Why Politeness Will Never Be Enough For Society To Flourish

How often do you think about manners now that you’re an adult and your mom isn’t making you say please before she gets you a snack?

By Paula Gallagher3 min read
Screenshot 2023-10-27 at 11.56.32 AM
Miramax/Emma (1996)

Most of the time, we only notice manners when we run into someone with bad manners. Their lack of politeness may enrage or offend us, but if I may offer a platitude that is true in this scenario: It’s not a reflection on you, but on them. 

Politeness v. Civility

Alexandra Hudson, author of The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, spoke about how manners convey the respect we’re owed and owe others by virtue of being fellow humans in a recent episode of The Art of Manliness podcast. She said, “Manners matter because they are an outward extension of our inward character.”

Her statement instantly threw me back to my college Jane Austen class and an essay prompt on the role of manners in the novel Emma. It was a prompt that initially threw me for a loop, and while I managed to eke out a decent paper, it's a question that has stayed with me. So when Hudson explained the difference between politeness and civility, all the neurons in my brain fired off excitedly with the excitement that comes when you finally have the exact words to articulate a puzzle that’s been in the back of your mind for over a decade. 

To begin with, Hudson made a clear distinction between politeness and civility. She said, “Politeness is manners, it’s etiquette, it’s a technique, it’s behavioral, it’s external, superficial, whereas civility is internal, it’s a disposition of the heart that sees others as our moral equals and sees them as worth respecting in light of that.”

Emma and Manners

With these definitions in mind, let’s turn to Emma. (Minor spoilers ahead for those who have slacked on their classic literature education). Protagonist Emma Woodhouse is polite. She is very aware of the social status of everyone in the town, as well as her own, and what is owed to others and herself in terms of etiquette. She may be outwardly polite and considerate to the impecunious Miss Bates and the annoying (to her) Miss Fairfax, but in her private thoughts and in private conversations with her best friend Harriet, Emma complains about them. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say she vents about them. 

Emma also uses her politeness to manipulate Harriet to her own ends. Emma has determined that Harriet should marry Mr. Elton and so politely pressures poor Harriet into refusing Robert Martin’s marriage proposal. When Harriet comes to Emma for advice over the proposal, Emma very politely and properly tells her she will have nothing to do with it and that Harriet must decide for herself, but when Harriet appears tempted to accept, she interjects with, “I lay it down as a general rule that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him.” She couches her manipulation in kind terms of a “general principle” (which is actually not bad advice) that she can use to accomplish her own matchmaking ends.

Love interest Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, is the soul of civility. Hudson says “grace, hospitality, and other-orientedness,” as well as “the sacrifice of the self so that the social can flourish,” are the “hallmarks of true civility,” and Mr. Knightley embodies these qualities. He never loses his patience with hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse, he gives all his apples to the impoverished Miss Bates, and he sends his carriage to convey Miss Fairfax to the ball so she needn’t walk – all without expecting thanks or praise. He is friends with everyone, from witty Emma to arrogant Mr. Elton, and acknowledges what is good in Harriet, even though he thinks Emma and Harriet aren’t good for each other.

But beyond general amiability and goodwill, Mr. Knightley is capable of the more difficult side of civility – knowing when true civility requires being impolite. Hudson said, “Sometimes respecting someone, actually being civil, requires being impolite. It requires breaking the rules of etiquette and propriety and telling hard truths.” Mr. Knightley is not willing to be polite when it risks the good of others or of society. The most predominant example is when he scolds Emma after she publicly insults and humiliates Miss Bates; he reprimands Emma because he sees his friend heading down a path that would damage her own character and her relationship with her friends and neighbors. 

Mr. Knightley also refuses to let newly married Mrs. Elton take over a strawberry picking party at his house, which establishes a necessary boundary – he won’t give up his own authority in his own home and he will do his part not to let this pushy, vain woman take over the town’s social circle. He also manages to set this boundary without being rude. He simply says, “There is but one married woman in the world whom I can ever allow to invite what guests she pleases to Donwell, and that one is Mrs. Knightley; and till she is in being, I will manage such matters myself.” The boundary is set without Mrs. Elton feeling slighted.

Both Emma and Mr. Knightley illustrate how their manners are an outward extension of their inward character. For Emma, they are merely politeness, the social sheen used to hide her true feelings and ambitions, whereas for Mr. Knightley, they are truly grounded in the generosity, goodwill, and respect he feels toward all his friends and neighbors (except Frank Churchill, but we’ll overlook his jealousy over Emma). The contrast these two characters provide shows how mere politeness can be weaponized and how it is civility that advances the good of individuals and the good of society. 

Closing Thoughts

In an age where manners seem to be checked at the door of social media platforms, the question of the role of civility is eminently relevant. Manners aren’t just necessary for kindergarten classrooms or eating dinner with your potential in-laws. More than politeness, we need civility for a truly flourishing society.

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