A clever, alert essayist presents her argument for an ancient virtue, confirming the old adage that manners maketh the man—and, she allows, enhanceth the woman too.
In a world patently short on patience and apparently burdened with a surfeit of self-esteem, Holdforth (True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women in Paris, 2004) courteously goes directly to the point: We need civil behavior if civilization is to hold together. Consensual good manners, she asserts, are better than both laws and religion. As we have just discovered anew, greed is not good for us. Ever since the heyday of Athenian democracy, community service and cooperation have consistently made the world work better. Good manners, to be sure, are not evidenced by false intimacy invoked by relative strangers. Practitioners of more formal politesse, it may be noted, can maintain a shield against premature familiarity. Holdforth, a native of generally free-and-easy Australia, recalls with admiration the elaborate decorum of the constricted salons of Enlightenment Paris. She allows Lord Chesterfield to pronounce good manners beneficial to all; she enlists Castiglione, Proust and Talleyrand as witnesses. Good manners avert social confusion, she avers. They control narcissism, improve communication, provide social stability and just make life sweeter. Despite the frisson a fine theatrical display of bad manners can produce, proper behavior is a badge of humanity that enhances life, if just for a bit. So if you can’t remove your artfully reversed baseball cap at the dinner table or turn off your iPhone in a crowd, at least try for some other little touch of considerate conduct. It will be good for us all. Who would be churlish enough to dispute that?
Short, sweet and smart—not an etiquette manual, just a 21st-century reminder of the timeless practice and rewards of good manners.