I’ve noticed in these last days leading up to Christmas that many of us have dispensed with our manners. Whether walking down the street, driving in the car, standing in the grocery line-up, or working out at the gym, people everywhere seem to be more focused on their own agendas rather than considerate behaviour.
Manners have an interesting history, particularly if you read English literature. One of the most well-known critics of ill-used manners was Jane Austen (1775-1817). Austen’s novels were known for their satirical outlook on the customs of fashionable English society at the turn of the nineteenth century. In Persuasion, one Austen character quips, “Good company requires only birth, manners and education and, with regard to education, I’m afraid it is not very particular.” The false pretenses that guided the manners of many of Austen’s upper class protagonists were frequently critiqued in her writings.
Later in the century, British Victorians were obsessed with manners. Books on etiquette abounded during a time when proper behaviour denoted social standing and class. Novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a master at capturing on paper the hypocrisy of those who feigned to be mannerly but whose actions were often at the expense of others. He frequently cast the socially respectable characters in his novels as contributors to the tyranny experienced by the poor.
Today, somewhere in between hypocrisy and the absence of manners, there is probably a place for making the comfort of others a consideration in our daily lives. Exhibiting good manners can transcend the barriers that separate us. It is a simple way to connect meaningfully and respectfully with strangers, even if it is for the briefest of moments.
So, this Christmas give up that space in the mall parking lot; stand aside for someone trying to negotiate their wheelchair through the crowds; be appreciative to service workers; consider others’ space when walking down the street; drive less aggressively; buy someone who is in need a cup of coffee; hold a door open for an elderly person; and slow down, not just at Christmas but year round. Otherwise, you may miss the opportunity to make someone’s day.