If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!

Have you ever said something unpleasant and afterwards regretted it? Did you kick yourself because you knew you shouldn’t have said it in the first place? That’s a double whammy, being slapped in the face twice with the same wet fish. How slow we are to learn. Either we’re so convinced of our propriety or we handle the anxiety of the moment so poorly, we go charging in with guns blazing and raze the place. As satisfying as it may be to dumbfound the opposition (and never mind any psychological entitlement to do so) don’t be fooled; being nasty is a losing cause. Among other fallout the very person you maligned may end being one of your dearest friends. The twists and turns of society!

Manners – or etiquette if your prefer – are only necessary when the going gets thick. Until then pretty much anything goes. But if you’re on the edge of something you know has the possibility to disintegrate it’s best to fall back upon the old adages of social convention. As inhibiting as it may be to tighten one’s trap, recall that monitoring one’s behaviour is part of the civilizing process, the progression from small group living towards wider social order.

“The imposition of polite norms and behaviours became a symbol of being a genteel member of the upper class. Upwardly mobile middle class bourgeoisie increasingly tried to identify themselves with the elite through their adopted standards of behaviour. While manners demonstrate an individual’s position within a social network they also act as a means by which the individual can negotiate that position.”

To characterize manners as altruistic or window dressing or to dismiss them as a sign of weakness is a miscalculation. Even Charles Darwin concluded that “people who are most able to benefit from their membership within a cultural group stand the best chance of survival and reproduction”. It was Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield who first used the word ‘etiquette’ in its modern meaning, in his Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman. He “endeavoured to decouple the issue of manners from conventional morality, arguing that mastery of etiquette was an important weapon for social advancement”.

Manners are about more than handling cutlery; they’re about doing business.

While etiquette books such as those by Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt detailed the “trivialities” of desirable everyday conduct (often resulting in laughable restraint) it was undeniable that the rules of conduct made social interactions run more smoothly. The management of our words and actions may seem at times repressive but the consensus is that it is vital to foster correct decisions and avoid alienation:

“Meat feeds, Cloth cleeds, but Manners makes the Man. ‥Good Meat, and fine Cloaths, without good Breeding, are but poor Recommendations.”

[1721 J. Kelly Scottish Proverbs 246]

If you remain unconvinced of the apophthegm that “manners maketh the man” or that there is any logical reason for standing on ceremony, consider the risks. Foremost you may be wrong (as unimaginable as you may presently consider the possibility). Further even if you are lucky enough to escape error temporarily remember it can take a long time to hang a man. If it placates your conscience to rationalize the observance of niceties on the urging to “keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer” that at least is an acceptable strategy (though it finesses the issue). The cultured elegance of manners may lead one to conclude that they have no place in the rough and tumble of daily living, that the association between polish and position is too precious to have any legitimacy. This was certainly not how manners developed.

“Periodicals, such as The Spectator, founded as a daily publication by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711, gave regular advice to its readers on how to conform to the etiquette required of a polite gentleman. Its stated goal was “to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality…to bring philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffeehouses”. It provided its readers with educated, topical talking points, and advice in how to carry on conversations and social interactions in a polite manner.

The allied notion of ‘civility’ – referring to a desired social interaction which valued sober and reasoned debate on matters of interest – also became an important quality for the ‘polite classes’. Established rules and procedures for proper behaviour as well as etiquette conventions, were outlined by gentleman’s clubs, such as Harrington’s Rota Club. Periodicals, including The Tatler and The Spectator, infused politeness into English coffeehouse conversation, as their explicit purpose lay in the reformation of English manners and morals.”

One last point to consider: Even if you can’t resist the temptation to say whatever is on your mind, at least weigh the assertion as an attack upon the subject or an attack upon the person. The fallacious ad hominem argument (“You’re wrong because you’re ugly!”) does little in the end to advance your position. Manners are not merely a means of displaying one’s social status or ensuring social compliance (which for example in some contexts may include hygiene). Manners are a guide to correctness and even justice. A core tenet of manners is the ability to “readily ignore the faults of others but avoid falling short yourself”.