Good and Bad Manners

October 2005

I've just had to deal with a case of really bad manners. It led me to ask myself what manners are.

At their worst, manners are a method of exclusion. Someone I read recently said the English upper class had an ornate set of eating rules, and implements, to immediately expose outsiders. Here we see where good manners are actually bad manners.

At their best, manners can allow or assist inclusion. An older colleague, who came a bit from the wrong side of the tracks, said this to us once. He told us that it was all very well to throw off at those manners, but that they had their uses; you knew how to behave and fit in, even if you really didn't fit in.

I think he was right to some extent. At base, manners are the conventions that allow us to interact successfully. They are the conventions which allow us to relate easily without having to work out everything we are going to do or say first. Remember trying to relate to someone you really didn't like, or with whom you had just had a fight. Manners are the social lubrication that mean most interactions happen more or less at ease.

Manners ease us into a relationship. As a pastor visiting a parishioner, I know older folk will offer me tea or coffee, and apologize for the paucity of the cake, despite having put a week's worth of equisite treats on the table. Sometimes younger colleagues complain, or laugh at these manner-ish rituals. But they work. The relating can begin and relax in the small talk and the fussing. Young people I visit often don't offer tea. They actually don't have the manners that help the relating begin. Providing refreshment is good manners; it does good things! Bill Luxon has good manners; when I came to visit, he offered me a beer. It's not the tea that's important; it's the providing of space and the message of "I value you" that is the good of the manners.

Manners also provide a path through difficult times. We need to be wary of drifting into hypocrisy here. But in what I have just experienced good manners would not only have been good, they would have been positively helpful and saved a lot of grief.

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