Manners are the happy ways of doing things . . . ’tis the very beginning of civility,—to make us, I mean, endurable to each other.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life
As civilization began, it became apparent that the human race was imperfectly suited for it. Living together took some work. All these years later, there are innumerable examples to show that we’re still not terribly good at being civilized, from the student commuter who dashes in front of an elderly woman to claim a seat on the subway to how societies treat their poor and unemployed. The unchanging reality is that people tend to think of themselves first, yet the task of coexistence is made easier if they don’t. And so efforts arose many years ago to teach folks how to get along.
The concept of grace—refined ease of movement and manner, as a way of pleasing, assisting, and honoring others—wove through this endeavor. Indeed, the term getting along itself, in the sense of being on harmonious terms, implies graceful behavior. It carries a hint of a dance, a peaceable duet, or the falling-in-step impulse that horses have with one another, which helps make them manageable. Grace and manners, the general principles of social behavior, have historically been entwined; each adds luster to the other. To trace the development of grace through time, where grace isn’t specifically mentioned, I’ve looked for an emphasis on the art of getting along. By that I mean manners that are aimed at harmonious interactions and creating a climate of warmth and appreciation, as opposed to formalities about fish forks and introductions, which are in the more detail-oriented domain of etiquette.
Some of the world’s most influential books have been instruction manuals on the art of getting along, or what we’ve come to know as the social graces. These include the oldest writings of the ancient era, the runaway best sellers of the Renaissance, and the must-reads of American colonists, revolutionaries, and early twentieth-century strivers with an eye for elegance and civilized living.
Yet instruction in grace mysteriously dropped out of our lives a few decades ago.
Well, “mysteriously” isn’t quite right. There is a pendulum swing in the history of manners, when one era comes up with rules and they grow more and more strict until another generation says, oh, just forget about it—this is ridiculous. And grace gets thrown out for being an act, insincere, phony.
“We have the residue now, with well-meaning parents who say to their children, ‘Just be yourself,’” said Judith Martin, when I asked her why the social graces were in decline. Martin is the author of the internationally syndicated Miss Manners newspaper column and many books on etiquette. “What does that mean? Who would they be if they weren’t themselves? Parents don’t teach their children how to act out being glad for a present, or how to seem pleased to see someone they may not want to see.
“Etiquette has long struggled with the opposing ideas of grace and naturalness, of appearing natural and being natural, which are two entirely different things,” she continued. This inherent paradox, of feeling one thing and saying another, leaves etiquette open to the charge of insincerity. “There is a disconnect in what you feel and what you ought to project, which is the opposite of sincerity. For example, the hostess who says, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’ when you’ve just broken her favorite lamp. Of course she cares about it, but the primary goal is putting the other person at ease.
“People say etiquette is artificial. But what they really object to is the obviously artificial,” Martin said. “Yes, it is artificial and it’s often better than the raw expression of natural desires. Look at dance: Is human movement better when it’s totally untutored or is it better when you put thought and work into it?”
Social grace, just like physical grace, requires work. That was the point of the conduct books from centuries past: to make it plain that correct behavior required effort and discipline. Being with people is an art like any other art, or a practice, if you will, just like cooking or riding a bicycle. The more you realize what smooths things over, what pleases people, and the more you want to be graceful and practice being graceful, the better and more convincing you will become. Grace will cease to be something you “act out.” But as with any learned activity, there are different degrees of polish here. There is the hostess who reacts to her broken lamp by saying, “Oh, don’t worry about it” through clenched teeth, making you feel terrible. And then there is one who reacts with grace, putting on a better act, perhaps. Maybe she’s a Meryl Streep, imperceptibly masking her true feelings with an Oscar-worthy portrayal of nonchalance. Or maybe she really hated that lamp and is glad it’s headed for the trash. Or maybe she is really and truly a happy-go-lucky angel on earth whose every impulse is upright and pure. It makes no difference to the embarrassed guest who just wants to be forgiven. He’s grateful for grace any way it comes.
Grace lies in the manner in which the rules are followed, Martin says. “Do you follow etiquette rules to the letter, or do you make it seem as if they arise naturally from good feelings and it’s easy for you to say, ‘Oh, never mind, don’t worry about it’? It’s not easy for a dancer to leap into the air either, and we don’t see the bloody toes and the sweat from a distance. And in the same way, if she’s being graceful, we don’t see the hostess thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to cost me a fortune to fix.’”
Let’s face it, if we all exposed our true feelings all the time, the world would be unbearable. Grace, as Martin put it, “is that covering through which we make the world pleasant.”
And yet we’re in one of those extremes of the pendulum swing where honesty is overvalued and the brilliant act, the self-discipline, the training that produces grace has faded away. An accumulation of blows has led to its downfall, but they stem from a reaction against the overcomplication of everyday life that picked up strength in the 1950s and ’60s. The modern means of self-improvement turned from building up one’s character (a rather slow, internal, and never-ending process) to the far easier focus on things we can buy. Buying our way into the good life. With the surge in department stores and shopping malls, with ever-present advertising, with our voyeurism via television into the lives and possessions of others, shopping became the modern means of self-betterment.
