Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Do Manners Matter?

By Miranda Jacobs
     A few months ago, a girl held the door open for me to enter building 800.  Before my body made it halfway through the door, she scowled at me and angrily said, “You’re welcome.”  She became bitter and hostile the second she thought that she would not be rewarded for being kind to me.  The incident provoked me to analyze manners in a way which I had never analyzed manners before.  When we’re children, we’re taught to display manners.  We are not taught, however, to question the values of proper manners that our society holds. For example, most of us have been taught to thank others after they do something kind for us, and, consequently, most of us expect others to thank us after doing something kind for them.  But should we expect others to thank us?  My own answer to this question is no.
     You may be asking why we should even feel entitled to question manners. 

Last spring, my psychology teacher explained the difference between accepting societal values and questioning them.  She was teaching about the stages of moral development through the human lifespan.  The first stage is the pre-conventional stage and consists of children.  In this stage, children behave ethically out of beneficial gain and fear of punishment.  The second is the conventional stage, and consists of almost all adults.  In this stage, adults conform to societal values, and the appropriateness of social rules is not questioned.  The last is the post-conventional stage.  My psychology teacher said that, unfortunately, it is extremely rare that adults ever enter this stage.  In the post-conventional stage, individuals question and analyze societal values.  These individuals develop a sense of morality through moral evaluation and reasoning, and they view that all individuals may hold moral perspectives that differ from the conventional moral perspectives of society.  These are the kind of individuals that have led our society away from horrifying practices such as slavery and religious violence, both of which were a morally accepted part of society for thousands of years. 
      Now that I’ve explained the importance of questioning societal values, let’s move on to why getting mad when someone doesn’t thank you reveals egoism.  My psychology teacher explained that egoism means that people’s exertion of ethical behavior is motivated by self-interest.  Will it make them look like a good person?  Will people like them more?  Will people appreciate them more?  It’s the opposite of altruism, which is benefitting people solely for the good of human welfare and without expecting recognition.  Expecting anything at all, even a thank you, in return for acting kindly can be described as a way of saying, “I didn’t have to do that for you, but I did, so I think now it’s your responsibility to show your appreciation for me.”  This makes me wonder, what has become of our society when being treated kindly is a privilege?  If you help an old lady across the street, or push a person out of the way of a speeding car, hopefully, you did it because you cared.  And, hopefully, your concern afterward is about the well-being of the person, rather than about the fact that the person didn’t thank you for helping them.
     Criticizing others for not saying thank you also reveals arrogance.  When a person criticizes someone, they’re suggesting that they know what’s right and how it should be done.  Sometimes this is true, like when our teachers grade our essays.  But when it comes to abstract concepts such as morality, it’s somewhat arrogant for a person to assume that they’re the ultimate authority on it.  Moral values vary across the globe, and no one person or group of people is superior in their ideas of manners.  For example, southerners have a reputation for something called “southern hospitality,” which most southerners consider just plain and simple common courtesy.  I often hear people say things like, “I was brought up right and I know what polite is.  I was raised to have proper manners.”  But from my experience in other places such as Los Angeles and New Hampshire, many other Americans see this southern hospitality as unnecessary and sometimes even superficial.  I had a teacher that is a good example.  She told my class that we could call her by her first name because she grew up in an area where special titles didn’t indicate earned respect.  Saying sir and ma’am weren’t even common ways to address elders.  When she moved here, quite a few people made angry remarks to her and called her rude.  Well, she’s one of the kindest and most caring people I’ve known, and it’s disappointing that people can be so cruel to someone they’ve never met, just because they think they know what’s proper.
     Lastly, expecting a thank you for being kind reveals an inability to accept cultural diversity.  I witnessed this when I visited London for a study-abroad program here at Trident.  In the busy city of London, the streets and buildings are swarmed with people rushing in and out of doors throughout the day.  Londoners see holding doors open for people as a normal part of everyday life, and not as a special gesture of kindness that should be acknowledged.  Londoners rarely turn back to say thank you to someone that’s held the door open for them, and this was something that a couple of my classmates found difficult to cope with.  They considered Londoners to be rude and inconsiderate.       Many of my classmates understood that manners vary throughout the world, and these were the students who had a greater overall appreciation of London’s unique culture.  This experience led me to ask myself, should we consider acts of kindness to be something we do but certainly don’t have to do, or consider acts of kindness to be essential to the well-being of the human condition, just like food and water are?
     Throughout our entire lives, from childhood even through old age, we are constantly reminded to display proper manners by everyone around us: our parents, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.  And when we slip up, we’re almost always immediately criticized.  And our usual response to being criticized for bad manners is to apologize and make sure we display the proper manners next time.  We rarely question widely accepted rules and, unfortunately, we also rarely allow others to go about life as they please without feeling the need to tell them just what we think.  We are taught as children to say thank you and we grow up as adults to perceive this appreciative gesture as an absolute social order which must be obeyed and enforced.  The intellectually oblivious devotion to societal values has been a habit which has allowed millions of people over thousands of years to conform to the most horrifying societal norms that the human race has ever seen.  Although resentfully expecting a thank you after every act of kindness is not as extreme as supporting, say, slavery, both are undoubtedly caused by the same human error:  the lack of consideration for others and, above all, the lack of moral reasoning.


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