I wear hats. I have ten at last count and six caps, not counting baseball caps, which I almost never wear. I grew up wearing hats. I am the fourth son of a member of the last generation of men who always wore hats.
Growing up I learned the following things about hats: you take them off when you go inside; you either touch the brim or take them off when you meet a woman you don’t know or a friend; you never, ever wear them inside. My wife thinks I’m nuts because I carry my hat to the door, put it on, and then promptly take it off again when I get into the car. But I just feel uncomfortable wearing a hat indoors. As to taking my hat off when I meet a woman, I’ve kind of given that up, because it seems just kind of – outdated. Most women under the sixty look at me like I’m nuts if I take my hat off anyway.
Now the reason I’m thinking about hats, is not so much the hats, but the little rituals that go with – or at least, went with – wearing hats. When to wear one. Who to take it off to. When not to wear it. These little ceremonies, if you like, had to do with good manners. Like holding the door open for someone. Or pushing their chair in when they sit down. Calling a man “sir” and a woman “ma’am,” especially if you don’t know their name. All of these things are marks of respect.
Manners, it has been said, are the grease that makes the wheels of society run smoothly. Showing respect isn’t kowtowing to power, it’s showing that you are willing to treat people politely. Polite comes from the Latin, politus: polished; made smooth. Like well greased. A synonym of polite is civil. Also from the Latin, civis, a citizen. In other words, polite means how people in society get along. Basically it means, treating everyone the same. Treating everyone the way you expect to be treated. The way you want to be treated.
In other words, not being a dick.
Manners, however, are out of fashion. I’m not sure why this is so, but frankly I blame myself and members of my generation. Back in the sixties, there was the idea that “letting it all hang out” and “being true to yourself” was all important. As I recall, there was also a lot of talk about loving everybody, too. Somehow that got forgotten in the “be yourself” culture. Then, in the seventies and eighties, there was this idea that society didn’t exist; that we were a multitude of individuals, each out for himself. Greed, it was said, was good. Success was the goal, and if being polite got in the way, throw it out. All that stuff just gets in the way of being true to yourself.
Besides, if we’re all equal, only the strong survive. Fight for the right to be… whatever the hell you want.
This idea was right up there with the “alpha wolf” concept, which I have written about before. And it works, too. If what you want is hell.
What it doesn’t work for is any kind of functioning society. You know, where people aren’t fighting each other for enough to eat? For the kind of society where we get to something like civilization, we have to rub along together, and in order to keep the friction of rubbing along to a minimum, we need manners.
Now the point is, I suppose, you have to learn manners. I was not born knowing to take my hat off indoors. Likewise, as any child minder will tell you, there is a stage of child development where teaching kids to share is necessary, and that learning the basic “Do as you would be done by” has to begin. In other words, people tend to become dicks unless they are not taught not to be. Psychologists call this “socialization.” I call it “learning to behave yourself.” And the single most important part of this is learning that the world does not revolve around you. The world does not revolve around any one of us. We’re just along for the ride, and we are all in this together. Making that ride stress free, healthy, fun, and full of love is our business. Fortunately, life is not a zero-sum game. If you get more; I don’t have to get less. Not if we treat each other with respect.
Not if we are civil to each other.
Good manners isn’t looking down your nose at people who don’t know which fork to use. It’s making sure they have enough to eat.
Good manners isn’t holding the door open for someone. It’s just not letting the door slam on the person behind you.
Good manners isn’t just letting someone speak. It’s listening long enough to hear what they have to say.
Good manners isn’t just saying please and thank you. It’s being genuinely grateful and not expecting things to be done for you.
Good manners isn’t even taking your hat off indoors. It’s learning to not subject others to your thoughtlessness, your greed, your dickishness.
And, no, good manners won’t change the world. But they can change the way we think about and treat each other. Good manners reminds us that life isn’t just about ourselves.
And that is the first step to not being a dick.
The image is from @GirlsOwn a wonderful source of amusement on twitter.