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Jewish World Review / July 16, 1998 / 22 Tamuz, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg In defense of manners

THERE ARE SOME FRILLS that are not frills but are of the essence. They are mistaken for frills only by those ignorant of their significance. That is what seems to have happened to manners.

The manners of a society are its hallmark, its glue, its ritual, the medium in which it thrives or withers. To the thoughtless, manners are superficial; to the thoughtful, they reveal the substance of a society. In a culture as diverse as this one, they make it possible for very different people to live together in mutual consideration. Even more important, they make it possible for people to preserve their individual differences by adopting a common code that shields all. Manners are tolerance codified, patience embodied, kindness made the standard in small things so that it may grow to govern the great ones. Manners are the outward fruition of an inner discipline. Valuable in themselves, they provide an invaluable example in other realms of thought and conduct.

Manners give all permission to be kind, freeing us to do our best for each other. Manners should not constrict but open personalities, in the way a common language guides all its speakers to new and eloquent heights. Manners make us self-conscious in the best way; they can make a small act a great one, and make great acts delicate ones. The best manners are not rigid but the instruments of a happy and gracious flexibility.

Manners are also boundaries, the kind only barbarians transgress ignorantly. A gentleman has been defined as someone who would never insult another unintentionally. Manners are an example of the kind of restraint that frees, which is part of their mystery.

But this is an age not receptive to mystery. There must be a rationale, preferably practical, for the beautiful, the kind, the restorative. The headline over a story about teaching manners at a local elementary school reads: "Good Manners Can Make One More Attractive and Liked" --- which has the ring of "Honesty Is the Best Policy." As if the intrinsic worth of a practice had to be justified by some good result. An for practicality's sake.

Very well. There is no end of good reasons for manners: They are an eloquent means of communication, a highly efficient way of doing things, and a steadying reminder that we are all civilized here and intend to remain so. They are a way of putting each other at ease and, when necessary, not too much at ease. They are both emblem and essence of society, region, culture, family --- all of which they undergird and broaden. That is why it should be of panicular concern to a society, a region, a culture, or a family when manners fade or are never learned. Not just a legacy is being lost but a future. Manners are a thing of beauty and use.

Manners are an art as well as a science, an applied art that consists of more than the sum of its rules. Who has the best manners? The one who best puts the rest of the company at ease, according to one old standard.

Manners are the sacraments of society, focusing attention on the ordinary and so elevating it to the extraordinary, hallowing the mundane. They are perhaps the best evidence of Thomas Jefferson's theory about a natural aristocracy among humanity. I have seen cowboys around a campfire, a slightly drunken peasant in a Mexican border town, a harassed waitress in a beer joint, a field hand by the side of the road...all display manners that can only be described as exquisite, and, yes, I've also seen the well dressed and well coiffed Upwardly Mobile act like louts. To see in which direction a society is headed, there may be a better guide than the laws it passes, or even the songs it sings: the manners it practices. As Wallace Stevens said of mythology, manners do more than reflect the region that produces them; they are of its substance, "wood out of its forest..."

All of this is why it was assuring to read about the volunteer in the Pine Bluff public school system who is teaching manners to second graders at Forrest Park. Behind all the rules in the Good Manners restaurant inaugurated in that classroom, there is a history, a purpose, a way of life. In the Good Manners restaurant, gentlemen open doors for ladies, rise when ladies enter a room, and let ladies go first.

No one eats till all are served and, very important, voices are lowered in conversation so that those at nearby tables are not disturbed.

Perhaps if all students received this kind of attention in the second grade, more schools could avoid the barbaric practice of forbidding conversation in the cafeteria during mealtimes. It's called Quiet Time, a euphemism for Shaddup Time, and is said to be practiced a couple of times a week in some local schools-right here in Pine Bluff, in what is left of The South. This sort of thing, which is only one small symptom of the new barbarism, won't be extirpated simply by expressing horror. It will have to be replaced by something better, like civilized conversation. That institution and recreation is coming back, at least in one grade of one school.

Let's hope the rebirth of manners will spread throughout the school system and far beyond -- the way fresh green grass will in fertile Southern soil -- if it is nourished and weeded. The sight of these students and teachers bringing back civilization is enough to renew the rest of us. Thank you.

Reprinted with permission of the author from Entirely Personal (University Press of Mississippi).


7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Paul Greenberg. Reprinted from Entirely Personal