Manners: Who needs them?

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

You might have a case against certain rules of manners , the really arbitrary ones like cutting meat one piece at a time or not putting elbows on the table. Doesn’t apply to the rest of them, like responding to invitations, showing up for ones you accepted , thanking people for gifts, knowing which glasses and plates belong to which seat, not cutting in line, and in general(with some exceptions), not pointing out other’s lapses in manners. I think, judging by your post, you only consider table manners to be part of etiquette, and that’s what you’re missing.Read an etiquette book, and you’ll see that little of the book has to do with place settings or cutting meat all at once.

Robert Heinlein once wrote that you can tell that a society is dying when it ceases to have manners. Manners, or etiquette, are the oil that lubricates interpersonal interaction.

Yes, you are definintely missing something. Quite frankly, you have no idea what etiquette is, judging by what you have to say. Of your five assertions, four are clearly false. The one that is not (“etiquette has a cost”) is true only in the obvious sense, and most of us who believe in practicing good etiquette would agree that the cost is worth it.

The Washington Post has the past couple of years of Judith Martin’s column in its archives on its site. I would suggest that you go read them. You will find that very little of it deals with table settings and holding forks, and much more with how to treat your fellow human beings as if their feelings actually mattered.

It is true that manners cost. You do not feel the need to pay that cost. Fine. Your choice. If other people are not worth your consideration you can show that very quickly with your lack of manners. Not a great way to make friends in my experience. But if you bump me at the dinner table with your elbows, that tells me a lot more than your voice speaking “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Manners are “classist”?


First of all, I’ve known plenty of welathy people with no manners at all, and numerous poor people who’ve gone out of their way to make sure their children follow basic rules of politeness and etiquette.

Second, good manners are a matter of LEARNED behavior! Thus, they’re the farthest thing in the world from being “classist,” because ANYBODY can learn to follow them. A poor or middle class young man can learn to stand when a lady enters the room, he can LEARN to follow the basic knife-and-fork rules of table manners, he can LEARN to write thank-you notes when he receives a gift, he can LEARN to hold the door for an elderly person… and if he does those things, his manners will be indistinguishable from those of a rich kid from Choate.

Look, there may be individual rules of etiquette that you and I think are silly or outdated. Some of them have already vanished, some will vanish, others will evolve a bit. But to mock the concept of good manners itself is silly.

BlackKnight, I’m glad you decided to follow up on the other thread. Though I agree that manners are (often) classist, I’m struggling with a couple of your other broad points.

Quite a number of manners have a cost, but not necessarily ones out of proportion to their worth. I mentioned tilting a soup dish away from you and spooning outward. This seems entirely practical to me, I’m not even sure why manners enter into the practice.

The central problem with looking at manners rationally, I feel, is that there are different sorts, but that they’re confounded under the same name. There are practical manners, such as using a napkin to protect clothes against spilled food. There are manners of convention, that aren’t strictly necessary, but which make social interchange easier (for example letting a lady in a door first, so you don’t bump into her and raise the question of whether you were copping a feel). There are manners that are purely affectation, fashion statements intended to set the “in crowd” apart from everyone else.

Everyone tends to treat the set of manners they were brought up with as “natural”. People with fewer manners seem ignorant and coarse, people with more manners seem affected. That’s why I said one needs to get off one’s high horse, and use the same manners as the people you’re with. To me, that deference is the mark of being really well-mannered.

However, I think what you’re reacting to is “manners” that are simply affectations of people trying to prove they are cool, in an elevated cultural sense. The sort of attitude that one of Jane Austin’s characters expressed to a snotty, rigid, London femme: “I guess to be truely sophisticated one would have to be dead.”

What you seem to omit astorian, in your observation that manners are learned behavior, and that many wealth (Texan) people have no manners, is that being wealthy doesn’t make one cultured or well-mannered. It takes an act of will. That act of will can be prompted by classist attitudes, or simply a desire to cause the least offense to one’s fellow human beings (Not one of the sentiments tending to be plastered on the bumpers of Texas pickups, in my experience.) I’ll repeat that anything that causes another person unnecessary distress is bad manners. There doesn’t need to be a rule written about it. A number of people reading the etiquette books are just trying to work through likely scenarios before running into them in reality. Reading the book is in itself, good manners.

