Manners were devised to create a mutual ground of equal advantage; a social playing field that acknowledges everyone as the winner.
After reading Jane Austen’s Emma for the umpteenth time, I was struck by an important aspect of this astute story: I was stunned by the exquisite manners. The gentle, refined, and authentic manners depicted in the story (and what manners are really all about) spoke directly to my heart! Those early 19th century mores were laid out before me as the model of everything we are sorely lacking in our society today.
Though she wrote her wonderful stories over two hundred years ago, her intricate tales of social interaction remain as relevant today as they were back then. In fact, her perspective seems astoundingly modern. Even in her own time, Jane Austen was considered the maven of social concerns in literature. She was, and for many of us still is, an expert on human nature and the politics of society. Miss Austen would not, therefore, be surprised to discover that we humans have not changed all that much. Unless, of course, we are speaking of our moral kindnesses, in which case, we have seriously declined in the modern era.
Good manners, truly genteel offerings, are not false presumptions or insincere nothings; they are, when correctly used, the very essence of true regard.
I am not alone in my observation of the state of things. Many modern authors and film makers have put forth spectacular characters that specialize in manners as a way of giving us the hint. J.K. Rowling, in her Harry Potter series, created the stellar wit and wisdom of Professor Dumbledore. He speaks divine truth, just as he is about to die, by politely greeting a viciously rude ex-student who jeers, “Think your little jokes’ll help you on your deathbed then? He replies “Jokes? – No, no these are manners”. I used the same line one Christmas season in Macy’s as someone puked out that I was being “nice” (read chump) because I let them rudely cut in front of me at the check-out counter. Reminding people to mind their manners is serious business these days – mostly because we have forgotten how.
Manners are the freedom to express joy and caring to your fellow travelers on this bumpy path of perdition that we call life.
So, what will help us to relearn the lost arts of politesse? Certainly not sports or reality television shows. Even still, there is a way to flex those flabby florets and flagging flourishes. Let us just call it exercising the instinct to do good. The most pronounced thing that I learned while reading Emma is that good manners, truly genteel offerings, are not false presumptions or insincere nothings. They are, when correctly used, the very essence of true regard. Manners are respect, admiration, and yes, love. More than just a please or a thank you, they are codified caring and human kindness. Neither exercised nor ignored to give others an advantage over us, or to humble anyone into obscurity, manners were devised to create a mutual ground of equal advantage; a social playing field that acknowledges everyone as the winner.
Manners are the language of philanthropic love, whether that translates into holding the door open at the bank for the person behind you, making direct eye contact with and smiling at your fellow pedestrians, saying “Good morning” to the sweaty teenager that just pushed past you in the grocery line, or giving a perfect stranger a quarter for the parking meter. Manners are the freedom to express joy and caring to your fellow travelers on this bumpy path of perdition that we call life. Whether you say “not at all” when someone remarks on your effortless giving, or you merely say “Thanks” and mean it, you are giving a gift that keeps on giving for generations to come. Like Jane Austen, you are passing forward an important legacy – human regard. You are evolving that love called manners. Ah, what a relief! Manners,lovely manners.
Martha Channer 2017