Most of us were introduced to the world of manners by our parents. This introduction often included certain “do’s” and “don’ts.” We were told the things we should do: Do say “thank you” when someone gives you something, do say “excuse me” when you burp, do wait your turn, do use your “indoor voice” when you are indoors. We were also told the things we should not do: Do not talk with food in your mouth, do not interrupt someone when they’re speaking, do not point and stare at people, do not hit your brother.
At the time we didn’t realize it, but these small do’s and don’ts were rooted in a fundamental
attitude toward life. People with manners are aware that others exist, and they care about them. It’s as simple as that. People with manners do not think of themselves as the center of the universe. They demonstrate this every time they open a door for someone, cover their sneeze, refrain from talking during a movie, and drive responsibly.
One of the authorities on manners and politeness was Emily Post. She wrote, “All good manners are based on thoughtfulness of others, and if everyone lived by the Golden Rule—‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’—there would be no bad manners in the world.”
Being polite and thoughtful can have a positive effect on people. The other morning in the grocery store, I arrived at the “20 items or less” checkout line at the same time a man did. I had about six items in my basket. He was holding two items in his arms and looked like he was in a hurry. I motioned for him to go ahead of me saying, “I have more things.” He smiled, thanked me, and went first. After he was checked out, he turned to me and said, “Thanks again,” and left. Obviously, he was happy that I had let him go first. And I was happy to do this small favor for him—and to be thanked politely for doing it.
Are we less polite than we used to be? Some people think we are. They blame our “growing impoliteness” on our glorification of individual freedom and tolerance. Some believe that manners inhibit freedom of expression. Or they say manners are obsolete because we should tolerate all behaviors no matter how rude or obnoxious they appear to be.
What complicates things is that manners are partly conditioned by culture. What is considered impolite in one culture might not be considered impolite in another culture. When traveling to other countries, therefore, it is good to check out beforehand not only the local cuisine, but also the local etiquette. Also, manners evolve over time—to keep up with changes in society. The invention of the cellphone has made it necessary to formulate new “rules of etiquette” for its use. I came across this one recently: “Don’t talk on your cellphone in a waiting room, checkout line, restaurant, train, or (heaven forbid!) bathroom stall!” (A friend told me she saw this sign in a public restroom recently: “The only call you should answer in here is Nature’s!”)
Whether I say “thank you” for every kind gesture, or hold the door open for you, or step outside to use my cellphone, or pour your coffee before I pour my own—all these polite acts have few, if any, cosmic ramifications. But the tiny, numerous courtesies of everyday life are extremely important because of the moral foundation upon which they rest. With every polite gesture, we are saying to another, “You are important. And I care about you.” Such an attitude can have cosmic ramifications.
Here is a beautiful song by Chris Tomlin that celebrates the kindness of God. It’s called simply “Kindness.”
What are your thoughts on manners? Do you think they’re important or not?
What manners did you teach your children or grandchildren?
Be aware of every act of politeness or kindness you give today and every act of politeness or kindness you receive. How did these acts make you feel?
PS: I will be giving a weekend retreat at Benet House Retreat Center in Rock Island, IL from September 15-17. The retreat is called “Celebrating Four Gifts of Autumn: Beauty, Harvest, Letting Go, and Hope.” Visit their website or call Sister Bobbi at 309-283-2109 for more information. I’d love to see you there!