“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.” – Emily Post
As Emily Post, the guru of good manners, acknowledges, it’s what’s inside that counts. It is possible to conceal a core of evil behind a smiling facade. A woman can be sweet and pleasant to your face and then figuratively stab you in the back with hurtful words. A man of “good-breeding” can politely send millions to their deaths in the misguided name of ethnic cleansing. These are moral infants who have never grown beyond the outward show of good manners to the internalised virtues that they are designed to represent.
A truly virtuous person has learned to value the underlying virtue over the external form of manners, without neglecting or devaluing the manners themselves. André Comte-Sponville, in A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, encapsulates this by saying, “It is better to be too honest to be polite than to be too polite to be honest,” valuing the virtue of honesty over the external show of politeness. Compte-Sponville is not advocating rudeness here, but just that we learn how to value truthfulness.
As an illustration, sometimes honesty means acknowledging our own limitations. How often do our lives get too busy because we are too polite to say no to people who ask favours of us? A frankly spoken “no” could save us from much bigger problems like resentment and burnout.
The value of internal virtue is also the lesson of Jesus when his disciples were caught handpicking grain to eat on the Sabbath, which was illegal. He rebuked their accusers with a quotation from the Scriptures saying:
“If you had known what these words mean ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” – Matthew 12:7 (NIV)
According to the outward form of the law, the hungry and roadweary disciples were in the wrong, but Jesus valued their health and comfort above the strict letter of the law. He excused them without ever devaluing the law itself.
The law is an outside imposition, a schoolmaster, what philosopher Emmanuel Kant calls an “external constraint,” to teach people right and wrong through obedience. The real goal has always been that we would develop a true compass within us, guiding the way to right behaviour. This requires self-discipline and a lifetime of practice, which is why we teach manners to children.
We never outgrow the necessary social lubricant of politeness. But that must not be all that we have to live by. Good manners are meaningless without empowering virtues like the respect that indwells every “please,” the gratitude that inhabits each “thank you,” and the compassion that must infuse every sincere “I’m sorry.” In all of our dealings, we should strive to be driven by these internal values. In addition to teaching our children the outward form of good manners, we must teach them the respect for others that is much more important.
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