Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 2, 1997

Civility, Manners
and Politeness:
Multidisciplinary Perspectives:
A Manner Of Speaking

Mike Field
Staff Writer

If ever in the world there was a sure thing, it is this: poll a group of people age 40 or older and ask them if manners and politeness have declined in their lifetimes. You can bet your lunch money the overwhelming majority will respond with a resounding yes!

A U.S. News & World Report survey is a case in point. In April 1996, the magazine reported that nearly nine out of 10 Americans think incivility is a serious problem. An overwhelming 78 percent further believe that the situation has worsened in the past 10 years.

Politeness, it seems, is a dying form. And manners--what's left of them--are going down the tube. Or at least, so many pollsters and pundits would have us believe.

But all may not be as rude and inhospitable as people seem to think. At least, that's the opinion of classics professor and department chair Giulia Sissa, who has teamed up this semester with professor of Hispanic and Italian Studies Pier Massimo Forni to teach the university's first-ever course on civility.

"One of the premises of our course is there is a civilizing process at work, and the change and development of manners and civility are part of that process," Sissa said. "We'd like to go beyond this intuitive assumption that we are not acting as well as our parents did."

The course, titled Civility, Manners and Politeness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, will study the whole issue of being nice from historical, anthropological and sociological points of view. It arrives at a time when issues of civility and politeness are increasingly in the public eye.

"We both thought that this was an interesting, exciting and timely subject," Forni said of his informal conversations with Sissa at a party that led to the creation of the course. "The research into these issues has intensified in the past two to three years, and one aspect of this heightened interest is that we are seeing much more attention paid to these issues in the popular press."

Forni himself is becoming something of a national authority on the subject of civility, and now finds himself quoted in publications ranging from the Oklahoma Gazette to the Los Angeles Times. In the past few years he has accumulated a substantial archive of contemporary writing and references related to civility, all of which he has kept neatly filed away in his office with the part-time help of a Hispanic and Italian Studies Department graduate student.

Manners and their application in daily life have long been of interest in popular culture. Emily Post's famous Etiquette is now in its 16th edition since first being published in 1922, and Judith Martin's popular column "Miss Manners" is now syndicated in more than 300 papers nationwide.

Yet Sissa and Forni are quick to assert that manners--while perhaps a popular topic of light conversation--are in fact a profoundly serious issue in the development of civilization. Their course reflects this view, requiring such diverse and weighty readings as Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents," Goffman's "Interaction Ritual" and Elias' "The Civilizing Process," which is volume I of "The History of Manners."

"Nobert Elias in "The Civilizing Process" tries to demonstrate that we are more and more polite," Sissa said of the book that will serve as the primary text for the course. "An example is the development of the European court, where aristocrats become more and more refined and gentle and self-controlled. The underlying objective is the control of violence, and so we are in this continual progression of domesticating ourselves."

"Ideally there is a progress in man from natural man, where the ego is unbridled, to the person who exhibits the restraints to act successfully in society," Forni agreed. "Cultures at large tend to repeat this kind of progression, from feudal lord to the courtier described in Castiglione's 'The Book of the Courtier' to the highly stylized manners of the French court in the reign of Louis XIV."

If, as Elias claims, manners are advancing, why do the vast majority of people feel just the opposite to be true? This is one of the many paradoxes of civil behavior that Sissa and Forni hope to explore in their course.

"Ideas of civility change," Sissa suggested, "and convention can be redefined." In other words, behavior deemed appropriate and polite--such as lighting a cigarette in someone's home--may become less so, while other activities--say, holding hands or kissing in public--can lose their power to offend. The class will look at civility and manners through a historical perspective to uncover the ways in which polite behavior reflects the primary concerns of the dominant social order.

"Philosophers of antiquity were very interested in issues of manners and civility," Sissa said. "For instance, Plutarch wrote at length on how to seat a banquet. There is this implicit recognition that the issue is how to organize social behavior in a way that makes sense of values. Antiquity is very rich in these concerns."

While concern for civility and polite behavior may be constant throughout the history of civilization, the specifics tend to change, often radically. "Antiquity has very different models of what is exemplary," Sissa explained. "The Homeric hero, for instance, is very physical. He is not an example of restraint. He's quick to cry, he's quick to anger, and he displays his feelings freely. Eventually the Gospel comes along as a challenge to ancient society and a new model of virtue arises."

Those changes are no less evident in American society as well, where 18th-century ideals of courtly behavior were often in direct conflict with the nation's philosophical commitment to democracy and egalitarianism.

"It's impossible to speak of civility in America without linking it to the building of democracy in this country," Forni said. "From the beginning, America defined itself by contrasting its values with the aristocratic values and instead emphasizing its ideals of equality. In this framework, manners can easily be considered negatively. In this way they are viewed as representing lying and insincerity. Aristocratic values that serve to enforce social distance are abandoned, and instead informality becomes an American ideal."

If ideals of informality become ascendant and the social imperative of class differentiation diminishes, do manners thereby become obsolete?

"There are some sociologists who claim that manners are only established to differentiate those who know them from those who don't, and serve to confirm and perpetuate those differences," Sissa said. "We do not agree that manners are only that. I am very aware that something very important at the core of manners is the control of violence."

In this context, manners become a symbolic embodiment of morals. Saying "Excuse me" when you bump into someone on the street, for instance, can be understood as a ritualized but effective way of avoiding brawls. Yet much of what people typically think of as etiquette and manners is less clearly the embodiment of a specific value.

"For instance, not cutting your salad with a knife is purely a societal convention that is largely a matter of aesthetics," Sissa said. "Manners are not always a matter of morals. When we talk about the corpus of correct behavior we cannot say that every particular act is the embodiment of a value."

Yet, said Sissa and Forni, the progression of civility and manners provides a useful insight into the development of civilization. "One of our goals for this class is to define in what ways civility matters, and what we mean by culture and civilization," Forni said. "What are the connections between civilization and civility? We will be trying to instill the notion that the values in a society are not disembodied. They are not mere abstractions. By studying the forms of civility we can expose the values behind the forms and, it is hoped, understand our society a little better."

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