The Compassion of Miss Manners

The Niceties We Can’t Live Without

About six years before she died, my grandma wrote a booklet called Niceties (Of Speech and Manners) and dedicated it to my brother, my cousins, my niece, and me. “Grandmother Barbara,” the name she preferred but that never seemed to fit in our mouths, was extremely passionate about the topic of manners. Everyone who knew her thought of her as a refined and courteous person. She wanted to pass these “niceties” to her children and grandchildren, but mostly to the latter. I’m guessing she recognized a need.

Some people might be offended to have a booklet about manners dedicated to them. If she thought we were all perfectly refined already, there would be no reason to write it. But I didn’t take it as judgment. The grandma I knew loved us unconditionally. She loved us even if internally she was often bothered by us saying phrases such as, “I got this cool present,” instead of “received.” Or “Me and Kelly went to the park,” instead of “Kelly and I.” Or “Hey Mom, can I have a couple bucks?” instead of “Dearest Mother, may I bother you for two dollars please?” In the booklet she writes, “There are some grammatical errors that make some people cringe; chills run up and down their spines.” I think we can safely assume that “some people” really refers to herself.

I knew that she had good intentions and wanted to be helpful by passing along her knowledge. I have always read this booklet with that in mind, and to be honest, with great amusement. My grandma was one of those unintentionally funny people. When she said something hilarious without meaning to, she would laugh right along with us. When I read parts like, “Try to keep your gum chewing a private event,” I can laugh knowing that, although she gives this advice in all seriousness, she would join in the laughter.

While some of the advice in Niceties is more than a bit culturally specific, and some seems trivial, there is an underlying theme of kindness and love through all of it.

I did not fully understand the importance of manners or the lessons my grandma was attempting to share with us until I read the section in Low Anthropology, by David Zahl about courtesy. When describing courtesy as a fruit of low anthropology, Dave explains:

Courtesy flows from the conviction that for society to function well, we need to protect one another. Specifically, we need to protect other people from our limitations and self-centeredness – and we need to be protected from theirs. Furthermore, courtesy flows from the awareness of how thin our skin is, how easily our best intentions go awry, and how raw our nerve endings tend to be. A low anthropologist knows how tough even the most mundane seasons of life can be. An offhand comment at the wrong moment, or a pointed tone of voice, can puncture our composure and ruin our day.

Given how sensitive we are – how close to breakdown and discouragement we live – a low anthropologist welcomes any cushion they can find when interacting with others. Manners are simply the name we give this cushion. They are an agreed-upon strategy for treading lightly with others. But this flows directly from an honest appraisal of our instincts and how fickle and reckless they can be (p.143).

Many today are more apt to emphasize authenticity over manners. Be who you are. Speak the truth. Don’t be a phony. This push to be authentic makes my grandma’s advice seem unimportant and more like a call to repress true feelings and your true self. However, I am now starting to believe that my grandma understood the “instincts” of our human nature better than the rest of us.

I usually took her advice as a call to be more proper for the purpose of our own reputation and the reputation of our family and friends. That may have been part of her motivation, but I also believe that she knew this to be the caring way to behave. She knew that we needed to protect others and to be protected, and that life is much more pleasant when we do not follow our nature, which can hurt people’s feelings. And she knew that this needed to be taught and would not come naturally, even to her sweet grandchildren.

One part of Niceties in particular strikes me differently now: her section on “Thank yous.” She was an excellent thanker, by the way. If you gave her a gift you could expect to receive a thank you note in the mail or a phone call gushing over even the smallest of gifts. So on this topic, on which she was an expert, she wrote,

One of the most important ‘thank-yous’ is when you have accepted and enjoyed someone’s hospitality, especially in their home. Try not to ever leave the party without finding the hostess, host, or hosts and thanking them ‘for the nice time.’ Even if you haven’t had the most fun you’ve ever had, try to pretend that you’ve had a great time and say ‘thank you.’ It’s only polite. People used to do this even when leaving the home of a close relative (e.g. a sister, an aunt, a mother, etc.). It still is a good idea.

Shortly after my husband and I were married, we visited with his family and I must have said something very Grandmother Barbara-ish because my new sister-in-law said to me, “Juliette, you are part of our family now. You don’t have to be so polite all the time.” It made me laugh, but I would have to side with Grandma on this one. It is more important, I might argue, to be in the habit of showing manners to our own family on a daily basis because our tendency is to do the opposite. Nowhere is it more necessary to have a cushion to soften the blow that is our “true selves” than in our own homes.

So we have to pretend in order to be polite? Does this seem a little inauthentic? Perhaps, but the alternative — to not thank someone for opening their home or worse, to reject their gift through criticism — may be a couple steps short of cruelty. Having manners is not to say that we should avoid confrontation if it is necessary. There are times we have to have the difficult conversation, confront someone, or give honest feedback.

And yet, while many value “authenticity,” no matter what, it can often exact a toll on others. Our “truest” self is never without its flaws. If we all walked around saying whatever was on our minds, no relationship could stand! The grace shown to us by God, knowing that he loves the unlovable, overflows from us to others, who are also unlovable like us. It is because of this grace that we “bear with one another in love” (Eph 4:2).

On the day to day basis, courtesy is the way we show grace to our fellow imperfect human beings. And we might even thank ourselves later for not saying out loud what was truly going through our mind but relying on our manners instead. A “cushion” is a perfect image to describe the type of manners which my grandma so highly valued. She was indeed a soft cushion from this harsh world where there was true love and a safe place to lay my head.

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8 responses to “The Compassion of Miss Manners”

  1. Pamela A Shea says:

    Beautifully written from deep in the heart and from a faith perspective, which we all can put to good use in our lives.

  2. Jane Krueger says:

    As you know I loved your Grandma and I appreciated her etiquette book more then most. You see, I went to charm school. Maybe that’s why we got along so well. Thank you for bring it to light again. Jane

  3. Carol says:

    Great truth, Julia! I loved her too❤️

  4. Audrey Bahr says:

    This should be on the table beside our breakfast coffee so that we start each day on the right foot! Thanks, Juliette and grandma too!

  5. Marcia Tidball says:

    Such a well written article and a wonderful message! It really did put a smile on my face and brought back happy memories of ‘Grandma’ Barbara. Such a sweet, caring person.

  6. Becky Meyer says:

    Marcia, thank you so much for sharing this. I did not know Sue’s mother Barbara, but I have heard many stories over the years. Juliette I truly enjoyed the article you wrote. What wonderful memories your family has because of your Grandma Barbara.

    Becky Meyer

  7. Pamela Shea says:

    Very nostalgic and touching, Juliette. Manners never go out of style and your lovely and love-filled article are a reminder of how we can “make someone’s day” with a kind word.

  8. Elyessa Dunn says:

    I enjoyed this very much. Now I know why Sue is so sweet😀 Thank you for sharing this I loved it and it kind of reminds me of my mother in law and how she was teaching my daughter. I love it when she would Nana said “ it mid me feel good to know she was in good hands for a weekend at a time🌺

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