Friday, 12 October 2012

Part IX - The Importance of Good Manners

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen.  His third chapter is on Conspicuous Leisure. 

Veblen goes on at length about manners.   Their importance reached a peak at the same time as the canon of conspicuous leisure.  Manners have deteriorated since, as they thrive only in a system based on status.   The primary purpose of manners is to show that much time has been spent in acquiring them. 

The pervading principle and abiding test of good breeding is the requirement of a substantial and patent waste of time.” 

I always thought that 'good breeding' meant being born into a prestigious family.  Silly me.  It turns out that one of the dictionary definitions of 'breeding' is:  training in the proper forms of social and personal conduct. 

Anthropologists and sociologists say that the ceremonial code of ‘decorous usages’ (manners) is a pantomime of conciliatory messages, intended to demonstrate good will, that harks back to our predatory days.  Manners signal symbolic mastery or subservience.  This called to mind the body language of dogs, but if I recall my distant reading of Amy Vanderbilt, the order of introductions has to do with the status of the parties being introduced.

To paraphrase Veblen, bad manners are ‘intrinsically odious’ and good breeding (training) is not just a mark of human excellence but integral to having a worthy soul.  Few things are so revolting as a breach of decorum.

“A breach of faith may be condoned, but a breach of decorum cannot."

“Manners maketh man.” 

Everyone recognises that ‘refined tastes, manners, habits of life are useful evidence of gentility’, however for Veblen, the  value of manners lies in the fact that they are the voucher of a life of leisure. It seems that if one aspires for a good reputation, one should ‘exhibit leisurely manners and carriage’, abstain from work, and ‘studiously acquire an air of leisurely opulence and mastery’ and of course ‘proficiency in decorum’.  This can be further improved by ‘assiduously acquiring the marks of honourable leisure’ and then exhibiting all these marks of conspicuous leisure in a ‘strenuous and systematic discipline’. 

The more obviously one behaves in a way that serves no lucrative or other useful purpose, the greater the time and money obviously spent in acquiring these goods and manners, the greater the resulting good repute.  In this way the details of decorum gradually evolve into a ‘laborous drill in deportment’.    
Veblen sounds rather snide in saying

“… it is worthy of notice that the possibility of producing pathological and other idiosyncrasies of person and manner by shrewd mimicry and a systematic drill have been turned to account in the deliberate production of a cultured class — often with a very happy effect. In this way, by the process vulgarly known as snobbery, a syncopated (contracted, shortened) evolution of gentle birth and breeding is achieved in the case of a goodly number of families and lines of descent.”

One’s mimicry has to be good, however, because it is in observing a person’s degree of conformity to the latest accredited code of ‘decorous means and methods of consumption’,  that one can place them on a progressive grade and scale of manners and breeding and thus award the appropriate measure of reputability (honesty, integrity).  Veblen does explain that he’s not referring the rules of what is recognised as gestures of kindliness or goodwill; he’s referring to the rules which are expressions of status. 

I remember reading in Tish Jett’s blog, A Femme d’Un Certain Age, that in France it is incorrect to cut one’s lettuce - and of course French women eat a lot of salad.  One must fold and fold the lettuce leaf with the knife and fork until it is small enough to carry on the fork to the mouth.  I closely observed my fellow diners in France on any of the occasions we went to a restaurant, to see if they cut their lettuce or folded it neatly.  Absolute heathens they were, one and all.


Suburban Princess said...

Interesting - I always feel good manners mean less anger. If people are considerate they wont get punched in the face.

Shelley said...

SP - Good point! Then again, it might also depend upon the manners of the puncher.

Anonymous said...

Hm, I suspect that I probably need a course in the latest standards of deportment! Have never folded lettuce with a fork, but one thing I did learn in college was how to eat chicken with a fork. We had formal dinners once a week in the sorority house.

Carolyn said...

Hmmm, he's sounding a little cynical now... personally I think good manners are a joy, that enrich the lives of everybody around us. And they are definitely not the sole domain of the idle rich, it's hardly a chore to be pleasant and friendly even if one works full time. I was brought up to always treat others how I would like to be treated myself. It is a rule I apply to everyone I encounter.

Shelley said...

Terri - Oh yes, I remember coming home from the 'deportment lecture' at my sorority house and even Mom learned a thing or two! She loved the idea of a sorority, but I hated it. I was too young and I didn't fit.

Carolyn - He's very cynical about the leisure class, but it doesn't come out initially, only later. I don't think he was much into manners himself at all, but I also think he's talking about a completely different level of manners than most people generally consider. I've written about this before

Most of us don't worry about curtseying, nor about how many times one should rise on one's toes before doing so. I think it's this level of 'manners' that Veblen is scorning. Can't say I disagree with him.

Dumbwit Tellher said...

Veblen's book looks fascinating. I appreciate now how strict my parents were with 'decorum', and how to not act as though, as my mom use to say, we were 'born in a barn'!!
The lot I was observing at Asda this morning, while having a cup of tea, would benefit from this good read and a intro to manners! Happy almost over Sunday to you!! Have a good week.

Cheers ~ Deb

Shelley said...

Hi Deb - Oh, there are sooo many folks I see who weren't even raised in a barn! I think they used the phrase here 'dragged up'; I'm not even sure that applies in some cases. I'd be more inclined to think they were left in a ditch...

Unknown said...

Oh dear, I've probably shocked people hacking away at my lettuce in French restaurants.

Me thinks Veblen doth protest too much about manners. Manners make everyday life easier and nicer.

Anonymous said...

I have often thought some of the 'good manners' we learn and practice are a means of maintaining a distance from others, and this seems somewhat consistent with Veblen's thesis.

Like your friends in France, I would be considered positively coarse as I have taken the more direct route of ruthlessly chopping through my lettuce.

Gam Kau said...

A friend of my attended Cheltenham Ladies College about 40 years ago and were taught to eat a banana with a fork and knife! The alternative was considered vulgar which I find hilarious. My children have friends that attended Cheltenham and was pleased to learn they no longer teach this. :)