Is a polite, well-mannered person actually at a disadvantage in today’s society? One of my readers sent me this article by Robert Scruton, “Real Men Have Manners,” which discusses this interesting point.
It would seem that the answer is “yes.” People who adhere to the old, rigid rules which govern the realm of manners cannot, by the very nature of manners, be first in line. They cannot pursue the cut-throat practices that so many of us have encountered in business today. They also struggle to create the informal business relationships that millennials seem to constantly encourage.
Why? Because manners require some distance and formality. They require giving up your seat and helping the elderly; in short, they require putting others first. I will admit sometimes as Americans the formality and ceremony of manners can seem strange to us. We hear stories of Japanese etiquette which dictates toilet slippers must be worn (http://www.askmen.com/top_10/travel/top-10-japanese-etiquette-mistakes_7.html), even when in a public place. But the ceremonial and formal aspects of manners are what made them so easy to follow. Everyone knew what was expected of them and a person was shamed publically if they did not adhere to these standards. Some of you will no doubt be shouting “Outrageous!” at this point. What about individual expression and personal freedom? Choosing your own path, marching to your own drum? What if I were to tell you that social shaming is actually seeing a revival? Some types of public shaming include: Passenger Shaming , State Sponsored Shaming and even Dog Shaming. The trouble is that many of these are passive-aggressive forms of shaming; they do not directly tell the person what they are doing wrong at the time the action is taken.
Informality Over Manners:
I would agree with Roger Scruton in stating that this is because manners have been replaced with informality: “Thus arises a substitute for manners that, while it generates an inferior ideal of human life, nevertheless enables us to avoid the worst of our frictions. This substitute is informality.” Which I would argue forces us into the passive-aggressive behavior displayed on social media sites. We must pretend that things do not bother us, or that we hold someone in a higher regard than we actually do, for the sake of informality. It would be as if you invited a stranger in declaring, “Oh don’t worry, we’re pretty informal around here,” and then the person props up their muddy shoes on your coffee table. You can’t really get mad; how was this person to know what the rules were? You might say, “But that’s just rude!” I would agree, based on the standards of an old code of manners.
Culture of Personality:
Informality also encourages and creates the culture of personality we live in today. I love the explanation that Susan Cain gives in her talk about the Power of Introverts (also given to me by a reader, thanks JoAnn). Susan explains that because we spend so much time dealing with strangers our society now emphasizes personality over character, because we value charismatic easy-to-know people. This is a distinct change from the Culture of Character that we had before informality and personality became so encouraged. I don’t think it’s a necessary one either. One reason why we are now focused on personality is because we are forcing ourselves to make snap decisions about a person. People in cities today cannot possibly know everyone and so frequently we must deal with strangers in our business and personal lives. We have developed tools to help ourselves, such as Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau for example. Most of the time these tools are supplemental; usually we meet the person and have to decide by the end of the meeting if they are someone we want to work with.
How to Make Real Connections with Real People:
I would like to see a shift away from informality and personality and instead have manners and character be the primary sources of our culture. So let’s start by using these methods to make real connections with people of character:
- The next time you feel yourself drawn to someone new, a co-worker or a stranger on the street, ask yourself why. Is it their personality? Did you observe anything in their actions that might indicate a poor character? What did they spend time talking about? A good book? A project? Themselves? How irritating their spouse is? By teaching yourself to look for character over personality you are less likely to be swayed by charisma and cheap talk.
- Build relationships with people before you will need their services. If you think in the future you might need to work with a real estate agent, lawyer, banker, doctor, etc. Start looking to connect with them now. It is important that you recognize and build relationships with good business people in your community. Join a networking group with the intention of building relationships with good people of character and see how your business relations improve.
- Identify people of character in your social groups and spend more time with them. Susan Cain tells us that we emulate the people that we spend time with. Therefore, if you want to be a person of character you must spend time with people of character. If you’re seeing more personality than character in your social groups, then it’s time to look elsewhere.