Oscar-winning actress Celeste Holm once told an interviewer the story of the first day of shooting for “All About Eve”, one of my favorite films and probably the best screenplay ever written. Ms. Holm walked onto the set and, presumably in her usually perky way, wished everyone a good morning. Bette Davis, the great star of the picture, retorted, “Oh s*%t! Good manners.” While eschewing following Ms. Davis’ example with respect to vocabulary, I would argue that she does have a point, albeit not the one she probably intended.
Those of us possessing a more conservative view of the world often deride contemporary society for a lack of good manners. What we often do not consider is why we ought to behave well toward others in the first place, irrespective of what society says we ought to do. If being considered a good fellow, well-behaved and pleasant, is all we hope for, then we reduce our motivations to something approaching that of a trained animal, rather than a human being capable of higher motivations.
Last evening for example, I had to correct an error of the Federal government, because once again it had given me someone else’s property: i.e., it misdelivered the mail. This happens not infrequently in my neighborhood, and several times a week I receive mail for at least five different individuals who live in the area but not at my address. Thus, my neighbors and I often find ourselves having to deliver each other’s mail, since the Post Office is apparently incapable of employing people who are able to do their job properly.
The piece of mail in question was a postcard inviting my neighbor, whom we shall call Madame X., to a family reunion weekend. Before the reader assumes that I am intentionally reading someone else’s mail, I will explain that as a postcard not contained in an envelope, it was inevitable that I should see what the mail was about, before flipping the postcard over to check why it had been delivered to me. After realizing it was not my mail, but rather that of Mme. X., I walked over to her house, and pushed the postcard through the letter slot in her front door.
I have no way of knowing whether Mme. X. was happy to see this invitation – whether she immediately contacted the sender with her RSVP saying how excited she was to see all of her cousins again, or whether she tore up the postcard and threw it in the bin. What she did with the postcard does not matter to me in the slightest. What does matter is that she received something that belonged to her, as was intended; it is none of my business what she did with it subsequently.
Some would, of course, attribute action on my part to the exercise of good manners. However what society calls “good” manners provide no guarantee that we are, in fact, doing something that is actually “good”. For many years for example, it was considered good manners in this country to have black people and white people sit in different sections of a restaurant – that is, if the former were even allowed in the restaurant to begin with.
Ultimately one of the goals of good manners is to preserve the status quo, and as we can see from the preceding example this may not be a good thing. Particularly if they are not motivated by an embrace of the virtue of charity as necessarily trumping convention, good manners can be, paradoxically, a barrier to behavior that is actually “good”, rather than an aid to achieving it. We need to look further at the issue of intent, when we are acting in accordance with what are considered good manners, or criticizing those whom we believe are violating those standards.
We all know the old saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, which probably originated with St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Yet in a related vein, in “The Screwtape Letters”, C.S. Lewis argues that Hell is a place that has been built up, in part, by an exercise of good manners:
On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one’s superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one’s equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course “Dog eat dog” is the principle of the whole organisation. Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.
This is not to say, gentle reader, that either St. Bernard or C.S. Lewis are suggesting that we ought to go about being considered boorish all the time. Nor should it be the case that every time you give up your seat on the train to an elderly lady, that your first thoughts must necessarily rush to questions of eternal reward or damnation. Sometimes, doing something good for someone else and practicing good manners neatly dovetail.
However, if we do not put first and foremost our duty to treat others with the love and respect that we would hope to be treated, then all of our concerns over etiquette are little more than a Pavlovian response, which we have merely been conditioned to provide.