In a way, manners are classist. They divide society into two classes, those who have manners and those who do not. However, these classes do not correlate well with the more traditional notion of class, especially when you consider that anyone who uses another’s lack of manners as ground for sneering is himself not mannerly.

I like the Heinlein quote, and I think it’s very accurate. Without manners, “Road Rage” would also become “Store Rage”, and “Restaraunt Rage”. Having someone slam a door in your face can make you angry. Having people push you out of the way, or reach past you for the last muffin in the buffet line, or step in front of the line, or whatever, can leave a bad taste for hours.

Laws are the broad strokes that codify the behaviour of people in society. Manners codify the myriad of tiny interactions between all of them. Abandon them, and you’ll find your life a lot more unpleasant as you lose friends, co-workers shun you, etc.

Sure. Why not be uncouth AND ignorant? :slight_smile:

Manners is simply understanding that you live in a world with other people and they may not wish to see you shove an entire turkey leg in your mouth.

I think many manners-rules are good rules, but not because they are manners-rules. Some are obviously just instances of invoking an obvious moral truth such as the Golden Rule. Linking these rules with the other manners-rules does not do anybody any good, in my opinion.

I used a couple of examples of table manners-rules because that’s what started the thread linked to. I did also mention non-table rules though, such as removing one’s hat indoors and standing when someone enters the room.

Could you recommend a fairly comprehensive / definitive etiquette book? I can’t guarantee that I’ll get around to reading it anytime soon, but I’ll try.

Anything by Judith Martin (Miss Manners). She is delightfully snarky yet genteel at the same time. I haven’t read any of Peggy Post’s books, but I enjoy her writing and advice as well. (If memory serves, she is the daughter-in-law of Elizabeth Post and great-granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post.)

Some guy called Paul Valéry once wrote that “Politeness is organized indifference.”

(I love Google. :wink: )

That may be the theory, but I’ve rarely seen it work in practice. Perhaps it works for others. If someone expects me to cut my meat a certain way before eating it, I’m going to be uncomfortable and that particular interpersonal interaction is not going to be well lubricated. If someone expects me to open the car door for a lady, they’re going to get a lecture on sexism, or at least an incredulous stare.

It’s certainly possible that what I consider to be “manners” is not what others think of when they think of “manners”. However, I’m not yet convinced that that’s the case.

They may be false, but they are most certainly not obviously or clearly false. In fact, I think number one is clearly true. That is, it is perfectly possible to show respect and caring without following the set of rules called manners. They are clearly counterproductive in at least some cases for at least some people. I don’t think that’s even arguable. It is clearly the case that manners can be and have in the past been used in a classist way. The existence of the thread linked to in the OP proves my last rule for at least one case.

Thank you for the suggestion.

I consider “treat[ing] your fellow human beings as if their feelings actually mattered” to be basic morality. Telling someone they are cutting their meat “wrong” (or even just thinking this) is not treating them as if their feelings actually mattered.

All it would show is that the rules of manners are not worth my consideration. One can respect (and show respect for) others without following rules such as removing one’s hat when entering a building. Indeed, expecting me to remove my hat (theoretically; I don’t wear hats) when entering, say, the post office, is showing that I myself am not being considered. What if I like wearing my hat? By expecting me to remove it, you (general you) would not be respecting my feelings.

Neither is voicing my opinion, or so I’ve found. Nevertheless, I continue to do so. :wink:

Being left-handed, I’ve accidentally bumped more people at the table than I can count. Nobody cared. If I had deliberately done so, they would have cared, of course. I chalk this up to my family and friends generally being more concerned with each other than they are with manners. There were some manners-rules we followed, but not because they were manners-rules.

How will they learn it? If they have parents who teach them, or at least instill the value of manners in them. When would this happen? The majority of the time if the parents are upperclass. Of course, the lowerclasses do catch on eventually, which is why manners change, to try to throw them off. Pretty much the same thing can be said for fashion.

Do you believe that if you graphed observance of manners with economic status, that there wouldn’t be a correlation? (Assuming you graphed observance of a large selection of manners, or even all of them, not just a few.)

(I admit that the “classist” point of mine is the weakest of the five, because manners are not nearly as classist as they once were. Still, the potential for abuse is there and past trends bear this out.)

