As far back as you can remember you have no doubt been hearing of this matter called politeness. When at table you wanted to lick the last sweet morsel of cream or honey from your fingers, your mother, or perhaps an anxious elder sister, sharply interrupted the procedure with; “Where are your manners?” When you were setting off to a friend’s birthday party, once again mother, sensitive to the family reputation, warned you: “Don’t forget your manners.” There were times when you had something to say that would surely be of interest to all the family circle. Your brilliant “scoop” just could not wait till father or mother or aunty had finished speaking. So, in the cause of wisdom and truth, you plunged in, only to be forced back on your heels with a threatening; “Don’t be rude!”
Wherever you turned you seemed to come up against this thing called politeness, or manners, or whatever was the opposite of being rude. At that age you could hardly be blamed for imagining that politeness was some sort of barrier set up by your elders to stop you from doing just the very thing you wanted to do. Even if you were capable of any clear thinking on the matter, you probably passed it all off with the thought that grown-ups were always killjoys; at least they seemed to be the only ones who ever got worked up about being polite. Meanwhile you submitted to the tyranny of manners with more or less good grace.
However, by the time you come to read these lines, it may be expected that your attitude to the whole business of politeness has been undergoing a change. Now you are beginning to see reasons. Now you realise perhaps that there are advantages in being polite. But, as we shall see in a later chapter, there are worthier motives than mere personal gain for being polite to others. When you were younger you probably never thought of asking why there were so many rules of politeness to be obeyed. You just carried them out, either because you had been trained into the habit of doing things that way, or simply because you knew there were scoldings and punishments if you ignored them. Now you must try to understand fully the reasons for this complex set of rules which society sets up under the name of politeness or good manners.
Some Terms and Definitions
Fundamentally we are concerned here with the way we behave in our social dealings with all other members of the great human family. In discussing this subject we use at various times such terms as “politeness”, “manners”, “courtesy”, “chivalry”, “etiquette”. It is not possible to draw a clear line of distinction between these terms. There is no need to try to do so, since they are merely different ways of looking at the same thing.
When we use the word politeness we have in mind the duties of respect and consideration that we owe to all other human beings, as fellow-members of the one great family. Politeness has been defined as “the exhibition in manner and speech of a kindly regard for the comfort and happiness of others”.
When we speak of courtesy we refer to the gracious, respectful behaviour towards others which a courtier would be expected to show in the presence of a king or a queen. It is politeness based on a worthy self-respect and a sincere reverence for all others, not only those in high positions. Courtesy is something deeper than mere polite manners or the observance of the outward laws of etiquette. The poet Belloc was thinking of the true meaning of courtesy when he wrote: “The grace of God is in Courtesy.”
We usually speak of a person’s manners when we mean the whole set of physical habits, including speech, which he has developed in his social relations with others. These habits may, of course, be good or bad, and so we speak of the “well-mannered” or the “bad-mannered” person. Manners, understood as the acquiring of good social habits, suggest that politeness is something that we can acquire by repetition and conscious practice, just as it is necessary to practise in order to become a good pianist or a tennis-player. Indeed, conscious practice is the only means by which some persons will ever become well-mannered.
However, an early word of warning is called for. Politeness that consists of a set of acquired habits and nothing more falls far short of that genuine reverence and consideration for others which, when based on charity, are the true signs of a gentleman. Manners can sometimes be no more than skin-deep. They may be simply a form of self-advertisement or a means of gaining a selfish advantage. The person whose manners are put on or off with his starched shirt is quickly seen through. Even if society should tolerate the hypocrite for a while, he will sooner or later let down his guard and expose the pretence. He will be deservedly banished from the company of those who have no time for shame and insincerity.
The word chivalry takes us back to the Middle Ages and the days of the wandering knights. However, their lives were not as aimless as the term “knight-errant” might suggest. Those were days when women and children and all who were weak had to seek protection from the stronger. Therefore it became a point of honour with a knight to protect others, even at the cost of personal hardship and danger. Respect for women, which was such an important part of the knight’s code, is still the basis of a great many of the rules which politeness dictates today. Indeed it could be said that anyone who does not possess a genuine respect for women -and that means all women – is no true gentleman.
