Although I am not conspicuously well-behaved myself, I have a longstanding scholarly interest in the history and philosophy of the etiquette of what we laughingly call "Western Civilization."

Thus, I am currently reading a book with the title The Polite World. It is carefully though not lavishly furnished with illustrations, some of which date back to the medieval period, of correct deportment.

What continues to strike me as I read more deeply into subject is the utter and elaborate pointlessness of all rules of demeanor, outside the times and places in which they are deeply meaningful. This odd pointlessness seems to undermine the common claim that politeness is basically about consideration for others. If it were really about such a universal principle, why do the strict rules of yesteryear seem so unintuitive and irrelevant?

Well, lots of things are arbitrary and pointless outside of their context. I rarely put square brackets around words when I talk, for example. When I do, people look at me funny. Funnier than usual, I mean.

But here's why people might get offended (I assume this is obvious to Deborah and most of her nine-hundred-odd sisters, but certain elements of the studio audience may not be enlightened, and I hate to let a rhetorical question go unanswered): When you say "Please pass the salt", you're making some arbitrary sounds which will be understood by speakers of English: They'll understand that you want the salt, and because you said "please" they'll understand that you're being nice about it. When you use the right fork, you're making some arbitrary motions which will be understood by speakers (so to speak) of fork ordering: They'll understand that you've taken the time to learn the rules and that you respect them enough not to offend them, either deliberately or through sheer brutish apathy. Here's another one: When you refrain from bogarting the joint, your fellow shiftless idlers will understand that you respect them enough not to, uh, "kill their buzz" or whatever those crazy kids say these days1. If they're the kind of shiftless idlers a man can depend on, they'll appreciate it.

It's all information. It's all arbitrary and it all means something.

1 I've seen several disquisitions on marijuana etiquette around here (Rituals of Marijuana has a few good ones). There are more purely arbitrary examples than the "bogart" thing.

Someone once told me that good manners are the oil which lubricate the engine of society. I'm not sure who, it might well have been my mother, although it doesn't sound like one of her metaphors.

Yes, they are rituals, and yes, many of them are, on the suface, pointless. However, they serve a dual purpose.

Firstly, as Wharfinger says, etiquette and good manners prove that we have taken the trouble to learn the rules and conventions that will avoid offending people. And that does show respect and consideration for others. It's the acquisition and application of the rules that are important, not what those rules are -- after all, why in chess does the knight move the way it does? It is pointless -- but it's the rules, and if you don't know them, nobody will want to play chess with you.

The second purpose is more subtle. Good manners allow you to interact with people you would rather not spend time with, but who you are forced by circumstances to encounter. The hideous screeching woman one of your best friends has fallen for, your boss' pompous husband, your irritating young cousin. Manners and etiquette provide you with phrases to speak, and constraints to prevent you from saying what you might like to, preserving harmony and avoiding conflict, in situations where any such conflict might be damaging -- to relationships with friends, your family, to your career, whatever, and where being open and honest will have no long term benefits. After all, you may never have to see the person you dislike again, or only occasionally, and for short periods, so what do you gain from voicing your dislike? The polite conventions give you something to say, so you don't cause offence by ignoring someone, but don't lead you into conversations of substance where your feelings about the other person become apparent.

The point of ettiquette isn't the superficial actions you undertake, it's the deeper significance of the fact that these actions exist to help everything run smoothly

Manners, especially "please" and "thank you", have a lot to do with anthropology. In hunter gatherer societies, it is commonly rude to thank someone. Hunter gatherer societies must share because resources like hunted animals are not very easy to depend on. This variability is reduced by sharing within tribes. You thank them because you do not completely EXPECT it of them. Today, thanking is sometimes used very differently. For example, "thank you for not smoking." Or to apologies without taking blame: "Thank you for waiting" ... um, my pleasure. Manners are commonly tools used to justify how our society works.

One function of etiquette, and perhaps one of its earliest documented forms, at least in Western Civlization from the Middle Ages onward, was to distinguish the rich and titled from the poor. This became especially important after the the collapse of feudalism, when nobility and wealth no longer automatically coincided. In order to tame the pretensions of the nouveaux riches, aristocrats surrounded themselves with a strict etiquette which no person risen from the people could learn without years of study (aristocrats generally had childhood to learn all this). Many of the "manners" that we take for granted were invented precisely to distinguish those in the know from the ignorant.

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