Manners Maketh Man ... especially when they begin at home
We all like good manners in other people. Who has not had their heart warmed by a graciously-written note, sent to thank you for a much-appreciated dinner invitation? We all love the friend who drops by, finding us in a mess but looking as if she didn’t see it – nothing in her face or her conversation indicates she even noticed it... We all appreciate pleases, thank yous and the use of respectful Mr and Mrs on the part of the young. And we all loathe the greedy snatcher who reaches right across us at the table to grab the best piece of fruit for himself. Let’s face it, good manners go a long way to ease the path of social interaction. They make life more pleasant for those with whom we live; and they make it easier for people to love being with us. Lack of manners can make it much harder for a person to like you. I vividly remember an older friend tartly remarking (she had just spent the weekend with an ill-mannered family of children) – “you get a lot of mileage out of manners, you know”!
Some of us tend to view the whole subject of manners a bit cynically. They’re just turned on by other people to manipulate you into doing what they want, you might think. Certainly, they’re recommended in just this way in many business training programmes. It’s true – not having good manners in the work place can lose you a promotion – or customers. Corporate etiquette is quite a science – it pays to understand it if you want to go places! Others of us might see good manners as some sort of mysterious code that separates the “in” crowd from those outside it – and be quite turned off the whole subject. To you, they’re just a tool of snobbery with which you want nothing to do. Fair enough: those who use manners like that are simply being arrogant, and even cruel. But I’d like to suggest that manners are an important part of the Christian’s walk in this world; and that cultivating them at home is a great blessing mothers and fathers can bestow on their children.
Manners in a modern world
I began to think about this subject more particularly in June last year, when an article in Notebook magazine by Gretel Killeen caught my eye. Gretel was lamenting the decline of manners in the modern world. Judging by her photo, she’s certainly not a grizzly old moaner complaining about the younger generation. No, she’s young and with-it ... but the difference between her and the mannerless world she’s lamenting is, it seems, that her mother taught her decent manners ... “When I was little we were raised to have ‘good manners’. We weren’t necessarily happy or interesting, but ... we were polite. This etiquette indoctrination is my earliest memory. It continued fiercely through my childhood and adolescence until manners are now so ingrained in my psyche that I want to punish those who don’t possess them ... but ironically I don’t do this because I think humiliating people is rude.”
Gretel has a pretty good grasp of what good manners look like – her article abounds in examples of both polite behaviour and rudeness. It is good manners, she writes, to ... help the elderly across the street, to say please, thank you and excuse me; to refrain from eating until the last person at the table has been served; and to send a handwritten card rather than an email to someone in deep distress. It is rude, on the other hand, to wear jeans to the opera; to overstay your welcome; to lean across someone; to laugh loudly or push in. But Gretel is a child of the postmodern, relativistic era, and has noticed that what is rude in one culture may be politeness in another. Are manners, then, just a matter of where you grew up, and who your parents were? Somehow, I don’t think she wants to say this, exactly – but unbelievers lacking a system of values based on absolute truth always have a problem here. In the end, after asking herself the question – what is rude? Gretel is forced to answer “...I suspect I might think everything’s rude unless I’m doing it.” 1
This is the conundrum everyone has in an age of do-it-yourself ethics. How do I know if something’s right or wrong? It’s right if it’s right for me. Now, we all know that’s a very unsatisfying basis for morality; and most unbelievers are uncomfortable with it too, once you start pressing them a little. But where do we Christians start? Vague ideas of manners and politeness aren’t sufficient for us, either. What is the basis of a proper code of manners for a Christian? How do we know that our concept of table manners, social etiquette and conventions for ceremonies like weddings, funerals and the like aren’t just mindless tradition or la-di-dah snobbishness? Well, we have to go back to the Bible, don’t we, and search for the foundational principles of social conduct. Here we find plenty about the way we should treat each other.
Finding a biblical beginning
Finding the biblical root of good manners is an exercise in the working-out of “good and necessary consequence” (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:6). We do not find a list of specific teachings about politeness in the Bible. But we do find plenty of ground-level principles on which to build a code of manners. Obviously, love is the beginning. If we love our brother, sister or neighbour, we will want to treat them with courtesy, kindness, and gentleness, for instance. Take 1 Peter 3:8, where Peter is summing up a series of instructions on living a godly life in all kinds of relationships. He writes (in the King James translation):
Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous...
