In many respects, manners have fallen out of style. Perhaps the implied inequality between persons giving and receiving courtesies convinced the dimwits who are incapable of grasping a concept of social relationship more complex than infantile fairness that courtesy per se is bad. Perhaps we congregationally decided that pop culture trivia is of greater importance to our heritage than conveying the basics of well-mannered behavior, or perhaps our increasingly narcissistic culture is simply incapable of comprehending the reasons for decency in the public sphere. Regardless, the point is not to catalogue the possible causes, but rather to observe the effect – manners are less likely to be observed today than in the past.
This effect is quite obvious. Watch an episode of Leave it to Beaver, read some Jane Austen, or visit your grandparents, and it’s evident that people spoke to each other and interacted with each other in decades past differently than we do now.
There are certainly advantages to a more relaxed etiquette. It’s great to wear jeans and a flannel to work. However, the case for manners is not predicated on the notion that all changes in etiquette are for the worse, and it does not rely on a false nostalgia for a bygone era. The good manners which we have largely forgotten were important ways to convey to someone that they, and not we, are important.
Picture two people sitting in a company meeting, one courteous and one slovenly. The first is sitting upright, looking at the speaker, and holding a pen. The second is slouching, smacking gum, and has forgotten his pen in preference for the phone he checks periodically. The contrast is clear: good manners in the first instance communicate to the person holding the meeting that the meeting (and the person holding it) is important, whereas the poor manners in the second case convey disinterest and lack of respect.
The respect for another person that good manners communicate is the primary case for revitalizing our antique etiquette, particularly in the workplace. A great many misunderstandings and disputes could be resolved or at least diminished if a foundation of mutual respect exists. Mutual respect can help us navigate difficult subjects like raises, layoffs, and promotions, or even something more intimate like religion or politics.
Incapable of demonstrating our respect for each other through a recognizable code of etiquette, we are reduced to reminding ourselves an each other that we are ‘tolerant.’ Tolerance (famously called by Chesterton ‘the virtue for those who have none’) has become the dominant mode, and we have even brought ourselves to the point where we celebrate our advanced tolerance as if it was a good in itself. At the same time, I can’t imagine that anyone would prefer to have a colleague say “I tolerate you” as opposed to “I respect you.”
For that reason, and because it is tremendously awkward to walk up to people and say “I respect you,” we should consider revitalizing good manners as a means towards a more civil, more inviting, and more productive workplace.