Psst… Manners Are Racist and Ableist Too.

It’s surprising to me, sometimes, which of my posts take off. It’s never the ones I expect. Last week, I wrote about manners being classist. I knew that my post might ruffle feathers because I was suggesting that children are deserving of respect whether or not they have good manners. I did not anticipate the amount of blowback I received at the very concept that manners are classist. I even read multiple comments where people suggested I was being classist myself because I was insinuating that “poor people” couldn’t teach their children good manners. Oh my! I would never.

To be clear, I condemn the origins of manners and the people who use them to disenfranchise others… not parents trying to prepare their children to live in a brutal culture where even good manners do not ensure inclusion, preservation, or prosperity.

Manners are the behaviors we engage in when we understand the etiquette expected of us. And, etiquette is the social code we’re expected to adopt based on our cultural values. The word “etiquette” comes to us from French and it referred to a physical “ticket” that was provided to visitors of the royal court giving them a list of rules and regulations for appropriate behavior. Apparently, Louis XIV became angry when visitors trampled through his gardens. He posted signs (etiquets) warning people off the flora, but they didn’t pay any mind. Eventually, the King issued a royal decree that no one would be allowed to step on his grass. In time, the etiquets became handheld documents indicating what was allowed and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, if you weren’t in the in-crowd, you wouldn’t gain access to the etiquets. In that way, etiquets served as a barrier to isolate “cultured” people from “uncultured” ones.

Manners were prescribed by the ruling class for everyone else. While that hierarchy has changed with time, the manners we observe today remain classist by their origin. They are inherently othering. We talk about manners in moralistic terms of “good” and “bad.” Do we really believe there is no transference of moral discrimination to the person whose manners don’t live up to our expectations?

Some of the basic issues I have with manners include:

  • In the human brain, politeness is linked with the system governing aggression, whereas compassion is linked with the system involved in empathetic responses. Put plainly, politeness is a muzzle whereas compassion is a loving response to others.
  • Etiquette is big business. Finishing schools exist to provide people (primarily women, go figure) with comprehensive protocols on how to comport themselves. The existence of this industry further enforces behavioral expectations across all classes.
  • Social expectations aren’t consistent even across various geographies in the same country, much less internationally. And, the United States is an international country. Manners are cultural, not universal, so the acceptance of difference is a moral obligation.
  • “Good” manners do not preserve people of color from racism. Only empathy and understanding from those with the power to effect genuine change (read: white people) can do that. Not too long ago, white people (i.e. “ma’am” and “sir”) regularly warped the language of manners to undermine the dignity of Black people (i.e. “girl” and “boy”) and manners continue to be used in the same way today where whiteness is threatened. Further, calls for Black people to be “compliant” in the face of police brutality and to be more polite when speaking about upsetting topics are fundamentally racist.
  • “Good” manners may not be accessible to disabled people, like those who can’t tolerate eye contact and, as a result, may be viewed as deceptive or worse. And, the inability to tolerate touch make handshakes pretty tough. There are many social expectations that are unkind to neurodivergent people.
  • Manners derive from antiquated and oppressive ideals. For example, some theorize that the over-attention to manners in the South has resulted from a culture of “honor.” You know, like defending a woman’s honor so her father can still marry her off to the most profitable suitor?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t teach your children about manners. Yes, teach them manners. Give them a leg up in society to the best of your ability. Let them know how their behavior is perceived. But, at the same time, teach them that it is a privilege to have access to information about how to move effectively through social spaces and to be able to effectively perform “cultured” behavior. Teach them not to make assumptions based on a person’s behavior and, instead, tap into empathy and grace in getting to know others. And, model understanding and consideration for others.

That manners are classist, racist, and ableist (and defensibly sexist too) means our children need to know and understand them to be changemakers. Please and Thank You are nice, but revolutionary empathy is so much more important. Besides, respect and politeness are natural byproducts of viewing all people as worthy equals, even if you aren’t up on your Ps & Qs.

Kids Don’t Owe Anyone Good Manners

Manners are classist. Let’s just go ahead and get that out of the way. Throughout history, the way people acted has been a signal of how polished their upbringing was. Perfectly wonderful and kind people have found themselves the target of snubs simply because they didn’t exhibit an acceptable level of refinement.

We should take care in judging people based on the way they behave. Years ago, I worked for an organization that kept an accountant on retainer. This guy was the picture of unkempt. Messy clothes, greasy hair, gruff personality, old clunker for a car. I was surprised that a businessman would appear to care so little about the image he was projecting given how much my parents drilled into me the importance of “putting your best foot forward.” Well, the joke was on me (and my parents), because that accountant was a wildly successful millionaire CPA.

When it comes to kids, it makes sense to want to build in them the traits that make family life run smoothly. Genuine care for one another results in things like kindness and helpfulness. But, what’s expected of kids is politeness… the ability to navigate social expectations we’ve all apparently agreed are good. There’s a lot of learning to be done and, for some kids, it just never clicks. Manners are confusing! They were confusing for me as a child. The idea that I should practice social choreography in order to merely appear like I cared about people made so much less sense than just bypassing the trappings and honestly caring about people. Why did it matter if I said “yes ma’am” when I was going out of my way to do kind things for my mother? It still doesn’t make sense to me to this day. Personally, I’d rather we be in true relationship with each other and treat people the way they want to be treated.

Manners are really nothing more than modern day chivalry that harken back to a time when people were very careful not to reveal their true intentions. That doesn’t sound like anything I want my children involved in. Nonetheless, children do need to understand the expectation and be able to “play the game” so to speak. They need to be given the words to say and practice the actions to take, so that they have the tools they need to succeed in a world where people who despise each other are still required to be polite to each other in the workplace. There are real life implications and consequences, and children are better served to be told the truth than to be coerced into being polite for politeness’ sake.

So, for our purposes in fostering genuineness in our children, I propose we buck the system and encourage kindness instead of politeness. I say we demonstrate to our children, through modeling, to pay close attention to what’s happening around them; to comfort the sad friend, to help the stranger whose hands are full by opening a door, to listen intently when someone is speaking, to gently hand money to the clerk instead of tossing it carelessly onto the counter. In short: treat people like they are deserving a dignity and respect.

And, when we notice children – any children, not just our own – with “bad manners,” let’s be extra kind to them and treat them respectfully too. Show them what it’s like to live in community and in relationship with people who deeply care about their wellbeing.

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