Where Have All the Manners Gone?

October 22, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ACTRESS IN SCENE: Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates, so happy you could come.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The pivotal scene in the film of Jane Austen’s Emma occurs when Emma flings a witty insult in the direction of Miss Bates, a sweet-natured, simple-minded thing, by pointing out how boring the lady is. This, Emma does in the presence of their friends. So sweet-natured is Miss Bates that she stammers in assent, as if to protect her old friend, Emma, from the perception of her own unkindness.

But Knightly, Emma’s severely critical friend, who loves her, tears into Emma later for her uncharacteristic act of cruelty. He adds that others in their small English universe always look to Emma for the standard of how to behave towards Miss Bates.

Emma is shaken to the roots with shame. She knows how wrong she was. What Knightly and Austen are asserting is the clear connection between courtesy and kindness. All the apparently superficial manners that propel Emma’s small English universe are, when one probes to the roots, instruments of compassion.

This connection between courtesy and kindness is not generally understood in our small universe these days. The reigning assumption about courtesy, custom, civility, and manners is that they are frosting on a cake.

All that bowing and curtsying in Jane Austen’s world, all those costumes, all that fancy dancing, such things are deemed decorative at best and perhaps even unhealthy because they camouflage and stifle true feelings. The assumption, one supposes, is that true feelings must be cruel and hard, and that social ceremonies get in the way of their liberating honesty.

Yet, an older assumption is that courtesy is indispensable because it elevates true feelings. It forces people to behave better, kinder than they would, with courtesy abandoned. There is no dress code for anything nowadays because it is thought that formality is undemocratic. There used to be a coat and tie rule at men’s colleges.

That went out in the mid 1960’s. My parents wore suits and dresses whenever they traveled. Now, people wear anything or nothing on planes and trains. They may think that the old formality was a wasted effort, an affront to the philosophy that lets it all hang out. The courtesy has been squeezed out of terms of address. Faxes and E-mail don’t use the greeting, “Dear& at the beginning of a communication, or sign off with a “Yours sincerely,” or even “Insincerely” at the end. Why say something you don’t mean, unless of course you learn to mean it by the act of saying it.

Maybe journalism is partly to blame for the destruction of courtesy because so much of journalism pursues a false truth. Journalism has been relentlessly eager to go to the bottom of every story by which it really means the bottom. If one sees all life as a scandal waiting to be disclosed, maybe life will inevitably become a scandal waiting to be disclosed. This is not to claim that the presumption of an innocent world creates one.

But in the gray area between perfection and sin, where most people live, a lot can be improved by the sheer display of a fancy dance. When all that was pointed out to her by Knightly’s rebuke, Emma nearly collapsed with humiliation because she knew he was right. More important, she knew that she did not mean to be cruel to Miss Bates but was simply overtaken by the temptation to be witty. Her true feelings were wholly kind and would have been more accurately expressed by her usual show of utmost courtesy–courtesy which depends so much on appearance says, in fact, that people are better than they appear–such an old-fashioned idea.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.