This was a 180-degree turn from the previous idea. America’s Founding Fathers, for example, were obsessed with inner self-improvement. Striving for “moral perfection,” a twenty-year-old Benjamin Franklin worked methodically to acquire a list of virtues, from silence and sincerity to tranquility and humility. He assessed himself each evening and tracked his progress on charts. John Adams, in a typical diary entry, resolved to become more conscientious and socially pleasant: “I find my self very much inclin’d to an unreasonable absence of mind, and to a morose, unsociable disposition. Let it therefore be my constant endeavor to reform these great faults.” But two hundred years on, such vestiges of a Puritan past had been swept aside by a greater interest in cars, appliances, and shiny hair.
The spread of the suburbs after World War II, with their backyard weenie roasts, patios, and cheese dips, was also a way of escaping an overcomplicated, formal life. It encouraged a sportier, more casual lifestyle for a middle class newly freed from decades of deprivation. Add to that the great wave of Baby Boomers, born into prosperity and surrounded by products, a Me Generation showered with attention, not inclined to modesty, and little interested in the artifice of social graces and their required self-control. In them, the age-old tendency of the young to rebel against their elders attained an unprecedented critical mass. And with that came even more informality, more “be yourself” free rein. The courtesies of their parents’ era were a drag.
Child-rearing practices were also changing. In the new, less formal times, manners instruction for children simply went out of style, and the subtleties of grace were deemed passé, or worse: elitist. Anything implying snobbery was swept aside by a growing middle class, the youth counterculture, and a surging progressive tide. Change was sorely needed, as the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s movements demonstrated. But it wasn’t only social institutions that were rocked. So was the cradle.
A nation crawling with babies was hungry for advice, the simpler the better. The easygoing child-centered approach advocated by Benjamin Spock in his enormously influential, best-selling Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, which first came out in 1946, gave parents permission to forgo the feeding schedules and strict discipline of former times and simply enjoy their kids. Hugs were in, spankings were out. But if you’re tracking the demise of grace, you can find a few nicks and cuts in his pages.
Since people like children with “sensibly good” manners, Spock writes, “parents owe it to their children to make them likable.” But he also put forth the view that “good manners come naturally” if a child feels good about himself.
Yet self-esteem is not the answer to everything. In fact, some researchers blame the self-esteem movement of the 1980s for the rise in narcissism among college students today as compared with those of thirty years ago. Narcissists have a grandiose view of themselves but care little about others; the argument is that parents who fill their children’s ears with how special they are (as opposed to, say, how hard they work or how kind they are) create adults with little patience for those who don’t recognize their superiority. We’ve all encountered plenty of people, young and old, with high opinions of themselves and precious little grace. It is one thing to empower a child with self-worth and confidence and to guide her in becoming a good person. But children who are not taught to behave with consideration for others and to respect other people’s feelings will not develop empathy and compassion.
While likable is a perfectly fine quality, it’s a low bar to set for parents. It refers only to how others view the child, and in a bland way at that. Being likable means you’re receiving something—someone’s approval. Compare it with agreeable, which is about giving. It’s other-directed, referring to getting along, being warm, supportive, and helpful, while diminishing the focus on yourself. “Be pretty if you can, be witty if you must, but be agreeable if it kills you!” declared the 1930s Home Institute booklet Charm. Interestingly, Spock’s view of the primacy of likability flips the long-standing Anglo-American notion, prevalent among the Puritans and up through the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries, that one builds character through service to others, whether God or your fellow man. In this older view, the less you fixate on yourself the better, apart from controlling unruly impulses. Putting priority on others is the right—and graceful—thing to do.
A Culture of Coarseness
What has most threatened grace is what I can only describe as a culture of coarseness. We’re insensitive to our effect on other people. We don’t think about how others feel when we shoot down their ideas in a meeting, when we court laughs at their expense, when we criticize them in front of colleagues. Or when we make it known how little they matter once someone more interesting comes along. I was having lunch with a colleague once when she saw a man she knew passing by on the sidewalk. Waving vigorously through the window to get his attention, she urged him to join us. But the moment he got to our table, before she’d had a chance to introduce us (I’m choosing to believe that was her plan), her cell phone rang. She’d placed it on the table in case this should happen, so of course she took the call, having long forgotten the conversation she’d interrupted by inviting in a guy off the street, and leaving me and a stranger in awkward silence while she also forgot about us.
Our devices are draining us of grace. “We need to e-mail!” a friend I haven’t seen in a while calls over her shoulder, because there’s no time to talk. E-mail and texting are convenient, but they also crumple us up physically and make us unaware socially, closed off from those around us. Riding the subway can be like nursery school, what with the manspreaders who don’t want to share the bench they’re sprawling on with wide-open knees and a slump, and the woman who takes up two seats with all her bags and doesn’t much care if you have to stand. Or maybe she doesn’t notice you because she’s very busy texting, like the toy store owner sitting behind the counter who couldn’t be moved to help me find a birthday present for my nephew. Silly me, I thought that she was entering important data on her tablet; it was my savvier preteen daughter who detected instantly the gestures of a stealth texter.
