The Case for Manners

Henry Hazlitt wrote,

Too often moral codes, especially those still largely attached to religious roots, are ascetic and grim. Codes of manners, on the other hand, usually require us to be at least outwardly cheerful, agreeable, gracious, convivial—in short, a contagious source of cheer to others.

Pointer from Don Boudreaux.

I think that codes of manners also can be used to convey respect for others. You are telling people, including strangers, that you conduct yourself with them in mind.

I believe that restraint in the use of four-letter words used to serve this purpose, and it could once again serve this purpose. This puts me at odds with my fellow Baby Boomers and those who came after.

This entry was posted in Blog and Comment policy and philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Case for Manners

  1. handle says:

    That description of manners seems a bit Anglosphere-centric. The “conventional protocols of social interaction and associated signaling of emotional states”, especially between strangers or those with large status differences, vary a lot between cultures. In particular, foreigners are often struck by frequency of smiling and extreme enthusiasm and affability of Anglosphere greetings and retail experiences, tending to get a “faked friendliness / false intimacy” disingenuous vibe from the same behavior Americans find perfectly cordial.

    Then again, these days, I’ve found that ‘retail experience’ to be fading in some parts of the county at some stores, where one is now much more likely to encounter surly attendants who act bothered by your patronage and for whom magnanimous service is regarded as demeaning.

    So Hazlitt seems to think he is articulating a universal, but i guess he is really making a social judgment on the relative merits of cultural norms.

  2. baconbacon says:

    The strongest case for manners is that rules free systems (or low rules systems) with norms are harder to practice for, and it is easy to detect dishonesty. For example say Bill and John work together.

    John: Hi Bill, how was your weekend.
    Bill: Terrible, someone broke into our house on Saturday!
    John: Holy S*** . . .

    In a society where 4 letter words have no taboo, then John’s use carries little weight. He might say it 15 times the rest of the day in situations like “Holy S***, there are no donuts left”. In a Society with a taboo John can say “Holy S***… pardon my language, but is everyone OK?”, and his concern means something, his reaction is more genuine as the news was obviously shocking enough for him to temporarily bypass the taboo. If society has a rule against 4 letter words then cursing in surprise is a violation and John is supposed to choke back the honest response and the genuine is taken as a negative, not a positive.

  3. Patrick Laske says:

    I think manners were important for governing the relationship of people of different status. Men and Women, Old and Young, Rich and Poor, Whites and Minorities. The problem is that the 1960s happened, the relationships between these groups became chaotic, in a good way. Something else has come in to fill the void while a new set of rules are emerging, this “something else” is sometimes called political correctness, and sometimes wrongly called ‘treating people with respect. It is inferior to manners, but until a new set of stable rules emerge it’s what you have.

    I don’t believe this can be imposed. I do think there are new sets of rules that are roughly out there, and they haven’t been formally codified yet: Unlock the passenger car door for the woman first and she should open your door, don’t tip if you order from a board, send a text under these circumstances and a phone call under these and an e-mail under these others, basically ‘stay #woke’, a modern form of politeness, when dealing with people, and don’t read the comments. Honestly, the reason it’s not codified is more to do with the fact the 19th century authors had nothing better to do than to write books few people read, but a simple look on various online media sites should easily find advice on staying woke, keeping a clean social media account, or even when to send a text message versus a phone call.

    As for 4 letter words, they were always just high energy taboo fighting / sexual words that if used wrong will get you punched in the face. Most people never learned to use them properly, so the taboo was on using them at all. With film and song, everyone, including children, learn to safely use them. There are other taboo or inappropriate things people can do, I could hide a link in here that leads to a grotesque image, or you could ‘dox’ me, which feel like modern analogues. There’s no reason for the taboo to stay constant, nor should it.

  4. ThomasL says:

    “Too often moral codes, especially those still largely attached to religious roots, are ascetic and grim.”

    Historically, I do not think this could be reasonably said of either Catholicism or Judaism.

    For philosophical looks perhaps:

    In Tune With The World by Josef Pieper
    Reasonable Pleasures by Fr James Schall

  5. blink says:

    I think it is worth distinguishing “manners” from “politeness”, the former referring to a codified set of prescriptions about behavior while the letter based on concern for others. Either can show respect for others, but manners — as with any sort of formal code — add another component of signaling in-group versus out-group status. After all, one has to learn the codes and practice sufficiently that they become second nature, but many such behaviors simply impose costs on the “sender” without benefiting others directly.

  6. Tom Crispin says:

    We had an exchange student who commented on the American “retail experience” that it’s nicer to hear “Have a nice day” from someone who doesn’t really mean it than “Go f*** yourself” from someone who does

    • N. says:

      Maybe, but this recalls the celebrated difference between New York and California, where New Yorkers will say “f*** you,” and mean “have a nice day, while Californians say, “have a nice day,” and mean “f*** you.”

      Not really true, but you get the meaning. I’m a New Yorker and tend to avoid Californians… but I recognize that it’s probably best that we have a place for each to live according to their preferred norms.

  7. Rich Berger says:

    I’m guessing these weren’t the responses ASK was hoping to elicit.

  8. Charles W. Abbott says:

    I was happy (and not surprised) to see the Burke quote at the end of Hazlitt’s essay.

    Burke said there were two…sites? loci? for controlling the appetite: Internal self control, and methods.

    How many external methods?

    1. Laws prohibiting something.

    2. Customs and manners saying “it’s just not done.”

    3. Imposition of fine to discourage.

    4. Threat of retaliation from aggrieved parties (and family, especially brothers, uncles, cousins, etc).

Comments are closed.