Do manners maketh the man?

Manners. Manners. Manners. The concept of behaving well was drummed into me as a child. From the minute I could sit upright at the table, I was on constant alert as to how I held my knife and fork. From the minute I could talk, I knew the value of greeting people, particularly adults, with respect. From the minute I could form an opinion on my own, I aware of how that opinion should be delivered. From the minute I began that subconscious search for a mate, good manners became a key ‘must have’ on my list of criteria.

The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any – Fred Astaire

Go to any restaurant, from the cheapest fast-food joint to the poshest of posh and you’ll see the epitome of bad table manners. You’ll see diners talking with their mouths full.  You’ll see them chewing with their mouths open. You’ll hear them slurping their soup or their coffee.

People will reach across the table rather than ask for something to be passed to them. Waiters will serve from the left not the right. Some will start eating before everyone is served. Plates will be removed before everyone is finished eating. And few people know to put their cutlery at the four o’clock mark to show that they’ve finished, or where to lay their napkin when they excuse themselves from the table, if, indeed they remember to do so.

Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use – Emily Post

Yes, of course there are cultural differences. It’s highly unlikely that America will ever stop cutting up its food into small pieces and then switching fork hands, laying the knife aside. It’s equally unlikely that some of my Indian friends in Bangalore will ever take up a knife and fork in the first place. And I know a couple of elderly Irish lads who will always pour their tea into a saucer and lap it up from there.

But it’s more than simple dining etiquette. It is about awareness. The beep of mobile phones interrupts the flow of conversation. Invisible interlocutors take precedence over those present at the table. We are rude to the point of ignorance, and ignorant of how rude we are being.

Having a sense of propriety is something that is much undervalued in twenty-first century society. Knowing what to say and what not to say, and when to say it or not to say it, is a skill that few have. Knowing how to shake hands, how to address people, how to engage in polite conversation that is appropriate, tasteful, and conducive to pleasantry – these are skills that don’t seem to be taught any more, either in school or at home.

Yes, it’s good to let your hair down amongst friends and not to have to worry about what you say or how you say it, yet being aware of this freedom, this license to engage, is important.

We have become a world filled with recalcitrant, demanding adults; it is little wonder that our children are left rudderless as they try to navigate the world of nicety.

Good manners sometimes means simply putting up with other people’s bad manners – H. Jackson Brown, Jr

Yet there are those who argue that protocol and etiquette no longer have a place in our times. But these should not be confused with manners. Publicly shaming the offender is just as offensive as the lack of manners in the first instance. Rude, boorish behaviour, if accepted, becomes a norm. Showing someone that you’re not prepared to listen to their rudeness, by walking away, can be as effective as pointing it out in front of everyone. Choosing the company you keep is one way of pinning your colours to the mast.

And yet, if the occasion requires it, if people are behaving a certain way because they know no different, then perhaps a quiet word in their ear wouldn’t go amiss. If you’re upset with me because of something I’ve said or done, you need to tell me. Tell me and then I can decide whether or not I need to change. Divine inspiration is rather scarce these days.

A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

How many children today are taught the importance of good manners? Very few that I know of anyway. Instead I see tantrums that are sated by parents giving in. The lesson being taught? The louder you are, the more obnoxious your behaviour, the more likely you are to get your own way. While that might (and I stress ‘might’) be endearing in a child, it’s positively abhorrent in an adult.

And right up there in the abhorrence stakes, is superficiality. That silver-plated niceness that is skin deep. Manners, while they can be taught, are better bred.  And, in the words of Henry Ward Beecher: Clothes and manners do not make the man; but, when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 March 2013

2 Responses

  1. Well expressed, and thought’s that needed to be written. In the particular locality where I live in Brittany, my impression is of children, who in a variety of public and semi public circumstance, are well behaved, even on occassions that one would think were way outside their comfort zone.
    This also appears to be true for the parents and grand parents. Sadly this is not alway’s the case with their British counter parts !!

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