Can and Should Manners be Taught?
On the 8th of October 1952, American socialite-journalist Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette was first published . Most of us wish to be seen as well-mannered. However, acknowledging the existence of a set of rules which would dictate how to behave has largely become a derided, old-fashioned subject. Things were different in the 1950s. Vanderbilt’s 800-page tome set the standard of etiquette writing and became a bestseller recurrently updated throughout the years. It was a practical guide on how to dress, write letters, lay the table, attend various social situations and religious rituals etc.
There are various issues with books of this nature which clash with contemporary mentality. Vanderbilt wrote, “Good manners have much to do with the emotions. To make them ring true, one must feel them, not merely exhibit them.”This would mean adjusting and changing one’s character to adhere to predetermined rules in society. Is this really achievable and is this healthy? She also preached, “Know who you are and dress accordingly” implying that appearance or public perception make the person. The most evident problem here is the danger of eradicating personal flair and individuality.
Furthermore, Vanderbilt maintained that, “Ceremony is really a protection, too, in times of emotional involvement, particularly at death. If we have a social formula to guide us and do not have to extemporize, we feel better able to handle life.” This is another uneasy aspect of etiquette: its formality is being used as a coping mechanism to life’s difficulties. This automatically means dwarfing the expression of emotions, which, as Freud taught us, offers the actual escape from internalised problems.
There is also the matter of etiquette regarded as a social segregator in our open-minded times. It is perceived almost as a snobbish code specific to certain social classes, which aids the participants of a group to advance within it for superficial reasons. Etiquette is feared to breed prejudice, racism and generally, intolerance and lack of empathy towards others. From this perspective, the only environment where etiquette would have a positive impact is in the public services: we could all use a friendlier receptionist, a more tactful doctor or a charismatic taxman etc.
The 19th century English essayist William Hazlitt wrote “When other people have no manners, they have you at their mercy. “ Little did he know that the behaviour of others towards the individual affects him or her on a much deeper level than the lack of superficial niceties. It seems that there is a strong case in favour of manners in contemporary times too. Paul J. Zak wrote in an article preceding his book The Moral Molecule. The Source of Love and Prosperity (2012):
“Rudeness was reported as the chief cause of stress in a recent poll in France. For 60% of the French, it is not the debt crisis or persistent double-digit unemployment that stresses them out, but the behavior of other people. Rudeness signals that one is not welcome in this group, activating pain regions in the brain (…) Rudeness also shows that others don’t trust us. (…) when men are distrusted, they experience a sharp spike in testosterone provoking an aggressive response (…)when someone is nice towards another person, the recipient’s brain releases oxytocin and this causes him or her to respond with kindness (…) those who release the most oxytocin when they are trusted have higher quality relationships of all types: romantic, friendships, and with family members.”
There is then a direct psychological and physiological response that humans have to the presence or absence of good manners. The way we interact with others determines the extent of our social circle and healthy social interaction has been proven to prolong life expectancy. So it looks as if there might be something we can still take away from Vanderbilt’s obliterated etiquette bible that might just teach us how to live a happier life!