What we need in the world is manners…I think that if, instead of preaching brotherly love, we preached good manners, we might get a little further. It sounds less righteous and more practical. —Eleanor Roosevelt
I think we can all agree that the world-pervasive suffering caused by human hands is senseless, mind-boggling, and overwhelming. Another massive shooting, human trafficking, the exploitation and abuse of children: very few people — regardless of politics, religion, education, or any of the other number of things that cause division — would consider these things anything but tragic.
What’s more difficult to agree on is the proper action to be taken in the face of such suffering. There’s disagreement over what policies and practices would solve these problems, and then, even if accord can be struck on that note, people clash in their opinions of how to bring a policy to fruition.
I suspect that some of this disagreement stems from an overarching feeling of helplessness. We all rail against the violence, but we also wonder if anything we do will actually make a difference.
I’ve become conscious of a disturbing trend recently, though I’m sure it’s nothing new: the more helpless and uncertain people feel, the louder and more opinionated voices tend to become.
It’s not a good kind of noise, aimed at the policy makers or the leaders who have the potential to effect change; it’s squabbling, bickering, my-way-is-better-than-yours, my-opinion-must-be-heard kind of noise that doesn’t actually go anywhere. Rather than being a conduit for change, this kind of noise is a release valve for running off steam. Once the steam is gone, people are left drained and ready to go on with their ordinary lives; they feel like they’ve accomplished something just by having yelled about it. Little actual change has happened, other than that everyone is more hurt and more mad at everyone else.
While the very best thing to do when considering the crises of the world might be for people to collectively channel their steam into productive efforts like raising their voices in public spheres, marching, writing letters, donating resources and community organizing, I want to suggest that until that channeling is done, the release valve needs to be examined.
It’s not okay to say whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want, without carefully considering the impact of our words.
As the poet Adrienne Rich warns, “we move but our words stand / become responsible / and this is verbal privilege”.
We have got to increase in consciousness of our verbal privilege and become more gentle and caring in our use of words. Good manners, as per Eleanor Roosevelt’s suggestion, are direly needed.
I’m not talking about using the proper fork or the placement of the water glass in a place setting when I refer to good manners, and I doubt Mrs. Roosevelt was either. I’m talking about our ability to keep our mouths shut when we have a (non-helpful) opinion that we’d love to voice; I’m talking about choosing to smile and be courteous when it would be much more satisfying to voice our exasperation and roll our eyes; I’m talking about finding the spaciousness within ourselves to be gracious instead of grumpy when things don’t go our way, courteous instead of crass in moments of frustration, and warm instead of icy when someone has displeased us.
They aren’t things that will eradicate war, change gun laws or put an end to human trafficking. We should be directing energy and resources to these needs. But at the same time — and especially if we have the tendency to rail against the issues without actually taking concrete actions forward — we should be treating all the people we encounter with the kindness, respect and good manners that they deserve. It’s humble, non-glamorous, surprisingly hard, but very straightforward and practical work.
Reflect: Is there a place or circumstance in which I have a tendency to let manners go? Have I abused my “verbal privilege” at all recently?
Teresa Coda works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church, dabbles in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and writes about life and spirituality. She has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School where she studied theology and pastoral care and counseling. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband Caleb, her daughter Esther and her Boston terrier Bean.