“Manners” were annoying to me as a kid. This will strike nobody who went to high school with me as false. I brought sardines to lunch in our tiny school where we had our meal in the classroom. The smell would fill the room and the downside of having married a person I first met when I was in tenth grade and she was in ninth grade is knowing what people thought of my food choice.
Needless to say, she had nothing to do with fish-smell boy.
I should have thought about what my choices were doing to other people in the class. I was classless in my cluelessness and, as a result, was thought déclassé. I should have paid more attention to Jane Austen’s ideas and not just to her romance as a young reader.
Jane Austen was right to focus on manners because manners are manifest morality. They make “do unto others as you would have them to do to you” real and not abstract. If we are not careful, we treat this command of Jesus as if it means our standards should be applied to everyone in particulars: I like sardine smell so everyone will not mind. Instead, we should hear the Golden Rule as applying to generalities in life: I dislike unpleasant odors, so whenever deploying strong odors in public, I should think, ask, and be careful.
Though more useful, this helpful advice is still not enough and manners point the way: we follow social norms as much as we can to provide safe space for everyone in the community without the tyranny of government rules. Manners taught my generation that too much cologne or perfumes were rude: less was more. This social custom turns out to help the minority of people who are very sensitive to smell . . . At least somewhat.
Instead, in a society with strong customs and manners, one knew what would be eaten, worn, or put on display. If one was upset by certain sights, sounds, or topics, then one could venture out to certain events relatively sure of safety. This allows some events to be joyful for all present without written rules. Healthy people do not hide from conflict or unpleasantness always, but manners help us prepare. A man can go to a dance knowing he will not get waylaid for his politics and to a debate knowing he almost surely will be.
Indeed, highly mannered interactions set boundaries and non-verbal means of communication that allow a “no” or “that is boorish” to be communicated clearly without words. Some people struggle with verbal communication and other people have a hard time hearing. The more the society can say: “her fan is tipped in just such a way, she does not wish to dance,” the more chances people who are decent at heart have a chance to hear.
Yet manners, as Austen shows, are no barrier to the barbarian. The person determined to undermine morality can ape the manners. Nothing is barbarian proof in this life. Society must always guard against the person who knows the rules but does not care.
When I was a boy, I thought manners too “precious” or too worried about superficialities. As an older man, I see them as creating a culture of care, of restraint, and safety without police power. Now off to read Sense and Sensiblity for class.