Manners for the modern world

From Salon:

Alford-460x307Rather than laying down a system of rules like such classic authorities as Emily Post, Alford sought to establish the premises on which good manners are based. “Manners,” as he defines them, are more fundamental than “etiquette” or “protocol,” which vary from culture to culture. Pointing with your finger is rude in Japan, while loudly slurping your noodles is de rigueur. Some African tribes honor visitors by spitting on them. Are there any universals? “I’d like to think that being modest about one’s achievements, and taking a newcomer in hand and explaining some of the peculiarities of a new setting to him, are both considered thoughtful acts around the world,” Alford writes, but even the appropriate methods for doing either change depending on where you are and whom you’re with.

I would also argue that manners can be relative within the mind of a single individual. An anecdote (for anecdotes are the very soul of books on manners): I recently witnessed a man on an elliptical trainer at my gym scold a woman on a nearby machine for taking a (very brief and soft-spoken) phone call that was obviously from a doctor. It’s true that cellphone use in that area can be annoying and is therefore prohibited, but this is the same man who favors everyone around him with an angry running commentary on whatever he’s watching on TV as he works out. “One of the more curious aspects of bad manners,” Alford astutely observes, “is that we almost never think that we ourselves have them.” Which is why, when it comes to politeness, the letter of the law matters far less than the spirit. What Alford finally concludes is that courtesy derives from “imagination” rather than a careful adherence to established rules or even simple empathy. “Good manners,” he writes, “are your ability to take on another person’s point of view regardless of your own.

More here.