With the hours spent hunched over keyboards, no wonder we’re awkward when we get up. Hips tighten, necks droop, our backs round. I watch people walking and standing. Most of us sag in the front, with shoulders pitched forward and chests caving, probably from too much sitting and driving and not enough walking, or walking incorrectly. Our footfalls are heavy; we gaze at the ground or at what’s in our hands. We’ve lost the ability to carry ourselves with upright buoyancy and ease. Grace is not only the furthest thing from our minds, it’s beyond the reach of our bodies.
Instead, we’re drawn to disgrace. No teaser is bigger Internet click bait than the one that promises bad behavior: “Mogul Throws Fit Over Spilt Champagne”; Lindsay Lohan gets kicked out of a hotel; Justin Bieber moons his fans on Instagram.
Reality TV thrives on disgrace. Fans watch it for the awkward moments, for people to be told they’re fired, they suck, they’re the weakest link. The appeal of American Idol used to be Simon Cowell bullying a contestant who had volunteered himself for public shaming. Would we ever be so stupid? Of course not. Survivor competitors drag one another through the dirt, physically and verbally; the mothers on Dance Moms put the toddler antics of subway riders to shame. Viewers can puff themselves up in comparison, engage in some vicarious ribbing without responsibility.
The glee of disgrace, of course, exists beyond TV. In May 2014, Evan Spiegel, CEO and founder of Snapchat, the ephemeral photo-sharing app, issued an apology after the release of e-mails he’d written to his frat brothers while attending Stanford. Those missives had cheerfully chronicled getting sorority girls (“sororisluts”) drunk and musing about whether he’d peed on his date. Typical frat boy fun, some said.
Are we too easily outraged? Or are we numb to what is truly outrageous (torture, for starters), because we’re overoutraged? Internet outrage has become a fact of life, a ritual of righteous indignation practiced after the inappropriate tweet. Outrage is such a satisfying cycle: First there is a celebrity faux pas; then the offended take to Twitter, the defenders counterattack, the bloggers repost, a Facebook fight erupts, and after all the time invested in following this trail—trust me, even your respected local newspaper is following this trail—why, there’s a new dumb thing to get mad about.
We’re in an environment of grabbing and taking: taking advantage, taking control, taking for oneself. Grace, by contrast, is associated with giving. The three Charites of Greek mythology, you’ll recall, are the givers of charm, beauty, and ease.
In so many fields of activity—sports, entertainment, business—-success isn’t just winning, it’s crushing. Total domination is the desired image to project. Power is valued over grace; taking is celebrated. Giving is considered a lesser quality, even a weakness. These are the days of category-killing control and sensory bombardments by any means necessary. It’s as if society at large has been captivated by the steroid aesthetic of today’s sports.
Asked by business analysts if he was going to retire at sixty-five, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said no, despite it being company custom, and by way of explanation—offered to people he wanted to impress, no less—he chose to depict himself as a monster. “The heart will still be beating, the employees will still be cowering,” he said. “I’ll be working hard. There’s no end in sight.”
This prompted another memorable public apology. Yet McNerney’s original phrasing was telling, right up to his last words. There’s no end in sight. Perpetual power: Why give it up if you’re on a roll? Why give up anything if you’re in a position to take? If those down the rungs have anything to relinquish—if they can be made to cower, to give back benefits and raises and job security—then that must be done, because it can be done.
Bigger may be better, but gigantic is best, whether it’s profits, or the wedding of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, or the tech effects of a Hollywood blockbuster. (Just look at how the intimate, human-scale charm of The Wizard of Oz gave way to the massive 3-D spectacle of Oz the Great and Powerful, with its CGI landscape, booming soundtrack, explosions, and strained seriousness.)
In all of this, being compassionate and humble, generous and considerate, elegantly restrained rather than a show-off, at ease instead of in-your-face—in short, being graceful—seems rather behind the times.
“Go out of your way to do something nice for somebody—it will make your heart warm,” urged a 1935 guide, Personality Preferred! How to Grow Up Gracefully. This book, like others of its era, took a holistic view of grace as a way of being that one acquired through habits of the body, mind, and spirit.
“Grace isn’t just a set of behaviors you dust off and display on special occasions,” author Elizabeth Woodward explained to her young readers. “It’s how you carry yourself every day.”
Woodward, an editor at Ladies’ Home Journal, wrote her book after getting hundreds of thousands of letters from young women seeking advice. Before the upheavals in the mid-twentieth century, growing-up advice to young people, such as Woodward’s book, generally followed a course set in antiquity. Making one’s way in the world was seen as an art, something to be practiced and perfected. It was in some ways like a lifelong dance, with rules and steps and choreography, as well as the need for rehearsal. This art of living incorporated not only what people said and how they behaved at dinner or in the parlor, but how they moved in many ways, large and small. Control of the body through posture and proper body language has long been a part of “conduct books.” In How to Grow Up Gracefully and publications like it, for example, it is essential to the graceful life.
Excerpted from "The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life" by Sarah L. Kaufman. Copyright © 2015 by Sarah Kaufman. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co.