This is how I see it:
There is a set of rules, M, called “manners”. It is claimed that all members of set M share a particular property (such as “promotes the ease of others”) that is pretty much an inarguable good thing. But this is not the case. There are many elements of M which do not have this property. So why group these together with those rules that do have this property? If you create a new set, N, of just those with that property then it is either indistinguishable from morality or at least on a solid basis of morality. In my experience, when people talk about “manners” they are not talking about N, they are talking about M. I see no reason or use for M whatsoever.

Since I believe that N is a very small subset of M, I don’t think it makes sense to refer to N by the same name that was used for M. Hence, I wouldn’t call the set of good manners-rules “manners”. I don’t know what I’d call it. I suppose I could call it courtesy, although that’s generally used as a synonym for manners, so that might be confusing. Maybe I should follow Confucius and call it Chun-Tzu.

I agree. Cost alone does not mean manners are a bad idea. I was mostly just countering the suggestion in the other thread that manners had no cost.

I think manners enters into it if you were to go from thinking, “This is the way I do it, because it works” to “You should do it this way too.” Otherwise, eat your soup however you want and I’ll continue to pick up the bowl and slurp it like coffee. :wink:

I think you hit the nail directly on the head. :slight_smile:

I think your post is pretty much spot on. I don’t think that all manners are bad, only that if you were to seperate the good from the bad it would be so different that there wouldn’t be any reason to call it “manners”.

A better title and theme for this thread might have been, “A New Form of Manners” or “Etiquette: What’s good, what’s bad?” The way I addressed the topic was needlessly antagonistic. (But boy was it fun. :D)

This is a two-way street, though. What if you liked chewing your food with your mouth open? Or picking your nose in public? What if you didn’t like holding doors for the people behind you, or didn’t like standing in lines? We make compromises between what we like and what makes others comfortable, and what makes living together in a society more pleasant.

I am bothered when I see people in a restaurant wearing hats at a table (always the damn baseball hats, which somehow, sadly have morphed from sports equipment to ubiquitous indoor/outdoor wear) holding their utensils in fist-grips, stuffing huge chunks of food into their mouths, blowing their noses at the table, and leaving plates, utensils and debris sitting all over the table when they’re done. Perhaps they like behaving that way, or perhaps their oblivious, but it’s disgusting and improper (IMO) in any case. (Especially the nose blowing. That’s simply foul.)

In a polite society, we simply do not do everything that we like, whenever and wherever we like, even if we cannot appreciate an immediate harm to others from that behavior. There are limitations - not to stifle us, but to help keep society functioning smoothly.

Judith Martin’s “Miss Manners: A Citizen’s Guide to Civility” is more of a commentary on why manners are necessary which responds almost directly to the points you made in the OP. (She happens to disagree with the idea that manners are about making others feel comfortable - which is nice to get out of the way.)

Try her “Excruciatingly Correct Behavior”, or “Guide to the Turn of the Millenium” or the “Emily Post” books for more fairly comprehensive etiquette.

I agree. However, I don’t think that wearing a hat indoors can (or should) start a riot or leave a bad taste, except to those who really care that much about the rule against wearing hats indoors. I would suggest that since there is no intrinsic harm from wearing a hat indoors, that people who don’t like it should refrain from believing that everyone should agree with them. (Of course, guests in their home should follow their rules. But if Person A thinks Person B is somehow “weird” or “wrong” or “unmannerly” because he wears a hat inside his own home, then something is wrong.)

Anyone who decides not to be my friend when they find out that I cut my meat the “wrong” way is not someone I want to be my friend.

Why in the world did you say “Please”? Or for that matter why do you care about spelling and grammatical errors? Those are all just formalities that are unnecessary and certainly are a sign of whether you have any class or not.

Hats are accessaries, not basic items of clothing. They are designed to be worn outdoors (with the acception of ladies hats). KellyM is right about manners being a matter of whether you have or don’t have class. Wearing a hat indoors, generally shows no class, but feel free to wear one when entering a 7-11.

If you and I were eating steak together, I wouldn’t mind if you cut yours up all at once, but I know that mine would be warmer and hadn’t lost any of it’s taste.

Can those of you who are in favor of manners not hear the condescending tone of your posts?

Read this post by tlw and try to tell me manners aren’t classist:

Treating others with respect is a good thing, being a prick about other’s choice in head gear is not treating others with respect. expecting others to do things your way is not respecting others. Plenty of wife beaters in history would stand when a woman entered a room, that doesn’t mean they respected them.