Wed. November 21
Obedience to the Unenforceable
The late stand-up comedian Dennis Wolfberg used to regale audiences with stories from his days as a public school teacher in The Bronx. In one story, a loutish middle-schooler addresses him as, “Hey, Wolfberg!”
“That’s Mr. Wolfberg,” the teacher corrects sternly, to which the student replies, “Well, how am I supposed to know you’re married?”
When I was growing up there was no question that adults were to be addressed as Mr., Mrs., or Miss. (We didn’t yet have Ms.) It was simply understood that when talking to authority figures you spoke respectfully. Today, however, teaching children proper manners around adults appears to be a cause for angst. In “You Annoyed Me at Hello: Why Kids Still Need to Learn Manners,” Carolyn Jones worries that teaching her children to address elders respectfully might come across as “irredeemably stuffy” or “priggish,” even though she herself is bothered by young people’s being too informal with adults.
“We have a daughter, not yet three, and like many parents, we have grand ambitions for her,” she writes. “One is that we’d like her to be a polite member of society starting, we believe, by addressing adults as Mr., Mrs. and Ms. But we have an awkward problem. None of our parent-friends agree.”
I believe she misunderstands the point of manners. It really doesn’t matter what others think. You should teach and practice good manners for their own sake. At their heart, good manners are about putting others first, a form of self-restraint. Good manners are, in a way, a society’s lubricant.
John Fletcher Moulton (1844-1921), a British barrister and judge, called good manners a “country which lies between Law and Free Choice.” We cannot write enough laws to control every aspect of human behavior and interaction, nor would we want to. But neither should we want for people to have the complete liberty to do as they please; chaos would result. As he said in the July 1924 Atlantic Monthly:
Mere obedience to Law does not measure the greatness of a Nation. It can easily be obtained by a strong executive, and most easily of all from a timorous people. Nor is the licence [sic] of behavior which so often accompanies the absence of Law, and which is miscalled Liberty, a proof of greatness. The true test is the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law. … Between “can do” and “may do” ought to exist the whole realm which recognizes the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste, and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible.
Teaching and practicing those things that we cannot be forced to obey but which smooth the everyday interactions of life are what Moulton called “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” They are a law we enforce upon ourselves, no matter what others do or think.
This is not mere etiquette. Not knowing which fork to use might be a faux pas, but using your salad fork for your cake hardly endangers the civil order. But not showing common courtesy and respect to others leads to a coarsening of the culture and makes day-to-day life just that much more irritating.
So to Mrs. Jones, I say don’t sweat it. Teach your kids the manners you want them to have regardless of what their friends’ parents think. It’s the first of what should be many opportunities throughout life for them to practice self-control and putting others first.
Tom Neven is a Marine Corps veteran who has written for The Washington Post, The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Time-Life, and First Things, among many other publications. He writes from his home in Tampa, Fla.