My stepmother has the loveliest manners of anyone I know. She is thoughtful, compassionate, and unfailingly kind, she engages people in conversation and listens to what they say. In the years I have known her, I have watched the effect she has on people. They feel happier when she is near. They feel acknowledged.
I think such courtesy is a profound indicator of character. Manners matter. I am not talking about the unthinking mouthing of meaningless politenesses, I don't mean which fork one should use for the salad course, and I am not espousing rules for rules' sake. What I am talking about is perfectly captured by Alexander McCall Smith, in his book The Sunday Philosophy Club. In this passage, the primary character, Isabel, a philosopher by profession, muses about Toby, whom she has just met:
Jamie had good manners. Paul Hogg had good manners. Her mechanic, the proprietor of the small backstreet garage where she took her rarely used car for servicing, had perfect manners. Toby, by contrast, had bad manners; not on the surface, where he thought, quite wrongly, that it counted, but underneath, in his attitude to others. Good manners depended on paying moral attention to others; it required one to treat them with complete moral seriousness, to understand their feelings and their needs. Some people, the selfish, had no inclination to do this, and it always showed. They were impatient with those whom they thought did not count: the old, the inarticulate, the disadvantaged. The person with good manners, however, would always listen to such people and treat them with respect.
This was not the best book I have ever read, but that passage is the best I've ever come across on true courtesy. Once we start "paying moral attention to others", we cannot escape our connectedness; that we are our brother's and sister's keepers becomes obvious. Then life gets very interesting indeed. I am trying to do a better job of embodying this quality. And in this election season, I'm watching for it in the candidates. It's easy to see, so far, that some have it in their bones.
And others don't even have it on the teleprompter.