F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines
Week of:
March 5, 2000
Ladies and Gentlemen, Where Are You?

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

Yes sir, no sir, please, and thank you -- whatever happened to common courtesy?

"Manners, properly understood, are the instruments whereby we negotiate our passage through the world, earn the respect and support of others, and form communities," declares writer and philosopher Roger Scruton. "But in a world where people hasten from goal to goal, with scant regard for the forms that secure the respect and endorsement of their fellows, these truths are increasingly obscured."

In the current issue of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, Roger Scruton acknowledges that in a materialistic world "the polite person is at a seeming disadvantage. He does not jump queues," Scruton observes; "he does not shout and push and fight his way to the goods; he loses precious moments giving way to slower, more defenseless people; he sits down to meals with family and friends . . . he listens patiently to bores. . . . He is, in short, a loser: or so many people seem to think, viewing politeness as an obstacle to personal success. In a world of cutthroat competition," Scruton concedes, "the rude person will be first at the winning post. So why be polite?"

Scruton recognizes that such reasoning has a perverse logic nowadays "when everyone can obtain so much without the cooperation of others. Once," he recalls, "people needed someone to cook for them, talk with them while eating, relax with them over a card game. Neighbors depended on one another for entertainment, transport, nursing, shopping, a thousand daily needs," Scruton continues. "Today," he laments, "this dependency is dwindling."

Paradoxically, the need for manners may be greater now than ever. "The fact that we can survive without manners," Roger Scruton argues, "does not show that human nature doesn't need them in some deeper way. After all," he stipulates, "we can survive without love, without children, without peace or comfort or friendship. But all those things are human needs," Scruton asserts, "since we need them for our happiness. Without them," he concludes, "we are unfulfilled. And the same is true of manners."

When I was a kid, I was taught -- by my mother -- always to open doors for adults of either sex, to give up my seat on the bus for my elders, and so on. I was stunned, about eight years ago, by an incident that occurred to me in a New Orleans office tower at the end of a downward elevator ride. The only other passenger was a young working woman. When the doors opened in the lobby, I instinctively paused to let her out first and she glared at me like I was some kind of masher. I intuited immediately what the problem was, and I wasn't about to make a scene over a gesture of courtesy (not oppression), so I exited ahead of her. Of course, I'd have deferred to an older man as well, or to a child or a friend, or to a deliveryman or shopper with packages, but a person who wants to be aggrieved can misinterpret anything. What a miserable way to go through life. And what a shame that I'm compelled to forsake good habits.

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