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Mind Over Manners

Updated: May 31

The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.


During last week's blog post I promised that our next book choice would spark some important conversations, albeit uncomfortable for some. This book cycle we’re reading our first fan book choice, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo. What became quickly apparent in this book is how much my understanding of human experience is linked to history. Growing up I was often told: you need to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going. Back then I took it in the context of understanding the stories of my relatives. I hadn’t considered the bigger picture, about how centuries of power struggles and conquests that benefited the wants of the few over the needs of the many had manifested into today’s status quo. We all want to feel a certain amount of autonomy, yet these histories profoundly influence my actions and reactions in ways I will remain blind to unless I mindfully analyze them. The dominant explanation of human nature and morality is reflective of those holding the balance of power. Consequentially, conversations that challenge this power dynamic are uncomfortable.


It’s this discomfort that can silence conversations about race before they get started, and even cause some people to feel rude bringing the subject up in the first place. Like money, periods, and mental health, racism has too long been banished as a subject not discussed in ‘polite society.’ It got me to wondering.


What is it that causes someone to deem some conversations rude and others not?


Is there something inherently wrong with discomfort? Surely, it’s necessary sometimes. No athlete ever made it to the Olympics by avoiding discomfort. I assume. I’ve never personally participated in competitive athletics, but I can barely walk after going mountain biking for the first time each spring, and can attest to it being very uncomfortable.


Is there a connection between discomfort and rudeness?


That thought rang a bell. I had made that connection fairly recently, with a subject that seemed somewhat unrelated. Before we get to that, a quick aside.


My inquisitive children have a way of making me examine the world in the minutest detail. They question things I take for granted. Highly inquisitive children won’t accept an answer like, “just because.” It might take days, weeks, or years of asking, but my persistent children challenge me to dig deeper and explain the complicated conventions of culture. It’s reminiscent of analyzing Macbeth in English class, except the questions never end.


A favourite topic of inquiry in our house is the purpose of manners. Seems simple enough to explain except there are many seemingly arbitrary rules that all fall under the same umbrella. I’ll spare you the iterations.


Over the years, my husband and I have distilled it down to this: manners are a way to show people you care by acting predictably and avoiding things that make people uncomfortable. It’s a way to show respect, maintain social relationships, and express gratitude. This explanation seemed to cover the basics of please & thank you, and the harder to explain ones like keeping elbows off the table or eating with your mouth closed. This explanation held up for a while. It has a fatal flaw, however, that was revealed in time.


Children are expected to learn manners, and their ability to demonstrate politeness is held up as proof of successful parenting by many. But what if the rules make them uncomfortable? If manners are meant to make people comfortable, then rules that cause children discomfort must therefore be rude. But they are not. Why?


Aside from wishing I could merely ask someone not to lick their knife during dinner without a philosophical debate, I had to admit she had a point. Touché, kiddo.


I dug a little deeper. I still liked the discomfort, predictability, and gratitude argument, but there’s more to it.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Upsplash

Power.


Some politeness rules are about maintaining power. Consider the rule: children should only speak when spoken to. It might seem old-fashioned, but some people still subscribe to it. Some without realizing they do. It can manifest as anger, frustration, or shock at a child speaking their mind unprompted. A similar one is the expectation that children should do as they’re told without question. Because we said so. Questioning an adult by a child can be considered rude. Perhaps more so if that question is unexpected and uncomfortable.


This is not an argument for rudeness. I honestly believe politeness demonstrates respect and helps build relationships. I’m all for ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ As a Canadian, it’s drilled into me from a young age and held up as part of our identity. I’m just saying, it’s worthwhile digging deeper to find out the reasoning behind etiquette. Otherwise, we’re merely reacting automatically, and an act of gratitude without mindfulness is hollow. We can then apply moral reasoning to unique situations.


Thus far, I recognize four motivations for good manners, namely: control, personal comfort, comfort for others, and expressing respect. If one is primarily motivated by the first two, to maintain power and the status quo, then you may not be interested in anti-racism work or re-evaluating values. If, however, one’s primary motivation for manners is altruistic and based on building relationships, then a list of arbitrary rules might not cut it.


In a previous blog post Shh… Your Feelings Are Trying To Tell You Something, I argued that our feelings and physical sensations tell us something. A feeling of personal discomfort can feel like a call to action, whether for fight, flight, or something else. I’d like to suggest it can act as a call for mindfulness.

The need for mindfulness is one of my biggest takeaways from DiAngelo’s book. There are a lot of messed up things that need to change in this world, and it’s going to required discomfort. Change is uncomfortable. It’s going to take work. Before something becomes habit, it requires a lot of practice. That’s why we don’t have to think about maintaining the status quo. It’s a perpetual motion machine. It gets maintained without effort.


Given my colonial heritage, I don’t think it’s a mistake that this book made me think of the rules of etiquette. The rules I was raised on likely originated from Britain, and it is those rules to which I refer in this article. My ancestors had a hand in building the discriminatory systems that exist today. In her book, DiAngelo describes white fragility as “the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially” and behaviours that “function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” White fragility is about holding onto power, just as some rules of etiquette are about maintaining control. Two particular behaviours—white silence and white solidarity—remind me of the oft repeated phrase from my youth: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. In light of the damaging effects of silence, it is arguably more “nice” to say something and practice anti-racism rather than hold my tongue.


As far as manners go, I value them overall. For me, it’s important to understand both the what and the why. Critically thinking about history can help me gauge which cultural conventions align with my values today. Part of creating a better future is recognizing that blindly following the rules of the past stifles change. Like deeming some subjects taboo despite injustice.


What do manners mean to you? Are there some rules you think belong in the past and need to be abandoned? Have the rules of etiquette ever contradicted your own moral compass?


We’d love to hear from you. Comment below, email us, or connect through the Book Interrupted Book Club Facebook group!


Want to get more involved? You can join us on the show for a full 6-week book cycle. The current book, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, was chosen by Book Interrupted fan Squiggy. Find out more by going to our fan page at www.bookinterrupted.com/fans. The submission deadline for the next fan book is June 1, 2021.

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