Note: This post written at 3 am. Please forgive spelling and grammatical errors.
(Inspired by this thread: How do I convince the hubby to follow a minor point of etiquette?)
The Debate: I think the system of rules typically called “manners” or “etiquette” is almost completely pointless. At times it is even counterproductive. Others feel that these rules are common sense, and are intended to help people feel welcome / respected / comfortable.
A few points:
At least to begin with, let’s leave the topic of children out of this debate. Assume we are talking about the behavior of normal human adults.
By manners, I mean something distinctly different from basic morality. That is, killing a guest isn’t bad manners - it’s simply bad. Manners may have a moral basis. I just want to be clear that when I say manners are silly I am not attacking morality or any obvious moral truth. I think even the strongest proponents of manners will agree that removing hats indoors isn’t exactly immoral.
I am not claiming that the set of rules we call “manners” is always bad or always leads to bad things. There are no doubt cases where it “works”. However, I think in such cases manners are not the primary reason for any beneficial result. Also, a rule may be a good rule, but for a reason unrelated to it being a manners-rule. (For example: A building where you are required to remove your hats upon entering, for security reasons.) Most etiquette guidelines do not fall into this category.
My case against manners
They are unnecessary. If I wish someone to know that I respect them, then I can tell them so. Or, I can show them that I respect them. Refraining from cutting my meat all at once does not show anyone that I respect them. At best it shows that I am willing to comply with a set of rules which are supposed to show that I respect them. Why not cut out the middle-man? Manners are unnecessary to show respect.
They have a cost. Although it was claimed that in the other thread that following the rules of manners has no cost, this is simply not true. There is a cost associated with standing when someone enters the room, with removing one’s hat upon entering someone’s home, and with eating one’s food in the “proper” manner. The cost of these is, of course, very small. If these were the only costs, I wouldn’t have brought this point up. However, there are two very large costs associated with manners - learning them and keeping up with them. Manners change. They are different in different societies, different social circles, and different classes as well as different times. Learning every little rule, and the exceptions to those rules, is a very large task. Keeping up with the changes of the rules is even more daunting.
They are counterproductive. It was claimed (a couple of times) in the other thread that manners are around to make people feel comfortable. This strikes me as a very odd claim. If I am comfortable eating with my elbows on the table, then the rule against eating with my elbows on the table does not make me more comfortable. It has the opposite affect. If someone is not comfortable eating with their elbows on the table, then they can choose not to eat with their elbows on the table. Even if that person is not comfortable unless everyone is eating with their elbows off the table, I see no reason why their comfort should override the comfort of another. Making people comfortable is a very good thing, but manners do not accomplish this. (Except for those individuals who are only comfortable when everyone complies with an arbitrary rule.)
They are classist. Manners have, since their invention, been used to strengthen the differences between social classes. I find it likely that the set of rules we call manners was invented for this very reason. By creating an artificial set of rules for how to dress / act / sit / eat / etc., the upperclasses could easily tell which individuals were among them and which were not. “Well, he’s a nice enough chap, but he’s obviously lowborn. Did you see how he held his wine glass?” Although this is probably not nearly the problem that it once was, I think it still applies. Anytime a person thinks less of another because they fail to follow a manners-rule, or a person thinks higher of another because they do follow a manners-rule, then an us-vs-them mentality is formed.
They make mountains out of molehills. If doing X is against the rules of manners, and I do X, then not only am I considered different from those who follow manners, I am considered somehow wrong or deficient. Even seemingly minor things (such as cutting all of one’s meat to pieces before consuming it, or cutting each piece off just prior to consumption) get focused on, analyzed, and studied. If they were not objects of manners, then they would probably go unnoticed by most people. The rules of manners find even the slightest differences and magnify them out of proportion.
So what do you all think? Am I missing something obvious? Am I right on?