View Electronic Edition

Differing With Dignity

The state of American etiquette is now worse than ever. Miss Manners is forced to act. I shall attempt to show what went wrong, and to propose a modest solution.

In do-your-own-thing America, there is no longer much distinction between etiquette, the rules of behavior, and manners, the social premises from which they are derived. As the latter are constantly undergoing revision, one can get into serious trouble merely by following the simplest habits of one's youth. A gentleman who thoughtlessly defers to a lady can find himself labeled a pig; a young person taught to address elders in terms of respect may be scolded for making them feel old.

There is also an unfortunate tendency to confuse manners, which pertain to the outer person, with morals, which belong in such interior realms as the conscience and the soul. Religions generally put regulations about eating, dress, and washing in the same category as opportunities for sinning that promise considerably more fun. In Puritan America, acts forbidden by law included making nasty faces, jeering at others (or leering, depending on how attractive one found them), flirting, swearing, gossiping, and finger-sticking, a list practically constituting a catalogue of everything that makes life worth living.

I can understand the temptation of those who deal in both manners and morals, such as my col league Cotton Mather and his friend God, to blur the distinction in order to be able to call out the moral militia for transgressions of manners. Threatening jail or hell is more effective and less wearing than the basic technique of those who merely teach manners, which is nagging.

However, the failure to distinguish between manners and morals also suggests, erroneously, that from personal virtue, acceptable social behavior will follow effortlessly. All you need is a good heart, and the rest will take care of itself. You don't ever have to write thank-you letters.

It is probably more sensible to hope that practicing proper behavior eventually encourages virtuous feeling; that if you have to write enough thank-you letters, you may actually come to feel a flicker of gratitude. "In truth," wrote Mr. Jefferson, "politeness is artificial good humor, it covers the natural want of it, and ends by rendering habitual a substitute nearly equivalent to the real virtue."

If not, good manners can at least put a decent cover over ugly feelings. Charming villains have always had a decided social advantage over well-meaning people who chew with their mouths open. "I could better eat with one who did not respect the truth or the laws," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "than with a sloven and unpresentable person."
 
The belief that natural behavior is beautiful, and that civilization's restrictions spoil the essential goodness inherent in all of us noble savages, is, of course, the Jean Jacques Rousseau School of Etiquette. He began his career as a footman, and does not seem to have cared for it.

A major influence in Jefferson's time, Rousseau's philosophy continues to survive in the pop-psychology and "human potential" movements of today, and in the do-nothing school of child-rearing, which has given us so many little—savages. In point of fact, we are all born rude. No infant has ever appeared yet with the grace to understand how inconsiderate it is to disturb others in the middle of the night.

The concept that civilization is inherently corrupt, but Nature inevitably benign, is particularly popular in earthquake- and flood-ridden California. The natural approach to human relations presumes that to know any person well enough is to love him, and that, therefore, the only human problem is a communication problem. It refuses to admit the possibility that people might be separated by basic, deeply held, genuinely irreconcilable differences—philosophical, political, or religious. Thus, the effort to trivialize etiquette as being a barrier to the happy mingling of souls, actually trivializes intellectual, emotional, and spiritual convictions by characterizing any difference between one person's and another's as no more than a simple misunderstanding, easily solved by frank exchanges or orchestrated "encounters."

Many forms of etiquette are employed exactly to disguise those antipathies that arise from irreconcilable differences, in order to prevent mayhem. When I was president of a school board, a member with whom I disagreed on every possible educational issue suggested that we could resolve our differences if the trustees all went off on retreat and got to know one another better. "You don't understand," I had to tell him. "The only reason I haven't murdered you is that I really don't know you all that well, so I feel I have to give you the benefit of the doubt. Do you want to remove that doubt?" The reason that diplomacy is so stilted is that its purpose is to head off the most natural social relation between countries in economic or ideological conflict, namely war.

The charge is often made against etiquette that it is artificial. Yes, indeed, it is. Civilization is artificial. When people extoll the virtues of naturalness, honesty, informality, intimacy, and creativity-watch out. Honesty has come to mean the privilege of insulting you to your face without expecting redress, and creativity that it is wrong to interfere with a child who is destroying your possessions. It is apparently natural behavior to treat the sick, the disabled, and the bereaved with curiosity and distaste, but it is also highly uncivilized.

We need a coherent code of manners. I would prefer ratings based not on commerce—dictated expenditure but on gentility of manners. We seem to be gradually adopting a system of precedence based on age, rather than gender, and I rather think that is a good idea, as it gives everyone a shot at being last and then first.

I believe that the only hope for satisfying the American idea of equality of treatment in this society—being recognized as "being as good as anyone else" —is reestablishing the dualism of the commercial and the personal realms. By not separating trade and society in the lives of individuals, we force people to take total identity from their jobs, and therefore rob them of any realm in which human beings could and should have full equality in our society.

One should not be assigned one's identity in society by the job slot one happens to fill. If we truly believe in the dignity of labor, any task can be performed with equal pride because none can demean the basic dignity of a human being.

Off the job, there will be many attributes that may make one person more successful than another, but these will be ones to which anyone can aspire, and which, in the absence of an objective ranking system, such as prevails in the business realm, different people will judge in different ways. I believe and hope that a revival of the private realm would preclude hierarchies in which absolute standards, such as job titles and money, rather than personal qualities, mark some individuals as obviously superior to others.
 
I think my colleague Thomas Jefferson would agree. I'm not so sure about my colleague Cotton Mather.