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 ran into no one 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 worshiping 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.