Friday, September 21, 2012

Politeness Then and Now

St. John Baptist de La Salle wrote a very interesting book called “The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility.” Written over a period of eight years and published in 1703, the book enjoyed wide popularity, going through 45 editions and 120 printings during the next 200 years. There are quotations from it that still crop up now and again. Some years ago, I was ferretting through a barrel of books outside of a store in Concord, CA, when I spied an interesting cookbook about soups, and in flipping through it stumbled upon a quotation from De La Salle that came from this original book on politeness, where there is a whole section devoted to eating soup.

This was a book written for the classroom, as a reading text for those who had learnt enough to be able to read something simple and basic, out loud and together. The reasoning was that the kids might as well read something profitable.

The “audience” consisted of ten to twelve-year-old inner city boys, who were more familiar with street smarts than book smarts. So you might well imagine the topics covered.  There’s a section on “The Nose and the Manner of Blowing Your Nose and Sneezing” that contains pertinent advice such as “It is not refined to keep your handkerchief in your hand or to offer it to someone else, even if it is very clean. However, if someone asks for it and insists, you may hand it to him.” And that’s one of the milder pieces of advice.

The topics also include how to have a conversation, how to act when you join or leave a group, and the six situations in which one should take off one’s hat. There is no doubt that the book was put together based on real observations and real situations by teachers. Reading it, one could well see that students might be quite intrigued with the offered advice. In fact, one historian has said that the parents of students often improved their behavior because of the politeness lessons brought home by their sons.

Politeness and decorum remain as worthy a topic in the 21st century as it was in the 17th. Today the specific areas of concern deal with technology (mobile phones, internet usage, gaming, social networks, etc.) and its possible consequences (social myopia or lack of interaction skills, instant expectations of self and others, insensitivity to feelings or perspectives, and the like). At a later time, it will be worth exploring these a bit more deeply. For now, it’s sufficient to remind ourselves that the true knowledge of virtues, civility, and politeness requires the engagement of virtues, civility, and politeness. The doing leads to the being.

One of the best guidelines has ever been the same: “Do unto others what you would have them done unto you.” There’s a reason they call it the Golden Rule.