Musings on Manners

Did you see the special on PBS about manners in the Edwardian era? The historical consultant for “Downton Abbey” gave viewers the rundown on the ins and outs of manners for the posh set back in the day. Rationalized by the perceived need to maintain social order to prevent an uprising a la French Revolution, they developed strict codes governing every part of life from raising children to table manners to clothing and everything in between.

We don’t need to tighten our societal stays to that extent, but I frequently wonder what happened to good manners. In her book Talk to the Hand, Lynne Truss postulates a theory that they were thrown out in the ’60’s in an effort to divest society of anything remotely reminiscent of the upper strata in order to create a transparent world as well as a way to rebel against the strictures of the past.

While creating a world with a higher level of individual freedom was a good thing, the problem came in the form of a systemic lack of respect at some levels. Sharing too much personal information (guilty); not minding other’s personal space such as people who ride on public transportation with their arms and knees sprawled; asking highly personal questions without really knowing someone; the ever popular fights on Black Friday, it all cuts into the quality of life.

Over the course of my adult years, I’ve watched as sitcoms rely less on wit and absurdity and more on how many references to genitalia or sexual situations they can cram into a half-hour for laughs. I don’t even watch “Big Bang Theory” any more because of this trend.

Social media amplifies it. The anonymity gives people the false courage to make inflammatory comments for the joy of it and for the warped pleasure of creating chaos. I blocked several people on FaceBook because of this.  Even my own beloved NPR has had issues with trolling lately. I wish that they would, could screen commenters more thoroughly. It hasn’t been pretty the last few months. It’s likely to deteriorate as the election cycle progresses.

It would help if I didn’t read comment threads.  It is fine to disagree. It is fine to have a divergence of opinion. Personal attacks, vulgarity, rudeness for its own sake, or whacking people over the head with religious texts are not.

I miss the days when candidates referred to one another as “my learned/esteemed opponent” and gently stated their position rather than resorting to crude comments in a desperate attempt to make themselves look better.

Roseanne Cash once blogged about the need for structure and boundaries in the day and in interactions with others. Without respect to them there is no safe place for intimacy. It’s something that needs to develop over time. Deb Ollivier, author of Entre  Nous, lived a good part of her adult life in France. She observed that the French reputation for coldness isn’t so much about snobbery as it is the creation of boundaries out of authenticity and respect for one’s self and others.

Personally, I am blessed. I have friends who are wise enough to know that the twain of our politics and social vision or our spirituality will never meet, so we simply don’t bring them up. We focus on shared passions for animals, for food, for movies. We value each other and time shared in conversations to initiate discussions that will leave us both covered in scratch marks.

And in those moments, my hope for the world starts to breathe on its own.







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