Reclaiming Manners in Speech
December 21, 2016

“Be not forward but friendly and courteous; the first to salute, hear, and answer; and be not pensive when it’s a time to converse.” #66, Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation*

Regarding our power of speech Aristotle observes: “Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech.”

A gift indeed. Much can be said about how to use this gift well–in accord with the manifest generosity and intentionality of nature. We can focus for a moment here on those crucial, and often challenging, moments when we first come upon people in various contexts. Here manners can make all the difference.

Much is captured in the admonition: be the first to salute, hear, and answer. By and large it is by saying appropriate words in greeting, or in response to greeting, that we first manifest our disposition toward others. Even if this is not the time for a conversation, I notice you, I respect you, and I wish you well. We should outdo one another in expressing these things, through appropriate words.

We can use our own words; yet formulaic expressions, which are always ready-at-hand (and so are especially helpful when we are nervous, tired, or distracted), also do quite well: “So good to see you…” “Good afternoon, Mrs…” “You look well today” “It’s a beautiful day isn’t?” Such greetings made even in passing, especially when delivered with care, can lend a deeply human element and conviviality to our chance interactions.

They can also be an entree to deeper conversation, or to beginning really to get to know someone. I wonder how many good conversations–maybe even relationships–we miss out on because we do not make the effort to observe manners in greeting.

There is indeed a time to converse. Given our often frenetic lifestyle, that time might be more often than we realize, or take advantage of. To discover and cultivate such times will take an intentional approach today, and part of that approach can be reclaiming manners in speech.

*As a teenager George Washington wrote out–perhaps as a penmanship exercise–the 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, which are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595.

This is the third in the series: Reclaiming Manners.

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  1. I watch very little news and less during presidential campaign times.
    I did watch a couple of the debates in 2012, and was positively embarrassed for our county and for Mr. Biden himself during his debate with Mr. Ryan. I actually turned it off because I his behavior was just so impolite and demeaning to his opponent — I just couldn’t watch it.
    And, at the same time, I was so impressed at Mr. Ryan’s continued politeness.
    As I said, I watch few debates (mostly because candidates rarely answer the questions and I prefer to read the platforms and check voting records), so perhaps this is typical.

    1. I remember that Biden/Ryan debate too. I certainly see what you are saying. Persistent politeness can go a long way.

  2. Thank you!

    1. You are very welcome.

  3. Dr. Cuddeback, I agree with you completely. It is something I need to work on in my own life, and somehow transmit to our children. On a lighthearted note, don’t Lizzie and Mr. Bennett make fun of Mr. Collins for preparing complements? Is it more because he is in general so ridiculous, or because of his insincerity do you think? It couldn’t have been the delivery.. A blessed and joyous Advent and Christmas to you all from the Laxtons.

    1. Alicia, Don’t we all need to work on these things, and on how to instill good practices in our children.
      You raise an interesting point about Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. I would have to think that they see through Mr. Collins–in other words they see that his manners are in fact more of a project to manipulate those around him than an expression of real courtesy and consideration.
      Thanks for the comment, and very best wishes to the family for Christmas.

  4. As I was reading I was thinking of how anxious Anne Elliot was that her father and sister should acknowledge Captain Wentworth in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Etiquette should be an expression of more noble inclinations, and though Anne is anxious that her family act according to custom, she criticizes their empty practice. So different from her own greeting which is a true expression of warmth, friendship and charity.

    1. Donna, What a fitting example. At one and the same time we should be concerned about proper custom, while also checking ourselves to see that our practices be not empty, but rather an expression of right dispositions. Thanks very much for sharing this.