There’s a moment from a Star Trek original series episode that caused me to have an epiphany about why manners matter. The Enterprise had reached Vulcan, and Spock was exchanging ritualized polite phrases with Vulcan command over the view screen. I puzzled and puzzed till my puzzler was sore, trying to figure out why a race which chooses to suppress emotion, needs manners. Manners don’t seem practical on the surface. Still, even Vulcans employ them. It clarified for me that manners are a barrier of neutrality we deliberately erect around ourselves. Manners give us privacy, allow us to hide things, and make a smooth surface for social interactions. When manners are omitted, someone usually ends up knowing something about someone else that they’d rather not know.
I’m not going to make any hippy statements about how we need to break down the barriers that keep us apart; I happen to think those ones are a really good idea. That said, I like to think about how manners and compassion relate.
A friend told me a story about being at the YMCA gym. A man was lifting weights with a kind of ferocity and aggression that was making people around him uncomfortable. A young staff person approached and said, “Hey, are you OK?” Apart from being a brilliant example of effective communication, what struck me about this approach was that, if we act from compassion, we’ll achieve the best possible outcome. Instead of feeling targeted or confronted, weight-lifting man can feel that people around him care about his well-being.
Young staff guy could have exhibited entire good manners while saying, “Excuse me sir, but your aggressive style is making people around you uncomfortable. Could you please calm down?” By adding tact and compassion, even if it’s only pretend compassion, the staff guy perfectly defused an awkward situation. If weight-lifting guy had freaked out, it would have been because of his own volatility, not because he had lost face.
When I’m confronted with an aggressive or unfriendly stranger, I do my best to get even more polite. This gives me a wall behind which to disguise my contempt, offers the satisfaction of having maintained the moral high ground, and sometimes affords the gratification of seeing rude person get even more upset because I’ve highlighted their bad manners in comparison to my good ones. This is a challenging course, but the rewards are worth it. If things escalate, you can even slip in some sincere concern for their blood pressure.
When did our ancestors develop manners? If a stronger person offered food to a weaker one, when and why did it shift from being an act of compassion to an act done for social reasons? I think manners must have developed right around the time people started living in communities. Manners seem like something we employ as a sign of kindness. In fact, their value is that they protect us from the negative reactions of others and ourselves.
We may find good manners hard to define, but we know them when we see them. As a blind person, I’m often offered help by strangers, and sometimes have it thrust upon me without my consent. When someone says, “Can I give you a hand on to the bus?” They’re exercising compassion and good manners. When someone grabs my arm in a death grip and tries to propel me on to the bus, they may, in some form, be offering compassion, but with a complete absence of good manners. I guess the difference is tact. Lacking tact, we can, like the Vulcans, default to formality. Making the subtle distinction between formal good manners, tact and compassion is a useful skill, both when trying to figure out why we like or dislike someone, and deciding how to react in an awkward social situation.