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Why Manners Developed   Leave a comment

This is Part 3 of a series – Manners in Medieval & Modern Society

We know where manners came from and how they spread, but do you ever wonder why a culture of manners arose when it did and why did it win such widespread and vigorous acceptance?

It’s natural for lower status folks to imitate higher status folks, so that explains why the middle class was eager to adopt the mores of the upper. Still, European aristocrats engaged in all sorts of practices that never caught on with the masses. Codpieces were never the rage with the peasants. Even if it makes sense for the lower classes to fall in line with their social betters, why would the upper classes have ever deined to practice their manners with the common people?

Economic/political/scientific changes to the structure of society began to arise in the Middle Ages onward, necessitated a change in society’s emotional/social structure. Up until the Middle Ages, people led relatively independent lives. The poor were bound to their lords, but made, grew, or bartered for all that they needed. Lords provided for themselves from their land, and could get anything they lacked simply by using force and riding roughshod over weaker neighbors. Neither class had to worry much about offending their peers. In truth, folks didn’t really think in terms of being grossed out by other people’s behaviors. It just wasn’t how they related to each other and structured their interactions. Their greatest “social fear” was to be physically attacked and defeated/humiliated/tortured/enslaved by a rival. Table manners just weren’t all that important in comparison.

For this reason, people of all classes could afford to be volatile with their emotions and impulsive in their behaviors. Feelings were given freer rein and swung spontaneously between great extremes. Life was so uncertain that people lived more in the moment, acting without regard to future consequences. You fully embraced whatever inclinations you were experiencing at the time.

But as ruling power was consolidated into fewer hands, and more stable governments were formed, people began to be connected in more and more intimate ways. Thus a new emotional/social landscape became necessary.

The right to exercise physical force became reserved for those legitimized by the central authority (army/police), which made the chances of encountering violence increasingly rare and predictable. More and more pockets of security and stability formed wherein population, productivity, living standards, and labor specialization went up. As a result, members of society became more and more

As a result, members of society became more interdependent. The longer and more complex the chains of connection that developed between individuals, the more the “civilizing process” — the march of manners — took hold.

The more a population increased in density, the greater the division of labor. The deeper the interdependence of society grew, the more people had to be aware of the sensibilities of others — giving people enough space and privacy, being careful not to offend, monitoring moods, and anticipating reactions.

The fear of physical attack was replaced with the fear of embarrassing oneself in front of others, and proper social conduct became a form of weaponry and currency. The fight for status and success was no longer carried out on the battlefield but in the realms of politics, economics, academia, and most of all, within oneself. Behavior was not checked by external force but internal control, and victory was redefined as the chance to rise in the world and achieve one’s aims. Thus, status increased for the man with the greatest self-mastery.

In an interdependent society, all classes are forced to treat each other with at least a basic level of respect.

While courtesy began as a hoity-toity code of behavior dictating how lower status individuals should act towards higher status ones, and how higher status individuals were to act with one another, it ultimately became a set of manners all classes were expected to follow, regardless of whom they were interacting with.

In a pre-civilized culture, might makes right as independent bands of the strong can treat the weak with impunity. But in a civilized culture, where only a few are authorized to exercise violence, you can’t bludgeon someone in the head when they annoy you, or egregiously trample over their rights. Even if you’re rich, strong, and powerful, you rely on a doctor, trash man, electrician, mechanic, etc., as well as a slew of consumer goods made by factory workers, for your life to function. Such folks aren’t your slaves or indentured serfs, so you can’t be completely rude to them and expect them to do whatever you want. They’ve got power now too; the power to walk away from an economic transaction.

For free market enterprises and government bodies to function and thrive, people need to act in stable and predictable ways and be able to exercise hindsight, foresight, and delayed gratification. They must be able to forward diplomacy instead of insults and violence. They must be able to put aside short-term impulses and plan for long-term goals.

Manners are essentially practices for these skills and qualities — ways to build your foresight and self-control each day. They force you to reflect and look ahead, predicting what kind of behavior will garner what kind of consequences. They make you put your short-term inclinations to the side sometimes. You wait your turn in conversation, so that the other person won’t interrupt you when it’s your turn. You wear your best suit to a wedding. Instead of grabbing food upon sight, you pause to say please and thank you. Rather than acting on impulse, you master your behavior.

Individual self-control is the price of democracy, and practicing manners is central to the development of this quality. Manners thus provided the scaffolding that helped move Western society from courtesy, to civility, to civilization.

Or in other words, manners made the modern world.

So given the behavior in our political climate and parking lots these days, it’s probably a good idea to ask — if matters made the modern world, could boorishness unmake it?


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