Manners: The Art of Happiness

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In a scene from Jane Austen’s classic novel Sense and Sensibility, a young lady is playing the piano and singing. All in the room praise and applaud her. All, that is, except one man. As Austen writes, “He paid her only the compliment of attention” (Ch. 7). 

That seems a fitting place to begin an essay on manners.

Are Manners Fake?

Some people don’t believe in manners. They say manners “try to make me into someone I’m not.” They sing, “I gotta be me.” Well, the point of manners is that life is not about me.

But why have manners? If we don’t know why we do something, even if we do the “right thing,” we can make matters worse. For example, we eat well to stay healthy; but if we do it for physical appearance, we may become vain and annoying. If we have manners only to impress others and have them reciprocate, we become phonies.

Simply put, manners make us happy. Note that I did not say manners make others happy. They can, but there is more to it. Like all actions, manners are an outward manifestation of an inward disposition; they can, like any action, help to form an inward disposition—a virtue, if you will. Manners embody and form two virtues necessary for happiness: generosity and gratitude. As G.K. Chesterton said, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude” (G.K. Chesterton Autobiography, Ch. 16 “The God with the Golden Key“) Manners help us grow in virtue because what we do with and to our bodies affects our souls. If you want to be cheerful, smile more.

Manners put us in our place. That may sound harsh, but it is better than being out of place. By telling us what to do and say, they guide us over the hump of our selfishness and self-centeredness. They may not, and often do not, feel right at first. Neither do a healthy diet and exercise, yet manners are as vital to our spiritual and social health as diet and exercise are to our physical health.

Our words, our actions, our posture, even our dress turn us either in on ourselves or out towards others. By turning out to others, we become generous and grateful. We become happy.

Manners in Words

St. John Henry Newman begins “Definition of a Gentleman” (an essay every Heights man should read) by saying “it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain.” I think Newman uses the word “inflict” here to mean ” intentionally give.” We do need to correct, sometimes to refuse, and occasionally to give an honest assessment; but these should never be done with the intent of giving pain. This manner of thoughtful civility is why refusals in former times were invariably prefaced with “I regret…” or “I’m sorry to say…” It’s why we don’t interrupt, or if we disagree, we put the burden on ourselves with words such as “Correct me if I’m wrong…” or “I may be mistaken but…” Universities now need “safe spaces” for their students to talk. Weren’t they taught manners? What will happen when they have families? Civil discourse, once so valued, seems to have devolved into the need for protection from the words of others.

Newman also says a gentleman “has his eyes on all his company.” The elderly, the shy, the unpopular, the boring—yet all are made in the image of God. Treasures are hidden there. Besides, you may think others notice you because you are wise, witty, or attractive. Perhaps they just have better manners.

“Please” and “thank you” reflect our dependence on others. “May I,” as opposed to “can I”, grammar’s way of distinguishing between status and ability. Both instances teach humility, which is also essential for happiness.

Posture and Action – Reverence

Even—perhaps especially—our posture reflects our distinctions that can show gratitude and generosity. Pay close attention to the Gospels when our Lord is sitting. It is a sign that something important is happening (such as the Sermon on the Mount). Sitting is the posture of authority and precedence; standing is the posture of respect and service. It’s why we stand when the Gospel is read and when the national anthem is played. Accordingly, a gentleman stands for a lady and the young stand for their elders. Perhaps students would learn more if they stood while the teacher sat.

In more civilized times, a man would bow his head and a woman would give a slight curtsy upon greeting one another. However odd we may think these actions, their purpose was shown by the fact that they were called “reverences.” The physical lowering of yourself was meant to reflect an inward humbling of yourself. Not a bad thing. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, our greeting is a form of prayer.

A steak dinner can be spoiled and a brown-bag lunch ennobled by manners. Giving thanks even when alone reminds us that we are never alone. When we make those little sacrifices, such as waiting until everyone is served before we eat and then eating slowly and quietly so the meal can be enjoyed and the conversation can flow, the simplest meal can become special. It shows the reciprocity of generosity and of gratitude. After all, it was at a meal we call a “thanksgiving” that the greatest act of generosity was performed. (The movie Babette’s Feast portrays this beautifully.)

