The Traffic Lights That Guide Human Interaction

“The human being who lives only for himself reaps nothing but unhappiness. Don’t put off the joy derived from doing helpful, kindly things for others.”

— B. C. Forbes, Founder Forbes Magazine.

By Lynn Wexler

Valery Kachaev

The caustic environment that has come to characterize the recent 2016 pre- and post- Presidential election gives rise to concerns over the depths to which we, as Americans, may have descended regarding our loss of civility. The vitriolic slingshots aimed at opponents and those who dare to disagree, and the violence incited by hateful rhetoric, have shaken the foundation upon which we have always depended for courteous and tolerable interaction.

Thank goodness for the holiday season recalling the spirit of peace on earth and goodwill toward our fellow man. It’s a welcome respite to the extreme ugliness that indicated how far we’ve strayed from decency.

The pressing challenge is to continue those manners beyond the holidays and throughout the year in our public and private lives. Perhaps we need a refresher on the purpose and value of manners in order to prevent its excruciating opposite.

Wresting the topic from its counterpart, etiquette, manners have less to do with the rules dictating how one should hold a fork at the dinner table than with the respectful behaviors we extend to others and hold for ourselves. Slurping one’s drink may violate a rule of etiquette but it’s not going to hurt anyone’s feelings. Good manners are those considerations that show people we care; make people feel good about themselves; and engender trust, loyalty, and friendship.

Think Golden Rule. It encapsulates the essence of manners. Every culture on the planet has their version of it: Treat others as you would want them to treat you.

“Manners are the traffic lights for life,” says Dr. P. M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, who has written books about civility and manners. “The dictates of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction,” he continues. “They make it so that we don’t crash into one another in everyday behavior.”

Australian author and speaker Lucinda Holdforth, in her book Why Manners Matter, argues that manners give us dignity, improve communication, unlock our humanity and connect us to society – all via a common language through which we can peacefully interact.

“Manners are more important than laws, less invasive than morals, and better than social confusion. Manners reconcile liberty with stability. Order is necessary to freedom,” says Holdforth.

She adds that the absence of manners renders us vulnerable to the imposition of legislation or the moral systems of others. And while such impositions might seem like an efficient means to achieving social harmony, “they make us less than ourselves and excuse our ability and willingness to freely exercise kindness and courtesy.”

So where did our manners go? How did we get from the wholesome 1950s TV family sitcom Leave it to Beaver to the present OMG! Please Don’t Leave it to Donald and Hillary?

The 1970s saw our WE society slowly devolve into a ME society. Acting in an elevated manner solely for the purpose of accommodating the greater good degenerated into serving one’s own personal comforts and desires - better known as keeping it real.

By this standard, it’s the fake person who conducts themselves with the comportment of kings, despite what could be personal feelings to the contrary. The real person aspires to self-aggrandizement.

fake person chooses to refrain from swearing because it’s crass and offensive to others. A real person doesn’t give a flying you know what. A fake person will dress to make a good impression and a real person will prioritize contentment over suitable attire.

Our selfie culture prefers to metaphorically let it all hang out rather then exercise the civil alternatives of modesty and diplomacy.

This thinking is, of course, upside down and has thus contributed to escalating divides and conflicts among otherwise potentially good people. Without manners no one gives respect and no one receives it.

Manners stand in direct contrast to one’s ease and comfort. It’s hard work to be considerate of others, especially at our own expense. Manners call upon us to aspire to a higher moral ground.

Tiffany Shlain is an award-winning filmmaker as well as the founder of Character Day, a now annual global initiative, in its third year, whose mission is to advance discussion about how to become the best versions of ourselves.

“Character is our biggest asset. Lack of character can be our loudest liability,” says Shlain. “It’s what defines us daily; what drives our actions and what motivates how we conduct our lives. But also, and perhaps most importantly, it’s how we treat one another. Character is the foundation of humanity.”

Shlain’s short film contribution to Character Day 2015 was The Science of Character, which investigates the relationship of neuroscience and social science to the development of character.

