We are taught since children to have nice manners. To use a knife and fork. To eat with mouths closed; not to talk with food in mouths; to keep elbows off of the table; to wash hands after going to the restroom. To look, but not touch. Sit up straight. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Don’t reach across the table. Say please, say thank you, excuse yourself. Mind your P’s and Q’s. Don’t interrupt adults when they are speaking. Respect your elders.
Okay, if it makes our parents happy why not? We dutifully practice our budding etiquette. As we mature we take these assumptions with us, not realising that they are part of a system of oppression.
Every-time we perform a social nicety we are subtly showing those around us that we know the right thing to do. And if they do not, then they are not part of the in-group. That they don’t belong.
This is strikingly obvious in Titanic when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is invited to dinner in the first class salon. The ‘nice’ manners of his hosts leave little doubt that the third class guest is unwelcome.
This is a clear example of nice manners functioning as markers that perpetuate class distinctions and suppress social mobility for those without embodied cultural capital.
Oppression and politeness have gone hand in hand since the dawn of nice manners. As farming societies became feudal and later kingdoms, upper classes increasingly invented ways of distinguishing themselves from the plebs.
Forward thinking German Sociologist, Norbert Elias, explored the subject in 1939.
For the courtly nobility, too, the self-restraint imposed on them by their function and situation served at the same time as a prestige value, a means of distinguishing themselves from the lower groups harrying them, and they did everything within their power to prevent these differences from being effaced. Only the insider, the initiated member, should know the secrets of good conduct; only within good society should this be learned. Gratian deliberately wrote his treatise on “savoir-vivre'”, the famous “Hand Oracle”, in an obscure style, a courtly princess once explained so that this knowledge could not be bought by anyone for a few pence; and Courtin did not forget, in the introduction to his treatise on “CivilitÃ©”, to stress that his manuscript was really written for the private use of a few friends, and that even printed it was intended only for people of good society.Â (Elias, N. (2000 (1939)). The civilizing process Malden, Blackwell.) p. 387.
Only the insider should know the secrets of good conduct.
But the world is a big place, there are millions of ways of doing, and nothing to be gained by oppressing others with overbearing niceties. Nice manners can only be nice when they make others feel welcome.