Manners in the Modern World

This is a continuation of the series, Morality in the Modern World, (start from the beginning here). The goal of this series is to promote a secular theory of ethics that all people can follow. Religion, though not without cons, was once a potent force in guiding its followers to good will. With religion deteriorating in the modern world, a void in moral theory has been created, and has allowed for some truly dumb ideas to gain traction. I aim to fill that void with a consistent, practical theory of what constitutes good and bad behavior.

The modern world has brought us technology that the men of old never could have imagined, but some innovations have brought unprecedented difficulties. The internet is a marvelous thing and creates almost endless opportunity. But the internet allows the user to be vocal whilst safely behind a screen. Such distance and anonymity helps save face from the immediate, very personal response one would normally get from being rude to someone face-to-face. And I think we can all speak from experience: our average online interaction is much more confrontational than the vast majority of real social interactions.

Jonathan Haidt, author of “The Righteous Mind,” makes a good argument as to why social media and the internet, despite allowing us an unlimited amount of information, can actually make us less receptive to new information. I will go into more detail on this later, but first, let’s talk about manners.

“I have said that manners are minor ethics. But in another sense they are major ethics, because they are, in fact, the ethics of everyday life. Every day and almost every hour of our lives, those of us who are not hermits or anchorites have an opportunity to practice the minor ethics of good manners, of kindness toward and consideration for others in little things, of petty sacrifices.”

— Henry Hazlitt, Foundations of Morality, pg 104

Manners are the ethics of everyday life. They are where we most often come in contact with morality. They are a code of unwritten, but nonetheless well understood, sets of precedents which help us avoid simple conflicts in everyday life. They are like a set of traffic rules, (just like I discussed in my first post), which help decide the simple dilemma of who goes first through a doorway.

But manners serve a purpose possibly even more important than traffic rules. Traffic rules allow us the freedom to smoothly get to work, but manners allow us the freedom to smoothly get to our car. Such simple dilemmas as who goes first through a doorway, left unchecked, would compound upon another to create disasters as equally perilous as cars piling up at an intersection.

Envision a world where you wake to find strangers lying on your living room couch, muddy boots dug into the fabric. As you walk out to your car, you find nearly a dozen people in offensive conversation, all leaning against your car while doing so, and they seem unfazed by your attempts to open the driver-side door. After finally making it to work, your coworker stands over your desk, staring at you for a prolonged period of time, eating, spilling crumbs and smacking his lips all the while. When you finally arrive home after a long day of not killing yourself, you discover that every passerby has gone into your house to use your toilet, of course, none of which flushed.

Such behavior would probably not cause the immediate deaths of others, but would quite understandably, lead to eventual mass conflict along with mass suicide. Fortunately such an ill-mannered world is never likely to exist, but it nevertheless illustrates its importance. Although manners may vary from place to place, there is still an underlying foundation beneath all of them, that of kindness, sympathy, and consideration for others.

It is true that some rules of manners can be unnecessarily tedious and only set in place by common tradition, such as understanding the difference between which fork to use at each meal. But there is a cost/benefit analysis that must be taken into account: What trouble can you assume be caused if you outright refuse to use the proper fork? Probably more trouble than simply using the correct fork. So there is a case to be made that, once certain rules are established, it actually makes for a smoother life to simply go along with them. However, one should always consider a cost/benefit analysis; if it causes an individual more trouble to follow along with such rules, then those rules should be revisited and revised.

Let’s venture on a tangent here regarding this idea of cost/benefit analyses. A passerby asks “how are you doing today?” You reply, “I’m fine, how are you?” but in fact you are not fine, you are feeling particularly sluggish and grim. You have just told a lie, something that should be avoided under most circumstances, but at what cost are you lying? You’ve avoided an unpleasant conversation about “not getting adequate sleep,” or your “cat just recently dying,” or how you “really don’t feel like dealing with people today.” In lying, you benefit both yourself and this passerby, whom is not responsible for your feelings and shouldn’t be handed such a burden. At the same time it saves you from appearing rude and inconsiderate. And we must remember that we have not really deceived anyone here; this passerby is aware of the unwritten rules of manners, he knows to take your words more as a friendly greeting rather than pure truth.

The truth should always be our greatest endeavor; but falsehoods can be acceptable under certain, commonly understood circumstances. Those who lie without principle whenever it suits them, are sure to have trouble.

As I stated before, it seems that a large portion of the internet is completely void of manners. The internet permeates a large percentage of daily life, which means a great deal of our social interactions can take place deprived of the petty sacrifices that make our lives smoother.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU, speaks in detail about this problem in his book, The Righteous Mind, which I do recommend reading. He claims that our brains are not designed to easily accept reason, and study after study has backed this claim. He illustrates the human brain as a man riding an elephant, with the man representing our guided reason, and the elephant representing our intuitions. When the man and elephant conflict, the elephant generally overpowers the man. Personal experience forces me to agree with Haidt.

Haidt claims that humans are not best persuaded by blunt facts; in fact they will immediately dismiss them if they think that the other party acts in ill-will. Haidt explains that blunt facts and rudeness can trigger people into a sort of combat mode, where the goal no longer becomes finding the truth, but simply to prove that the other party is bad. And so, people will resort to finding any evidence, regardless of logical accuracy, to defend their position- but mostly to prove once and for all, that the other person is a moron.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

— John C. Maxwell

The goal should be to avoid argument altogether. If you find yourself in an argument, you’ve already lost. The goal should always be to create a discussion, not a battle of defending one’s viewpoints. It’s possible to put people into a sort of discovery mode, where they can actually become receptive of your ideas. But you have to first establish common ground and build a relationship. The only way to do these things is to always instill good manners in every conversation. Instead of creating a situation where you say, “you’re wrong,” create a situation where it seems as though both you and the other party are trekking in search of the truth, as if to say, “it seems as though we’ve found a conundrum in the world; will you help me solve it?”

And so, I think we’ve built a solid case for why bad manners are mad morals. Bad manners do not help create a productive communication or a more well-off society. The only effect of bad manners is stifling curiosity, raising defensiveness, and fogging the truth.

I think the best resource to learn about dealing with people is the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. This book has had a profound effect on my life, and I personally believe public schools should teach a mandatory class on this book.

For further reading, check out my post 4 Steps to Having a Proper Political Discussion.

More in this series:

Morality in the Modern World
I Did a Good Thing But Only to Make Myself Feel Good
How Much of Your Stuff Belongs to Me
Common Ethical Dilemmas
The True Purpose of Justice and Punishment

Satisfying my endless curiosity, and maybe yours too | Web Developer | Data Scientist | Praxis Alumni