Why Manners Matter

Written for Acculturated

October 14th, 2015

Whatever happened to manners? Recently, I watched the 1999 romantic comedy Blast from the Past and was surprised by its unexpected defense of good behavior. The film stars Brendan Fraser as Adam Webber, a thirty-year-old man whose parents raised him in a bomb shelter because they believed the world was ending. When Adam leaves the shelter to see if the world is habitable, and finds that the apocalypse had not actually taken place, he encounters a much-altered social landscape.

Essentially stuck in the 1960’s for his entire life, Adam acts like he walked right out ofLeave it to Beaver. This creates tensions in his relationships with modern Americans.  When he meets a girl, his polite demeanor confuses and annoys her until her roommate explains: “He said, good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them. See, I didn’t know that, I thought it was just a way of acting all superior.”

This silly romantic comedy nevertheless captures something truthful (and disturbing) about modern culture:  our disregard for manners.  Many people understand manners as the characters in the movie did:  as an act of false or snobbish aggression.  Bluntness, crassness, “keeping it real” – these are celebrated (until they are taken too far, of course, and then you are reminded to “check your privilege”).

Judged by this standard, a “fake” person puts forth effort in all aspects of his or her life, whereas a “real” person focuses on his or her own comfort, forgetting the people around them because they’re not worth the effort.

A “fake” person smiles and makes eye contact when he sees an acquaintance. A “real” person might nod his head or ignore the other person altogether. A “fake” person dresses nicely to make a good impression on others. A “real” person doesn’t care how he looks, opting for more comfortable, but perhaps unsuitable attire. A “fake” person doesn’t swear because it’s crass and unseemly. A “real” person doesn’t give a f***.

We live in a culture where people are increasingly public about their faults, proudly displaying them for the world to see and mocking anyone who sticks out by being polite. Paradoxically, if you care about fitting in, you need to act is if you don’t care how you’re perceived.  Social media has accelerated this impulse (while simultaneously creating new challenges for a generation whose online reputations increasingly impact their real-world opportunities).

But how you present yourself shouldn’t be about fitting in. It should be about showing respect for yourself and others around you. People enjoy dressing down because they argue it’s more comfortable (which of course is precisely why dressing up is more respectful). Dressing nicely takes time and effort, and it shows the people around you that they are worth the effort. It’s a quiet, outward display of respect. Equally important, it shows that you respect yourself.

The same goes for how you talk. If your speech is riddled with swear words and other unpleasantries, it shows that you don’t care about the people around you. Words have incredible power (just ask the speech police on college campuses!).  But instead of focusing on the fact that profanity is vulgar and impolite, we tend to condemn it only if the words used are politically incorrect or insensitive enough to “trigger” someone else’s feelings.

Being polite stands in direct contrast with ease and comfort. It’s hard work to be thoughtful of others. But manners call on us to try to reach a higher moral ground, where the comfort of others takes precedence over our own needs.

Without manners nobody gives respect, and nobody receives it.  In Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, Des McGarth (played wonderfully by Chris Eigeman) observes, “You know that Shakespearean admonition, ‘To thine own self be true?’ It’s premised on the idea that ‘thine own self’ is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if ‘thine own self’ is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, not to be true to thine own self?”

This line takes on a new meaning in contemporary culture, as being true to “thine own self” too often means giving in to our worst rather than our best urges – and publicizing them relentlessly. If that’s what it means to be “real,” then we could all use a blast from the past to remind us that no matter how great our “authentic” selves might appear on Instagram, mutual respect emerges from the small (and often unheralded) acts of thoughtfulness that, combined, form good manners.