Never a Good Excuse for Bad Manners

“It may be years before anyone knows if what you are doing is right. But if what you are doing is nice, it will be immediately evident.” — P.J. O’Rourke

The idea seems to be that good manners can and often do cover up the proverbial multitude of sins. As Arthur Schopenhauer put it, “Politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax.” It may quickly distort or otherwise transform reality. What seems sincere may merely be the latest example of Abel Stevens’ observation, “Politeness is the art of choosing among one’s real thoughts.” The point is that in an effort to “be nice,” candor can easily take a backseat to what Emily Post described as “a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.” The desire not to upset or offend takes priority over the responsibility to be honest and straightforward.

Of course, W. Somerset Maugham did say, “I don’t think you want too much sincerity in society. It would be like an iron girder in a house of cards.” And Lord Halifax said, “A man that should call everything by its right name would hardly pass the streets without being knocked down as a common enemy.” The conclusion follows that there is an appropriate, middle ground between total honesty and bad manners. One should find that balance between excessive rudeness and being unnecessarily impolite on the one hand and knavery or excessive dishonesty on the other.

Are you tempted to agree with this argument? If so, you are probably aligning with the polite majority of people who behave as if the choice is between candor and insensitive rudeness. When it comes time to choose, they generally lean toward avoiding being seen as rude or as having bad manners. The result is that they are often dishonest, at least somewhat. Personal integrity is partially sacrificed to the god of good manners. When you are thus tempted, Cesare Pavese’s observation is worth considering, “Perfect behavior is born of complete indifference.”

Perhaps the real issue isn’t your honesty, your integrity, or your manners. Rather, it is your discomfort with how you fear others will react to you if you actually say what you think, accurately express your feelings, and practice the candor you profess to value so highly. Often the issue is dealing with the bad manners of other people. As Gabirol put it, “The test of good manners is to be patient with bad ones.” the famous Anon. expressed the idea this way, “Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you – not because they are nice, but because you are;” and F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “It’s not a slam at you when people are rude – it’s a slam at the people they’ve met before.” The best conclusion is that there is never a good excuse for bad manners and that “situational integrity” isn’t integrity at all. Calmly and respectfully stand up, speak up, shut up, and sit down and then politely listen, making it immediately evident that you indeed are nice.

Now you know so there you go.