There was hardly a time since pagan days when chivalry was more needed than it is today. In modern thought, speech, behaviour and forms of entertainment women are often exploited and degraded. These perils to the dignity and honour of womanhood are a greater challenge to the generous spirit of the twentieth-century knight than were the purely physical dangers which women faced in earlier times. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that some of the worst of modern social evils can be traced back to a lack of respect for womanhood. What is needed is a spirit of true Christian chivalry, and where else should we look for this but to those who have enjoyed the blessing of a sound training in Christian principles both at home and at school?
Etiquette is concerned with the code of outward observances that courtesy demands and society dictates. The rules of etiquette are established by tradition and custom, sometimes even by the unconscious mode of behaviour of a person of rank or prestige whose example is quickly followed by others. Etiquette is often as fickle as fashion. What etiquette prescribes in any given situation may vary greatly according to the period of time, the place and the social levels of the persons involved. For example, while courtesy lays it down that we should give some sign of affectionate recognition when we meet our friends, etiquette rules whether we are to raise our hats, bow, kiss, shake hands or rub noses. The laws of etiquette may seem to us at times unreasonable, arbitrary, even absurd. For instance, it is laid down that a gentleman must wear a black tie with his dinner-suit, but a white tie with his full-length evening suit. Seeing that both outfits are of black and white, there is no logic in demanding a black tie for one and a white tie for the other. It is useless to seek the logic of the laws of etiquette; simply obey them. If you fail to conform, it will be at your own cost. You may not foresee it now, but it is possible that your own advancement and your happiness in life could depend on your careful observance of a point of etiquette which will arise in some situation in which you are destined to find yourself.
Penalties of Defiance
If you choose to defy etiquette, there will be no use trying absolve yourself with the thought that, whatever may be said about your tie, your heart is in the right place and that ought to be enough for anybody. In practice it rarely works out that way. You may find yourself the guest of one of those people who make a positive fetish of etiquette. This is a situation which you must accept and to which you must adjust yourself, for your hostess may be more ready to overlook a moral lapse than to forgive a breach of etiquette. She may be more deeply offended by your ill-chosen tie than if you were to swing on the chandelier or slide down the banister. Your outburst of animal spirits will be good-naturedly dismissed because, after all, you are a “real character”; but for your lapse in social etiquette you might find yourself on the social blacklist until your crime is forgotten. Many a young man with a truly touching benevolence towards his fellow-men (and ladies too) has mysteriously found himself left off invitation lists. But there is really no mystery in it. To dispel his doubts and save himself from further disappointment all he need do is to consult a guide to etiquette and then look for an opportunity to show the people who matter in his life that he has learnt his lesson. No matter how trivial or apparently foolish the laws of etiquette may appear to you personally, you cannot afford to buck against them. Furthermore, it is necessary to make a systematic study of these rules. Therein lies the justification of a book such as this, which will be concerned not only with the meaning and the practice of true Christian courtesy but also with the numerous prescriptions imposed by social etiquette. As we have seen, many of these rules are of such an arbitrary nature that you could never be expected to know them from intuition or mere native cunning. Even a natural sentiment of goodwill towards your neighbour is not enough to guarantee that you will follow the correct procedure.
It has to be admitted that a good many of us do not become the complete gentleman by instinct, and perhaps for all of us it holds true that we do not practise the outward observances of polite convention, that is to say etiquette, without systematically learning what they are. So there is no escape from it: a guide to politeness and etiquette must be a further addition to the growing library of text-books that help to fill your days and much of your nights. Yet there is this satisfaction: you may at times have doubts of the value to you for later life of the studies you are doing in Mathematics and Latin and Geography, but there can be no question of the value of a study of such a book as this. None of us is likely to spend his days alone under a palm tree on some far-distant Pacific atoll; we are all social beings and an important part of our training is to fit ourselves to take our place worthily in the society of our fellow-men. Everything we learn in school may be said to have some social importance, but no subject can claim closer attention from us as social beings than Christian Politeness.
To sum up what has been said of the various ways of regarding the principles or rules of correct social behaviour:
- We speak of politeness in the sense of behaviour which befits a social being.
- Courtesy is the gracious conduct worthy of the presence of a monarch and denotes an attitude of reverence for others.
- Manners are the habits, good or bad, that we have acquired in our social dealings with others.
- Chivalry is a generous readiness to be of service to others, especially women and those who are in need of help.
- Etiquette denotes the code of outward observances which custom or convention lays down for social intercourse