That last word, courtesy, is translated as “humble in spirit” in the NASB and some other versions, and perhaps helps us get at the root of the idea Peter is conveying. Courtesy, the idea we most often associate with manners, is a desire to put others first. We must put aside our own selfish inclinations – be they laziness, greed, a thirst for honour, privilege or respect – and give preference to others in our lives. What would they like to do? What would make them comfortable? Happy? What would they like to eat? What would make them feel welcomed? Quite often, giving them preference will involve giving them things we may have wanted for ourselves (including our time or listening energy) – but the well-mannered person (as guided by biblical principle) gives them up to the other person.
The Bible abounds in examples of gracious, polite, and considerate behaviour. You can see it especially in hospitality. Paul, as a prisoner, was treated “kindly” by the Roman centurion, Julius, at Sidon on his way to Rome (Acts 27:3). Shipwrecked at Malta, Paul was entertained “hospitably” by Publius, the chief man of the island (Acts 28:7). But you can also learn the principles from negative examples. There is the well-known story of “harsh and badly behaved” Nabal, the wealthy husband of Abigail, who famously declined to offer hospitality to David’s men in 1 Samuel 25. He refused to put himself out and pretended not to know David or his men – they were nobodies, unworthy of his notice. That was to cost him his life in the end.2
Now, if we think all this through at the level of our own everyday lives, certain things about manners become clearer. They are all about putting the other person first. They are all about doing what serves his or her interests. What does this look like, by way of more detailed application? Let’s take just one example – perhaps what we tend to think of first: table manners. Many of us see table manners as somewhat weird and esoteric; having to do with strange things like butter knives and mysterious rules about which pieces of cutlery you should use for which course of the meal, and so on. Well, I don’t know what things your mother and father taught you, but I thought it may be useful to take some simple examples of table manners, and consider the “others first” principle behind them. As my maternal grandfather once told me when I was little: “My dear, eating is a disgusting habit. Table manners make it bearable.”
So, if we’re to make eating at the table not only bearable, but an enjoyable experience for those we sit with, what are some things we should and shouldn’t do? Let’s first consider the negatives. What are some “horrors” to avoid? You could consider visual horrors, such as chomping with your mouth open; or shoveling food in so fast that some of it hangs out of your mouth, requiring a few extra shoves to stuff it in. Then there are audible horrors, like burping, chewing loudly, or crashing your knife and fork together loudly in mid-air. Tactile horrors might include eating with your elbows stuck out so widely that they push your neighbour’s arms; or stretching right across in front of someone to grab food further down the table. Hygiene horrors would, you think, be obvious – but some don’t seem to “get” it, do they? Sticking your knife into your mouth, then a few minutes later using the same instrument to slice yourself more of the communal butter – or sticking it into the jam pot – think how that may affect the onlooker’s appetite! Or how about licking all your fingers, shortly before picking up plates, containers, and anything else that other people have to touch? SARS and H1N1 had, I thought, taught us to know better ... Finally, there are greedy horrors, which include thoughtlessly taking the last piece of anything on a plate without first asking who else at the table would like it. Or taking the lion’s share of a dish on offer, mindless of how many others have not yet had theirs. And if we went on to consider some positive applications, we could think of things like noticing whether your neighbour needs something, and asking him whether he would like you to pass it. Or offering her food or drink before you serve yourself. A good host makes sure that conversation flows well, that his guests have everything they might need or want, and certainly that no one is overlooked when it comes to sufficient of everything, or second helpings. Probably you’ve had very little trouble working out that table manners, like all branches of manners, are based on the principle of consideration of others. And on kindness and generosity. Sometimes good manners simply mean tactful obliviousness of others’ bad manners! Gretel Killeen quotes “Anonymous”, who succinctly remarked, “Hospitality is making your guests feel at home even if you wish they were.”
Naturally, the best place to learn all these kinds of things – both the principles and their applications – is at home. Mother and father are the best teachers of love, consideration, generosity and forbearance. What better way of ensuring your children become kind hosts, gracious guests – and a blessing to be near?