Mind your manners

by Bob on Friday, 28 March 2008 Comments
In a previous essay called The Anatomy of Communication I wrote about the elements that go into the communication process. It was concerned with the composition and delivery of the content of a message. But that is not the only way one person communicates with another. Your very presence, gestures, behavior and appearance also deliver messages that may or may not be intended. The very fact that you approach in person may say a lot about the importance of the contact or the importance of the person contacted. The way you dress, your facial expression, style of speech, the way you stand or sit or eat all convey information about yourself and your attitude and your respect or lack of it toward the one contacted.

This article is about the ways we behave that might please or displease, attract or repel the people around us. In this regard there are three terms commonly used: manners, etiquette, and politeness.

Manners or more properly good manners are sort of unwritten norms of behavior that are intended to put people at ease and smooth social relations. How often I heard my mother saying to me as I went off to a party or some other social function “mind your manners.” She meant “don’t be impolite”, “behave yourself”, “don’t forget all the proper etiquette we taught you for eating at table”, “know your place and act like a little gentleman”.

The social norms for interpersonal behavior are different from place to place and usually in a state of flux. It is still good manners to say “excuse me” if you interrupt someone or bump into them or just want to pass by causing them a little inconvenience. It used to be good manners for someone young to stand up and yield his/her seat to an elder. Nowadays it is considered more and more impolite to smoke in the presence of nonsmokers. There seems to be a growing number of people who consider it bad manners to speak on a cell phone in a crowded place or even to let it ring in a church or meeting. These norms usually arise through gradual consensus as some form of expression or behavior is accepted as pleasing and respectful and its negation or opposite seems impolite or offensive. A stranger’s ignorance of these norms or deliberate violation of them can be taken as rude, disrespectful or hostile.

Etiquette refers to issues connected with social decorum, such as proper ways to speak or act in public. Etiquette embraces sets of accepted and expected behaviors, many of which have been inscribed in printed rules of etiquette. There are etiquette rules for eating and drinking, for dealing with officials, for how to act in public places; there is office etiquette, business etiquette, internet etiquette (netiquette), etc.; etiquette can govern when and how to speak, what to wear, what is considered rude or inappropriate. The so-called rules of etiquette can be quite arbitrary, are seldom universal or applicable all around the world or in every cultural or social group. They develop and become codes of conduct gradually through common acceptance and expectation.

Persons are not born with the rules of etiquette instinctively embedded in their personalities. What they do hopefully possess is an instinct to please others and be accepted by others, so they absorb through observation and instruction the proper ways to speak and act according to their station in life and social class. Thus, as they grow up they learn what is expected of them and how to deal appropriately with others in order to please them and get from them what they desire for themselves in return.

There is a time and a place for everything and if you don’t know what these are you might get into trouble. When is it acceptable to use slang or swear? When is it right or wrong to wear shoes or remove your shoes when you enter a church or a mosque or enter a Japanese or Chinese friend’s house? Don’t go to a formal American banquet without coat or tie unless you are a Filipino wearing a barong tagalog or an African wearing a traditional robe, but even then you might get into trouble if the host is a prejudiced or insensible ass. When and where is it appropriate to eat with your fingers? What places require coat and tie or refuse entrance to those in shorts or barefoot or sleeveless or shirtless? When and how soon afterwards might you be expected to acknowledge a gift or write a thank you note? When and where might arriving late for an engagement or appointment be considered impolite? Is it good manners or bad manners to telephone someone very late at night or very early in the morning or to arrive unannounced at a person’s doorstep?

Politeness is the practical application of good manners and etiquette. Its expression depends upon the social status, cultural values and practices and the choice of vocabulary and expectations of the one addressed. Politeness is a sign of respect, face-saving, and shows the polite person is aware of his/her station and wishes to conform to the expectations of the person addressed. Any speech or behavior, intended or not, that violates what the person approached considers polite behavior will be taken as impolite or at least inappropriate. In some places, like in Japan, the very vocabulary of politeness is different for different levels of social class and position; in some places as in France it is impolite to use the singular form of “you” to others than family, close friends or peers; in some cultural groups to look into a person’s eyes is impolite, while in some others it is impolite not to look at another’s face; in some places politeness requires standing in the presence of another or removing one’s hat or bowing, shaking hands or avoiding physical contact, etc. Thus any time you need to approach someone of another culture or nationality, it is a very good idea to find out first how you should act and what to say, so you don’t commit any faux pas or cause embarrassment.

Sometimes, however, there are persons who are deliberately impolite and use bad manners to make a statement. There are those who consider it demeaning or hypocritical to have to conform to another’s pretensions. It is a way of saying “I despise you”, “I don’t like what you stand for”, “I spit in your face”, “I don’t need you to tell me what to say or how to act”, “I’m just being myself and if you don’t like it, that just too bad”, etc. Well, it’s a free world. If that is what you think and how you want to act, it’s your call, but don’t expect to make many friends or gain any respect or acceptance or cooperation from those who don’t speak and act as you do.

The social repercussions of bad manners and impropriety underline the importance of etiquette and politeness for maintaining understanding and peace in the world.

Unless you are about to encounter a different unknown culture, you probably don’t need to buy a special book of etiquette or rush to the internet for particulars. Anyone with good will and common sense and powers of observation should have a fairly good idea of what is appropriate and acceptable behavior in his/her own environment.

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