I was fortunate enough recently to visit Paris, and I was reminded of the importance of manners. Especially in a place where one doesn’t speak the language, it is crucial, if you aim to be a polite guest, to be sensitive to the mores and traditions of the host. Most of this can be accomplished with basic manners. So my wife and I went out of our way to not be the ugly American, to observe Paris for exactly what it is, and respect it as we found it. The Parisians seemed generally happy to accommodate.
First, some comments on the French: they get a bad rap. Of course, I was a tourist in tourist areas, and perhaps it was in their best interest to be polite to me. After all, Americans are used to tipping, and the French don’t seem to find it patronizing anymore. (We found a 10-15% tip was the norm indicated on the menus.) The rumors of rudeness I had heard proved unfounded for me, even as a non-French speaker. Everyone from wait staff to pedestrians was willing to help, and often spoke English without me even asking if they could in the broken French I remembered from high school and college classes. (It was hopelessly obvious I was an American tourist, complete with a large camera on my shoulder. I have no shame.)
Manners, I was reminded, are the oil of societies. As much as children resist them in their more rebellious years, and as much as societies in general revolt against them from time to time, I see the wisdom in highly regarding a polite society. Criticisms of such societies usually run along these lines: to have excessive manners is to mirror the ruling classes, and hence give them tacit authority for ruling. This is why kids rebel against the manners of their parents, and why entire cultures change their mind about manners. (We no longer curtsy, for example, which is probably a good thing.) Postmodernism has taught us to distrust authority, and consequently, it seems we distrust the rituals, however minor they may appear, that are complicit in such trust.
For example, I am not sure we show the kind of deference we used to for veterans, our elders or authorities. If respecting authority is no longer a recognized value, it makes sense that manners could be seen as disposable. Pastors, politicians, and parents are all traditional authoritative figures that are subject to question, perhaps more now than ever. As I contemplate walking in my father’s footsteps to record my grandparents (all four are still living in their mid-80s), I wonder if my children will have any interest in listening to what they have to say?
I should add some context to my Paris trip as well: before I left, I saw a newscast about the way teenagers have descended to, shall we say, “primitive” forms of dancing, rubbing their hips against each other before so much as exchanging names. I also have mourned anew the popularity of rap music, now that I have finally admitted to myself that it is not a fad, and children from affluent, moral homes cherish to the most base music produced. I know this is nothing new, and I recognize I’m a bore with such topics, but I can’t help but think that these overly sexual night club rituals are but two examples our erosion of a polite society. To disregard manners is to disregard authority. To disregard authority is to lose self-governance. To lose self-governance is to begin the path to primitivism.
I thought about this as I toured Versailles. Unlike the usual shred of contempt I hold for the monarchies in such places, I actually found myself defending them. Of course, I’m a republican (little “r” before big “R”), in the true sense of the word, not an advocate for monarchical power. But at least this place had manners, if nothing else. Absurd manners, sure, probably even oppressive manners. But Versailles and its opulence didn’t look so bad when compared to tribalism our society seems destined to romance.
All of these thoughts from a little trip to Paris. Who would have thought I would leave Paris praising them for their manners and chiding America for its lack thereof?