Like all subjects, when we commit ourselves to a course of study and thought, we realize new discoveries almost every single day. I’ve written about anonymity, technology, sportsmanship, political protocol and garden variety manners. Obviously it is easy to point out the incivilities within our personal relationships, communities and even amongst the nations of the world. But my purpose was never to be solely a social commentator. First and foremost, I want to find pathways and solutions to re-position civility as the framework of choice for our behaviors. An observer is interested, but a participant is committed. I don’t want to sit back and write about the obvious, I want to participate with you in finding a better way.
I haven’t focused a great deal of attention on the most obvious outward manifestation of civility; manners. Limiting the conversation about civility to manners is like to trying to understand the subject of mathematics by focusing only on subtraction and addition. But there are definitely lessons to be learned by considering what manners mean in the larger context of civility and incivility.
There is a unique characteristic about manners that few of us recognize. Which fork to use? What salutation to use when greeting someone? How soon after an event do you send a thank you note? Manners are not about how others are supposed to treat you. Manners are not a guide for others to follow when they interact with you. Manners are about me. Manners are about what I do. How I react. How I respond.
This is a terribly important truth. If manners are about how we are supposed to behave on an individual level, then when we complain about the decline and sometimes complete evaporation of manners in day-to-day life we are really pointing out the failure of personal responsibility; the failure of what I am supposed to do. We are saying that the people around us have walked away from their personal responsibility to monitor, manage and modify their own actions. When people say that manners are not important, they are abdicating others and themselves of their personal responsibility for their own behavior.
Many readers might quickly suggest that the “golden rule” and the many variations of it expressed in several religions and philosophy must have been a guiding force in the development of each civilization’s rules for manners. But I am not so convinced. I am not ashamed, in the least, to say that I am an evangelical Christian, a follower of Christ – even when I know that many readers may immediately apply an unfair stereotype or expectation to who they think I am. The reason I bring my personal faith to this discussion is in the context of my conclusion that the “golden rule” is actually an inborn part of the human spirit, and not necessarily a guiding principle driven by religion; any religion.
I could point to the moment when Jesus Christ schooled the Pharisees and Sadducees on the greatest commandment and on the second ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ in Matthew 22:34-40 and say ‘see, Christianity is all about the golden rule’. Obviously the flaw in my statement is that the force of Christianity and even the words of the Bible have been used to justify two millennia of decidedly uncivil behaviors; from the absolute power of monarchy to slavery. Even though the texts of many of the major faiths have a variation of ‘love your neighbor’ not all of them do. And, whether Hebrew or Hindu or Buddhist, it is difficult to attribute all the good things in manners and interpersonal behaviors to faith without acknowledging all the bad things in manners and interpersonal behaviors done in the name of faith.
The driving force for manners, then, can’t be fully explained by religion. In fact, you can’t convincingly argue that manners are even guided by ‘do naught unto others”. Manners, when executed with pure intention, are more closely aligned to something not recorded in any text that I’ve found – “I will do the right thing regardless of what you do”.
Ultimately, maybe this is why we perceive there to be such a decline in manners. Maybe our collective cultural obsessions with consumerism, power, control, winning, dominating, subjugating or demanding that our opinion or belief is better than your opinion or belief has short-circuited our very nature; the inborn nature in all of us to sacrifice just a bit of our self-interest to honor the intrinsic value in another human being. Maybe we, as individuals, have decided that what we want has become so all important that sacrificing any of it is no longer worth our time or effort. Subduing our desires by conforming to some archaic rule about soup spoons is simply too much work. We can’t be bothered or troubled with even the simple manners of holding a door or saying thank you.
The next time you find yourself irritated or chagrined by another person’s lack of manners, take a second to remember that bringing manners back is about what I do. Regardless of what they do.