Manners in Clothing

And what about clothing? We shouldn’t dress to “express ourselves,” but to show our gratitude to God, others, and the occasion. We are grateful to God for our bodies and so we don’t treat them as merchandise to be advertised or billboards for messages. More than a body, we are grateful for a soul, which is reflected in our countenance. Therefore clothing should lead the gaze of others to the face, which most vividly reflects the soul, and not to the other parts of the body over which the fortunes (or misfortunes) of chance prevail, such as our physical build or age. Clothing should not draw attention to itself or to one’s self. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales, “the gentleman saint,” said we should be “always suitably attired but without show or affectation” (Introduction to the Devout Life, Ch. 25 “Propriety in Dress“).

We dress for others because we are grateful for the opportunity to be with them. We show respect for certain occasions because not all occasions are equal. Holy Mass is more important than a barbecue; school and business are more important than a softball game. These are times for appreciation, not self-indulgence.

An anecdote about the mother of Queen Elizabeth, the late “Queen Mother,” illustrates these ideas. She was herself queen during World War II, and, in the aftermath of the bombings of London, she visited the places hardest hit. She dressed formally as you would expect of one raised in the shadow of Queen Victoria. A journalist chided her for wearing such clothes while calling on those who had lost everything. She replied, “But surely they would wear their best to visit me?” Those were the days.

As an aside, I’ve seen more character and known more “individuality” among those disciplined by a strict dress code—such as the military and religious life—than I have from those dressing to “express themselves.” Perhaps the more a person needs to express himself on the outside, the less mindfulness he has of himself on the inside.

Gratitude and Generosity

Gratitude and generosity also bring in the virtue of order. Whether at home, the office, or school, keeping rooms clean and putting things away properly show gratitude for those who have provided those rooms and things, and generosity, to others are not required to do more work (usually your work).

Technology has corroded manners by putting a screen in the place of a person. Facebook has taken the wonderful noun friend and made it a verb meaning “I can give you my opinion without having to deal with you.” When you do that, you are not generous (and others usually aren’t graceful). Gossip once was curtailed by giving the advice, “Don’t say anything about someone you wouldn’t say to his face.” Now Twitter encourages it. What we believe of guardian angels tells us that where two are present, there are really four (two of whom behold the face of God). Cell phones make it such that where two persons are present, there are usually about ten or twenty (none of whom seem to have any notion of God). Many who live on the screen assume others do as well. I’ve had emails sent from students at eleven o’clock at night with questions about a test first period the next morning.

Some call manners artificial. True, they must be learned, like dancing. But, like dancing, once they are learned, life moves more gracefully. They have ceremony to them, though to some this means “phony.” This type of person prefers everything to be “informal” and “instinctive,” thinking it a sign of humility. (Again, there is that notion of “I must be myself.”) As C.S. Lewis noted, “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual” (Preface to Paradise Lost p. 25). If I extend my hand to you in greeting and you slap me on the back, we are from the start at cross-purposes in a sort of social jiu-jitsu, wondering what the next move will be.

Manners do involve forethought and trouble. They are “made of petty sacrifices,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson (Social Aims p. 106). It takes more effort to write a thank-you note than to shoot off a quick email, but then it also takes more effort to cook a proper meal than to grab something from McDonald’s. If ease were the guiding principle in life, we would likely not have children. We also would not be happy.

Back to our gentleman who paid “only the compliment of attention.” His manners allowed him to better enjoy the performance and give more enjoyment to the young lady performing. To enjoy and give enjoyment; gratitude and generosity. In these lie the essence of both manners and happiness.

Robert Greving

About the author:

Robert Greving


Robert Greving has been a member of the faculty at The Heights since 1999. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps following his graduation from Dickinson School of Law. Following stations in Germany and the U.S., he pursued his love of classics, returning to Dickinson to study Latin and Greek. Before his position at The Heights, he taught four years at Cathedral Preparatory School in Erie, Pennsylvania. Originally from North Dakota, Mr. Greving earned a B.A. in history at Louisiana State University.