Are Manners Logical or Superficial?

The choice between logical and rude

Posted Jul 10, 2009

When I was younger, people often accused me of strange behavior. I used to feel bad, but now I see the accusations in a different light.

I've learned that neurotypical people - folks who don't have autism - have certain expectations for how another person will act. And first impressions are all-important for many. If I want to make a good one, the onus is on me to act as expected.

To do that, I needed to learn how to act ‘normal' in the context in which I found myself. The first step was figuring out what ‘normal' really meant. To my surprise, the answer to that turned out to be simple: normal means ‘well mannered.' Manners were always something I lacked, according to everyone involved in raising me.

I can still remember my mother turning to me, with food on my face, and saying, "Look at you! What would your grandmother say?" She meant to admonish me, but comments like that never worked. Still, she was right. My grandmother Carolyn always complained about my manners. I've always been resistant to following orders or instructions that I find foolish or arbitrary, which was how I saw her advice at the time.

Carolyn persisted in her training efforts long enough that a few things actually stuck. For example, she taught me the right way to hold a knife and fork. Maybe that worked because it made sense. I still don't know of any better or more functional way to do it. Making a fist around the fork - as most children do at first - is both impolite and inefficient. The polite method of holding a fork provides for better control of the tool. It's a good idea that's also good manners.

Even passing food makes sense. I'd be tempted to reach across the table for a bowl of grits or beans, and my grandmother would catch me, "John Elder! Say, please pass me the beans!" My great grandfather ignored her and reached across the table anyway. When he did, bugs and other disgusting things fell from his arms into our plates. And he didn't care. "I'm a farmer," he'd say. As if that excused a live, crawling thing on my bacon. After that I didn't mind hearing, "Pass the food," so much.

If only all manners were that way! Unfortunately, they are not. Consider ingestion of soup from a bowl. When I was small, I used a spoon to eat most of my soup, and then I picked up the bowl, tipped it, and drank the rest. After a lot of struggle, Carolyn finally convinced me that was rude. To this day I won't drink from my bowl if I am with other people. I know that's a sign that I have manners.

Aspergians like me are notoriously logical and straightforward, and much of the time, manners are neither. They are not "common sense,' nor are they, "acting right." That's why manners didn't come naturally to me.

Common sense tells me the most efficient way to ingest soup is to tip the bowl and drink it. In fact, unless you have a spoon that's specifically contoured for the bowl you're using, that's the only way to get every last drop. And common sense tells us not to be wasteful.

Acting right - the moral imperative to treat others as you'd like to be treated - doesn't say much at all about drinking from the soup bowl. I know it's not right to throw food, or jab the person next to me with a fork. But where's the harm to anyone in drinking from a bowl that was assigned to me by the host or hostess? The answer is, there is no harm. There's just more efficient food ingestion and reduced waste.

And yet . . . it's rude to do it. For many years, logic prevented me from complying with rules of etiquette like that. I thought they were illogical and foolish, and I just would not go along. Eventually I came to understand that I benefited from compliance with the social rules, even when they seem illogical, wasteful, or nonsensical. Today, I look at my bowl and realize that it's better to act polite. In our society of plenty, where I seldom go hungry, their positive impression of me is worth more than the small amount of extra soup I'd get by tipping and drinking. I am sure things would be different if I were starving.

For a long time I tried to govern my interpersonal relations exclusively by what felt right; by my moral compass. That strategy served me well around close friends and family, and it's always worked for the big things in life. Unfortunately, a morals-based behavioral strategy breaks down in casual interactions; the sort one has at a dinner party.

There, I encountered strangers who were critical of me. At first, I reacted with hostility to what I perceived as shallow, superficial posturing. So what if I don't hold the door for you? Can't each of us take responsibility to open our own doors? It eventually became clear that my logical and ethical behavior just wasn't good enough - I was alienating strangers with my failure to "act like everyone else."

Manners seem to come naturally to many neurotypicals. I suspect that's because they are accustomed to doing what they are taught, whereas I have always resisted that. It's caused me considerable difficulty.

How do you feel about manners? Are they just superficial? Or do they have a deeper foundation?

Why do we have them?