Every time we speak we can make some situation better or we can make it worse.
The continued propinquity of another human being cramps the style after a time unless that person is somebody you think you love. Then the burden becomes intolerable at once. This may seem to be carrying monasticism to unbearable extremes, but dry your tears. What is frowned upon is cohabitation rather than sex.
The problems that one encounters on an occasional basis in hosting a soirée are nothing compared to the domestic discords that can occur when two or more people are sharing a residence. Even at the most gloomy party one can console oneself by saying, ‘This too shall pass,’ and be reasonably sure it will end before sunrise, when all the vampires creep back into their crypts. But with spouses, in-laws, flatmates (and all those who the more disruptive of your life their behavior becomes the more often they tell you they love you – what kind of excuse is that?), it is no easy matter to extricate oneself from a trying situation. I do not allow this problem to arise in my own life; I have not lived with anyone since reaching my mid-thirties, and have not had the remotest wish to be seen by someone else eating my morning corn-beef hash and eggs, with a scraggly beard and my hair in curlers. I would rather move to the Third World and be crushingly poor and alone in a rice paddy than be pent up in a penthouse with some professional cell-mate who insists on being my soul-mate. I don’t want to sing ‘The Nearness of You’ to anyone; but judging from the expanding list of ‘Shared Accommodation’ classifieds in the papers the bulk of humanity is lining up, for reasons of economics or debauchery, to live in communal beehives where the days are filled with a socializing buzz and the nights are rendered sleepless by snoring and other nocturnal emissions.
Without people, our lives may seem to be an arid waste, but with them, the desert suddenly becomes a minefield. The man or woman who is an amusing delight to meet once a month for a meal and a movie may turn out to be an irascible neurotic with a drinking problem upon moving in: few people look their best in extreme close-up.
Photo: Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
There is a nursery-school of thought which advocates that people should be sincere: that they should be constantly expressing what’s on their minds. Creeping Sloppiness, the philosophy of the unruly class, holds ‘sincerity’, ‘spontaneity’ and ‘candour’ in great esteem; but in fact the usual results of practicing these pseudo-virtues is confusion, misunderstanding and hurt feelings. In my experience most so-called ‘truths’ are emotional in their base and far more unreliable than a lie. How many times has ‘I love you’ been whispered in the evening only to turn into ‘I can’t stand you’ by the morning? Truth-telling has an inflated reputation in our culture: every time the word ‘truth’ is spoken one practically hears a heavenly choir of philosophers and theologians singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Yet if we constantly told people exactly what we felt at any given moment there would be nothing but incivil chaos. A woman boarding a bus would say to the driver, ‘Well, it’s about time you got here you fat slob.’ And he would reply, ‘Oh shut up you old bag.’ A teenager sitting nearby would exclaim aloud, ‘I hope I don’t look like you ugly toads when I get older.’ And a woman sitting next to him would say, ‘Have you had a bath lately?’ And so on down the aisle until, goaded and gouged, everyone’s adrenalin flows and blood flows after it. Telling ‘the truth’ is an activity that generally pleases only one person and even then it is likely that the pain of it pleases him. But a well-mannered lie soothes and massages both parties so that the surface of their social relations is as smooth as a glassy sea.
Whenever someone says to me, ‘but what do you really think about me [him, her, it]?’ what I really think is that it’s time to go. To say what we think to our superiors would be inexpedient; to say what we think to our equals would be ill mannered and to say what we think to an inferior is unkind. Good manners occupy the terrain between fear and pity.
Photo by Inge Morath: Saul Steinberg Masks (c. 1960)
Some people only realize the true nature of a relationship when it ends; what has long been obvious to skeptical friends now becomes apparent to the pair who were formerly spellbound. When two people realize there is nothing further to be gained by pretending to be devoted to one another they frequently unleash a great gush of vindictive selfishness. Can nice manners modify emotional wreckage? Or are men and women doomed in their love affairs to be on their worst behavior?
Given the brevity of most relationships, it makes sense that we never commit ourselves utterly to anything or anyone, no matter how much we may say we are utterly committed. We cannot impose stasis upon that which is dynamic – it is the folly of human history that so many men have thought otherwise. Instead of taking marriage vows that pledge undying devotion and then making a mockery of them, it would be better to enter a personal relationship with an acute sense of the provisional. Promising to do more than we are ever likely to fulfill only makes failure a certainty.
