A Virtue not yet Gone with the Wind
It was a decade or so ago that I joined my daughter Katherine for an end of year school picnic for students and parents. Picnickers sat at picnic tables and on blankets on the ground, eating hand-packed lunches brought from home or McDonald's' fare brought by visiting parents. My daughter and I sat at a table along with her friends whose parents were not in attendance. She introduced me to her friends, a pair of sisters, and we had a lovely lunch and celebration of a school year completed.
I have loved all of Katherine's friends over the years and am grateful that she has had the blessings of friendship throughout her life. While all of her friends are well-mannered, I noticed immediately something special about the sisters. They were the most well-mannered children I had ever encountered. Our conversation was comfortable and polite, and the children's table manners were beyond reproach. In that very informal setting, their manners were appropriate for lunch with the queen or at the White House.
The sisters had obviously been taught manners so that good behavior had come to be natural for them. It wasn't something they appeared to be thinking about or tending to with effort. It was simply who these girls were, part of the way they interacted with others, something that was their norm. My parents taught me courtesy, and I taught my children, but I doubt that I or my siblings or my children ever made the impression these girls did that day in June years ago.
My daughter remained friends with the elementary school sisters throughout middle school and high school. I met the girls' family and saw family members from time to time. Like the girls, the parents were gracious and amicable. The girls had two brothers, with whom I never shared a meal, but who were consistently as polite and delightful as their family members. This family excelled not just in graciousness and courtesy. The parents worked hard and contributed to the community. The children developed talents and excelled in school. More than Choosing the Right Fork
Manners are sometimes seen as stuffy or stiff. We think of a scolding schoolmarm admonishing a student to say "Yes, Ma'am" or an unbearably dull garden party where everyone speaks as though from a script and talks only of the weather. We think of a too-formal dinner with too many forks and spoons and a row of stemware where people sit ramrod straight in their chairs, terrified of making a social gaffe. We think of a dreadfully boring period piece in black and white on public television where ladies and gentlemen speak in British accents, shocked at some silly supposed impropriety. This seems out-of-date or less than genuine.
But courtesy is far more than the correct choice of fork with which to eat salad. Courtesy is "showing politeness in one's attitude and behavior toward others." It is a way of interacting with the fellow beings with whom we share a world. Ideally, all members of the human family would live as brothers and sisters, and follow the Christian admonition to love one another. Many cultures have some version of the biblical Golden Rule, though not all apply it to those outside of tribe. The idea of treating others with consideration is the human ideal, but sadly, it is not the consistent human reality.
Humans are capable of great compassion, but human history is also one of war and violence and of inhumanity to one another. Conflict is the human norm, and we only rise above it when we call forth our better angels. Courtesy is part of that call to our better angels. Courtesy is a social lubricant. It provides us a blueprint for how to treat one another and helps us avoid and navigate the stickier of our interactions. Far from being stuffy, it is the job of manners to make everyone feel comfortable and to know what to expect. The Choice Melanie Made
In the classic Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett pines for Ashley, the husband of a friend, throughout much of the novel. The friend, ever sweet and gentile Melanie, throws a surprise party for her husband. As Scarlett goes about the business of distracting Ashley before the party, she engages him in conversation. She cries at one point, and he begins to offer her comfort. Onlookers catch the pair in an embrace. Scarlett knows the witnesses will spread the information, which they do. Scarlett is embarrassed and doesn't want to go to the party.
Scarlett's husband Rhett insists Scarlett go to the party and that she wear a bold, scarlet dress, believing Melanie has the right to throw Scarlett from her home publicly. Scarlett shows up in the dress, expecting her punishment. In a modern tale, Melanie or others would likely tell Scarlett off, and perhaps Melanie or a guest would throw a drink at Scarlett. Perhaps there would even be the ratings-grabbing "cat fight." At best, Scarlett might expect an icy welcome and an uncomfortable evening. Upon her entrance, Scarlett encounters the stares of the party-goers and an awkward silence. The audience waits.
Melanie breaks the tension of the moment, welcoming Scarlett warmly, taking her by the hand. Melanie had every right to be angry with Scarlett and to embarrass her in front of friends and to discontinue their friendship. No one would feel Melanie out of line had she firmly but politely asked Scarlett to enjoy an evening elsewhere and avoided social contact with Scarlett from that point. But what graciousness Melanie displayed in concert with humanity's better angels. Melanie is the embodiment of forgiveness.
Melanie had the option of making an evening unpleasant for a husband, a friend, and her guests. She chose, instead to give her husband the party she planned, her guests the evening they were invited to attend, and her friend an olive branch. And Melanie emerges one of the most graceful and dignified and genuinely good characters of the work and of American literature. We might note that some will take advantage of real-life Melanies, and that is so. But who among us would not appreciate the loyalty of a friend like Melanie? Valued by Civilized Men
September is National Courtesy Month, and most were likely unaware of this obscure observance as schools reopened, and summer turned to fall. But courtesy is a daily year-round lifeline for a civilization. Every day, week, and month ought to be Courtesy Day, Courtesy Week, and Courtesy Month. In a time of contention and even civil unrest, our nation is hungry for the waning virtue of courtesy. This virtue can ease tensions, allow friendship among political and philosophical opponents, and allow humans to live together in their diversity. "Etiquette...was all that mattered," reads Connie Brockway's All Through the Night. "Ideologies waxed and waned, religions developed and eroded, political parties rose and fell from power. Only courtesy remained one of the few things valued by all civilized men."