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“Manners are the happy way of doing things” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
IF SOMETHING MAY BE DONE IN MORE THAN ONE WAY, POLITENESS MEANS CHOOSING THE MORE GRACIOUS WAY OF DOING IT. Nearly everything we do has an impact on somebody else, and being polite is simply one way of making our impact as pleasant as possible. For example, the act of chewing one’s food can be accomplished with one’s mouth open or closed. But the inside of the human mouth, especially when there’s food in it, is not a very attractive sight, and so to make our table mates’ experience more pleasant, we spare them the sight of our open mouth. George Washington, who learned early about how human influence works, wrote this in his copybook when he was sixteen years old: “Put not another bite into your Mouth till the former be Swallowed, and let not your Morsels be too big for your Mouth.” That’s a “happy way” of doing things at the table!
The rules of etiquette are not arbitrary, and before we discard them, we might do well to consider that these are time-tested ways that have been proven to have some value. The fact that some people carry them too far doesn’t mean they have no usefulness at all.
Some people who flout the conventions of politeness do so because they think their rudeness projects a certain kind of strength or bravado. But the truly strong don’t need to be impolite. As Eric Hoffer observed, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”
Nor is politeness insincere or pretentious. “Politeness is the art of selecting among one’s real thoughts” (Madame de Staël). Not everything we truly think needs to be spoken out loud, and even when tough truths need to be communicated, politeness will make us want to balance our courage with a healthy measure of consideration.
The bottom line is this: politeness looks out for the other person’s best interests. It wants the other person to have as pleasant an experience as possible. So good manners are just a way of showing courtesy and kindness to those around us. And while the difference between the polite and the impolite may sometimes seem too small to be significant, that’s not an argument for discarding the idea of politeness. In fact, it may be the little acts of politeness that matter the most.
“Never come between anyone and the fire” (Wabasha).