People would behave much more decently towards one another at the end of a relationship if they expected less to begin with. So one of the ways in which we can improve our manners in sexual relationship is by examining, and demythologizing, the process known as love.
Most books on manners, and all books on morals, prescribe ‘Thou Shalts’ and proscribe ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ as if edicts alone could alter behavior. My contribution to this debate is based on trying to understand why people behave so badly and trying to devise strategies that either modify barbaric impulses at their source, or else, through defensive manners, afford some protection against the rudenesses of others.
If, instead of expecting love to endure for ever and ending up being outraged and devastated when it doesn’t, we begin by expecting a relationship to be of limited duration (based on its agreeability and usefulness), we could then be pleasantly surprised by how long it lasts. If indeed it survives several years, a decade, or longer, it will do so because it keeps changing, corresponding to the changes in ourselves, and because it is self-corrective in areas that are problematic. In short: we must be willing to accept that even the dearest of friends and lovers are simply guests, free to leave at any time.
Given such an attitude towards others – you could call it ‘love with a light touch’ – we would never be tempted to speak ill of someone who has departed for greener mirages. When a former friend or lover is intent on becoming ‘Ex-rated’, instead of staging an hysterical scene, trying to bar his or her exit, one should whip out a scarf (preferably silk) and flap goodbye. The world is full of nuts and one is nearly bound to find someone else to leave slimy rings around the bathtub, burn holes in the carpet, scratch the records, dogear the books, leave crumbs all over the kitchen, and ruin one’s peace of mind.
In tomorrow’s world hellos and goodbyes will come at an even faster rate than they do today, so one may as well be prepared for a series of sunderings. Some people will react to this quickening of life’s pulse by reaffirming traditional values such as the ‘lifelong relationship’ which only worked when the lifespan was short and temptations to wander were few. Others will declare the whole business of ‘relationships’ to be too difficult and instead embark on a series of callous affairs. As usual I occupy the middle ground: we should give to our dearest friends all that we can (which is almost certain to be more than they deserve), short of giving away our self-respect, in the cheerful knowledge that they are not likely to be with us for long. Every human transaction, however brief, should represent the best of which we are capable, so that we may say (when alone, for it is never to be boasted in the presence of others) that we did all that we could for whoever it was who needed us at that moment. It is a greater achievement to treat those closest to us with courtesy than it is to love them: few acts of violence are the result of etiquette but many are the crimes of passion.
Photo by Sára Saudková: The Swing (2004)
I regard women as not necessarily frailer than myself, but more precious and valuable. So if I were to hold my umbrella over a woman to keep her dry rather than myself it would be because she was more worth keeping dry than I am. In my romantic view, she may be a princess or the richest woman in the world but she can never be more than a lady.
Photo: Lady with a Wig, Egyptian, twelfth dynasty (1991-1786 BC)
The basic measure of defensive manners is: weed your social garden. The world is full of people and there is no reason to endure those who are more trouble than they are worth. Instead of surrounding yourself with tiresome people – be they boors or bores – keep the revolving door revolving.
Nearly all of the people who write in to Miss Manners (in her syndicated column) do so because they wish to complain about someone’s rude behavior and want advice on how to rebuke him. It’s a waste of time: don’t try to change your guest’s behavior – if they aren’t up to scratch, don’t ask them back. Life is too short to be spent in a constant struggle separating the good from the bad; there is barely enough time to separate the excellent from the merely good.
If one is constantly frustrated and defeated by the social environment in which one lives, good manners will remain an abstract subject rather than an embodied idea. John Keats once wrote: ‘That which is creative must first create itself.’ So it is with manners – we must first of all seek out those people and situations most conducive to bring out the best in us, and keep to a minimum our contacts with people who merely drain our energy.
Once a person has treated you badly (I mean really badly, not merely being late for the theatre or getting drunk and pressing your knee), chances are that your forgiveness will only make him incorrigible. He will sin and beg forgiveness, then sin again and beg for more forgiveness, and then sin again…Take my advice, pack your bags and leave. Let the unlovable cook their own dinners, wash and iron their own clothes and stew alone in their goulash of bile and spleen.
Graphic by onecrazydiamond: Delete person