Have Our Manners Gone To Hell?

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All of us have encountered surly check-out cashiers, come up against uncivil civil servants, and witnessed rude public behavior. The couple behind us who talk through the entire movie. The stranger who lets the shop door slam in our face. The driver who steals our parking space. We often hear—and voice—the complaint that bad behavior is on the rise, that chivalry is dead. But are Americans really less polite than ever? Are manners in perpetual decline from some golden age of civility? Are there, as etiquette advisers like Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) have argued, eternal and unchanging rules for proper behavior?

John Kasson, who teaches American history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, says not. His book Rudeness & Civility , published by Hill & Wang, is a study of manners and etiquette from the first colonies to today. His findings challenge the conventional wisdom.

“I don’t think there is an absolute standard of manners that is durable,” he said during a recent interview in his Chapel Hill home. “People have always felt manners are going downhill. There are always jeremiads about how the new generation isn’t matching up to the old one’s standards. You can find it as early as Socrates talking about how the younger generation no longer keeps up the standards of their fathers. Manners, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.”

That is not to say that Professor Kasson is an ill-mannered fellow. Far from it. Though a Midwesterner by birth—Muncie, Indiana, in 1944—the soft-spoken, politely gracious scholar seems quite comfortable in Chapel Hill, a university town set amid forested hills, where the bustle of intellectual pursuits is tempered by a measured Southern pace of life. A graduate of Harvard who did his postgraduate work at Yale, he has made his home here since 1971. It was while writing a previous book on American popular culture— Amusing the Million , a study of turn-of-the-century Coney Island—that he became intrigued with the history of American etiquette.

Standards of manners, Kasson contends, reflect the political, economic, and social realities of their day. In the sixteenth century, for instance, young noblemen being trained for the chivalric courts of Europe had to be taught not to sniff at their food, blow their noses on the tablecloth, or relieve themselves in the corner of the dining area. Were even the most casual of today’s Americans to visit a New York theater of the 1830s, they might well be shocked by the boisterous clamor of the “gentlemen” in the (all-male) audience, who might interrupt their visiting with the prostitutes in the balcony to show their displeasure at the performers by hurling dead animals onto the stage.

Then again, even the most well bred of today’s Americans might be taken for boors if they attended a dinner party in New York or Boston in the 1880s. As a saying of the day went, “Brutes feed. The best barbarian only eats. Only the cultured man dines.” And woe betide him who mistook his ramekin fork for his berry fork—or was so vulgar as to give any sign that he was even enjoying his food.

Manners change with the times. For the historian, tracing those changes through time is rather like “looking for salt in the sea,” Kasson says. “It’s everywhere, but it’s hard to find it and crystallize its forms.” In his research he made his way through scores of old etiquette books and pored over the travel accounts of European visitors to America. He read descriptions of everyday behavior in memoirs and novels, newspaper columns and theater programs. He had as a rough guide two landmark studies of manners—Arthur M. Schlesinger’s 1946 Learning How to Behave and The Civilizing Process by the historian Norbert Elias, published in Germany in the 1930s but not translated until the late 1970s. Kasson found that for most historians manners have been “more a subject of anecdotes than a topic for serious study,” a situation he and a few other scholars are just now beginning to address.

To understand how and why manners have changed, Kasson says we must go back to the European courts of the late Renaissance, where young nobles learned such fine points of table manners as how to check to see that their seats had not been fouled before they sat and then how to sit so as not to display their private parts to fellow diners. These may be extreme examples, but they are also indicative of a society in which more elaborate rites of behavior were largely unnecessary. They bespeak a patriarchal, rankordered society in which one’s status was fixed at birth, automatically conferring upon the great lord or lady qualities of virtue, beauty, intelligence, and refinement believed unattainable by those of lower station. All members of this society knew their places in it, recognized their superiors and inferiors, and openly displayed their ranks in how they spoke, what they wore, and what they did.