There’s something to be said about the peace of a slow weekend sunrise, the calm of a relaxed Saturday morning. On these days, you pass through the early hours with a smile clinging to the edges of your mouth and eyes, feeling sure that the contentment you feel will carry you through the rest of your day. But sometimes, that feeling of peaceful warmth can dissipate in a single stranger’s look. Imagine: in the course of your cheerful morning errands, you walk the sidewalk with your bags in hand. A teenager nears you on the sidewalk; from the look on her face, she’s in a bad mood. As you approach each other, you hope that she might take note of the bags in your hands or heels on your feet and step aside so that you won’t have to struggle on the wet grass – but she only glances at your hands and continues walking the one-person path, forcing you to stumble onto the dirt. After she passes, you return to the sidewalk and begin walking again with less cheer in your step. The girl didn’t technically do anything wrong when she overtook you on the sidewalk – after all, it was only large enough for one person – but you somehow can’t help but feel a little off-kilter, as though the gesture put a damper on your otherwise warm morning.
In both my work and personal life, I’ve noticed a quiet trend against codified manners emerge: people turning away when they see a stressed mother struggling with bags in the store, allowing a door to slam shut on the stranger behind them on the stairs, or even forgetting to say “thank you” at the checkout line. The girl in the situation described above refused to step aside and allow a burdened stranger to walk on level sidewalk. Did she technically do anything wrong? Perhaps not – but she allowed her bad mood to color her actions and ultimately made another person’s day a little worse for it. Today, there seems to be a sense that we don’t need the “empty gestures” of common courtesy, as though we’ve outgrown them somehow. But I think that our shift away from manners reflects a more worrying change in our society than a few dropped pleasantries.
In a recent piece for the A Few Good Men Project, contributor Luke Davis reflects on manners erosion and its impact on society as a whole. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you do – it’s a wonderful piece! Davis makes the argument that manners allow people to communicate and connect; that observing etiquette allows us to build accepting communities. Conversely, a lack of manners isolated neighbors from one another and ultimately contributes to the erosion of trust and safety in a society. He further notes that while some older conventions may seem outdated now, “at some point there was usually a good reason behind why they existed in the first place.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but what Davis seems to say here is that those who dismiss manners on the basis of antiquity miss the guiding philosophy behind them. Outdated or not, etiquette conventions exist for a reason – and it does no one any favors to toss all manners out the window because a few no longer suit our social needs.
Now, I think our issue is that we tend to address manners as though they were only a set of rules to follow. But that context is too limited! While we certainly should follow and teach common etiquette guidelines, manners doesn’t begin or end with which fork you should use at the table. Rather, embracing etiquette means habitually – reflexively, even! – thinking of others before yourself. Let’s reconsider our opening scenario for a moment, this time through the eyes of the girl. She’s had a bad day, and doesn’t want to move onto the wet grass. But she sees a woman laden with bags walking towards her, and knows that the stranger’s heels will stick in the dirt if she has to step to the side. If the girl rejects moving aside as an empty convention, she’ll likely let her bad mood win out over the stranger’s inconvenience and stride forward without thinking twice about it. But if the girl cares about etiquette as a social philosophy, she’ll notice the woman’s bags and heels and take a step out of her way to let the other pass. In that single gesture, the girl shows that she cares for a stranger’s trouble over her own personal concerns, and leaves the other’s happy day intact.
Perhaps we don’t need every antique manner in the book. Maybe we don’t, for example, need men to stand every time a woman rises from the dinner table. However, I think there is something to be said for embracing manners as a guiding mindset and philosophy. At its heart, etiquette encourage us to be mindful of another person’s experience. Without it, how can we fully connect and empathize with those around us?