Following the film’s debut, Shlain heard from those in the Jewish community that Judaism already had a centuries-old program that teaches character development and manners guidance.

“It’s called Mussar,” says Shlain, “which is a Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement developed in the 19th century, particularly among Lithuanian Orthodox Jews. The Hebrew word is from the book of Proverbs 1:2 meaning ‘moral conduct, instruction and discipline’.”

The origins of Mussar content date back to the Hebrew book Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) from 200 C.E. and comprise a compilation of Rabbinic ethical wisdoms and maxims.

Mussar teachings include the 48 Middot (Jewish virtues meant to advise on character and thus manners). Those virtues include humility, charity, hospitality, compassion, repentance, honor, truthfulness, slow to anger, avoiding gossip and embarrassment to another, the importance of a work ethic, and the attributes of peace.

“The thing I love about Judaism is the wisdom, the intellectual ideas, the wrestling with ideas,” says Shlain, “and these are the ideas about living with purpose and leading a good life. It gave me pride that the Jewish people have been aware of and focused on this for so long.”

She also wrote and produced a short film for Character Day 2016 called The Making of a Mensch which probes the basis for, and merits of, manners as presented through Jewish teachings and tradition.

“A mensch (a person of integrity and honor) is not born but can develop over time through great efforts accessed through the right information,” says Shlain. “I love how the findings of modern science can coalesce with ancient Jewish teachings.”

It’s certain manners have existed throughout the ages and have adapted along the way to accommodate modern cultures. But even as manners have evolved, the primary focus has remained in tact: to make others feel appreciated and respected.

Even cavemen used manners as a key element of their human society. Early humans lived in collectives in order to effectively hunt, gather, share food, and keep one another warm and safe from dangers. Living so closely together, behaviors that considered others in the group ahead of oneself became essential to survival. Manners might in fact be responsible for the survival of our species.

It shouldn’t take much then for societies to agree that considerate codes of conduct and consensual manners are the social glue that holds not just societies but civilizations together.

What have we got to lose then by investing ourselves in a bit of courtesy? Certainly not the agony that comes with casting decorum to the wind.


Social Media Feedback

When we recently asked readers for their pet do’s and dont's. The response was predictable in some ways, and a bit eye-opening in others. The top responses were simple things, like saying “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” or “close your mouth when you chew.” Here are a few more:

  • • Don’t interrupt others. Consider the impact of your actions on others.
  • • When someone is giving you his or her time and company, grant them the same, and stay off your freaking phone.
  • • Hold the door for people.
  • • Apologize and mean it by changing your behavior.
  • • Know when it’s NOT the right time for adult language.
  • • If it’s not yours don’t touch it. (This goes double for teens)
  • • The only things that belong in your mouth are food and your elbow. ‬
  • • Say “bless you” when someone sneezes.
  • • Say “excuse me” when you bump into someone (or belch.)
  • • Be aware of your physical space and how that impacts others. For example, when shopping, don’t block the WHOLE aisle.
  • • Sneeze or cough into your elbow. This way you don’t then touch everything with your germy hands.
  • • Don’t eat the last doughnut.
  • • Use your turn signals.
  • • Put your shopping cart in the cart corral.
  • • When in conversation, remember the law of proportion: you have 2 ears and 1 mouth. Give your full attention to listening, not just planning your response. ‬
  • • Appreciate kindness and always show that it’s neither wasted nor taken for granted. ‬
  • • When you borrow something, return it within a decent amount of time and without having to be prompted.
  • • Never post anything online that you would be ashamed for your grandmother to see. ‬
  • • Drop the “Have a good day” thing.
  • • Make eye contact if it’s possible.
  • • RSVP when invited to something – whether you can go or not. And do it in a timely manner
  • • Give your seat up to an elderly person.
  • • When calling someone, introduce yourself. ‬ And inquire if they have time to talk...‬
  • • Never use all caps in a text/email unless you want to yell.
  • • Early is on time; on time is late; late is a problem.

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