probably doesn’t make any sense, but I completely understand where you’re coming from.

  25. Here’s something you can probably empathize with:
    (even funnier in context, to be sure.)

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