I’ll be consumed by other chores over the weekend, so forgive me for making this a long entry. Nevertheless, it represents just a few notes on what could well be a book. (My specific reasons for having such a spate of thoughts on this subject are substantial but also pretty subjective, and so not relevant.)
Manners are, etymologically speaking, mere arbitrary measures of behavior. If the Hoolahoop tribe blows a whistle through curled fingers while hopping on the left leg whenever one member greets another, then hopping on the right leg or failing to produce a whistle might be styled a gross breach of etiquette. Yet few instances of mannerliness are thus divorced from any sort of moral value in modern society. Most courteous behavior is also generous, charitable, protective, or otherwise beneficial to its recipients. In the same way, the Latin and Greek words mos and ethos have come to signify right conduct, not simply habitual conduct, even though these words both mean “habit” in their original tongue.
Consider some examples of mannerly behavior:
Physical Assistance: holding the door open for someone carrying a heavy load or impaired in some other way is basic courtesy. Even keeping a pneumatic door ajar so that the person right behind you doesn’t have to fight against its being sucked back in shows real consideration that costs little effort. Now, feminists over the past few decades have started to object to the opened door’s implication that they are weak and need male assistance; and as an aging man whose gray hairs occasionally attract similar homage, I can understand feminist irritation better than I once did. In such cases, however, I think one must be mannerly enough to respect the doer’s intent: accepting the “annoying courtesy” without complaint is itself an act of courtesy.
Honorary Observances: Yielding to the venerable graybeard is, in effect, an example of saluting someone for having navigated life’s shoals for several decades. Likewise, we allow our guests to be seated first if we host a dinner, and the speaker or honoree at a banquet is given the best seat at the highest table and served first. None of this implies weakness and need on the recipient’s part: it’s all aimed at giving a little bow, so to speak, before a person who deserves recognition.
Anticipatory Behavior: You remove a large hat in a crowded arena because you anticipate that it might obscure the view of someone behind you. Likewise, you shower after profuse sweating before attending a formal public event, you seek to contain unruly hair that may shed, and you cover up body parts not particularly pleasant to look at. This last, of course, is often a somewhat arbitrary measure of taste. In many cultures, a woman’s baring her breast to feed an infant is a routine and unprovocative sight; in ours, it draws stares and makes men, especially, uncomfortable (not so much because they object as because they feel themselves a little too eager to forego objection). Asking permission of one’s neighbors before lighting up a cigarette or a pipe also shows respect for the comfort of others.
Hygienic Consideration: Obviously, covering one’s face when coughing or sneezing shows a regard for others that might conceivably be required by law in situations where deadly flu is circulating. Even in less toxic circumstances, nobody wants to share your germs.
Traditional Observances: Finally we arrive at the kind of behavior which has no ethical component whatever in the more sophisticated sense. Here belongs the greeting of the Hoolahoop tribe. Practices of this order in our society include wearing a coat and tie or formal dress on the “right” occasion, putting the proper silverware on the proper side of the plate, using said silverware for the proper dish, or uttering the vapid “doing quite well” when someone asks after you as a splitting migraine explodes in your head. These acts are entirely “measure” rather than “manner”: they determine whether you are a tribal insider or a barbarian outsider. (I might comment further on how religious practices sometimes Pharisaically elicit these acts rather than others of true moral content—burnt offerings rather than deeds of mercy; but that would draw my entry out into a treatise).
Sensitive Gestures: I have deliberately put the ethically subtle after the ethically null to create a clear contrast. One abstains from cracking crude jokes in mixed company, from laughing when the mood is grave, from conversing about certain subjects when they are implicated in a present party’s loss or distress, and so forth. It’s almost impossible to teach real sensitivity, which is probably why these lapses of etiquette are the most common. Since a sensitive act requires that one divine another’s state of mind and soul, a kind of talent or special gift is involved.
Observation 1: As with the case of the door-opener who means no harm, the person who innocently commits an insensitive act should not be reproached, for the reproach itself would be rude. We cannot require that other people be able to read our minds.
Observation 2: Building on the previous point, we should recognize that sensitivity and tradition often collide in implicit (or explicit) contradiction. A person may easily violate an arcane social taboo. In that case, sensitivity would require that a truly mannerly onlooker seek to help the offender recover from his gaffe (e.g., as when a man removes his tie upon seeing that a younger, less tutored man has appeared at a function in an open shirt: this might also be style chivalry).
General Observation: When manners are mere measures, they exclude outsiders from the group and thus gravitate against the accomplishment of moral purposes, inasmuch as the bedrock truth of moral behavior is that we are all human brothers and sisters in spite of superficial differences.
Concluding Comment: If you write to me via email and I, despite many duties and preoccupations (and also an ongoing struggle to keep computers from damaging my eyes and wrists), dash a response back to you lest you feel ignored, please do not denounce me as rude if I forget to append a “Sincerely Yours”, etc. Once you’ve treated me that way, I’ll have nothing more to do with you, for you will have just slapped my face.