“Good manners can replace morals. It may be
years before anyone knows if what you are doing is right. But if what you are
doing is nice, it will be immediately evident.” — P.J. O’Rourke


The idea seems to be that good manners can and often do cover up
the proverbial multitude of sins. As Arthur Schopenhauer put it, “Politeness is
to human nature what warmth is to wax.” It may quickly distort or otherwise
transform reality. What seems sincere may merely be the latest example of Abel
Stevens’ observation, “Politeness is the art of choosing among one’s real
thoughts.” The point is that in an effort to “be nice,” candor can easily take
a backseat to what Emily Post described as “a sensitive awareness of the
feelings of others.” The desire not to upset or offend takes priority over the
responsibility to be honest and straightforward.


Of course, W. Somerset Maugham did say, “I don’t think you want
too much sincerity in society. It would be like an iron girder in a house of
cards.” And Lord Halifax said, “A man that should call everything by its right
name would hardly pass the streets without being knocked down as a common
enemy.” The conclusion follows that there is an appropriate, middle ground
between total honesty and bad manners. One should find that balance between excessive
rudeness and being unnecessarily impolite on the one hand and knavery or
excessive dishonesty on the other.


Are you tempted to agree with this argument? If so, you are
probably aligning with the polite majority of people who behave as if the choice
is between candor and insensitive rudeness. When it comes time to choose, they
generally lean toward avoiding being seen as rude or as having bad manners. The
result is that they are often dishonest, at least somewhat. Personal integrity
is partially sacrificed to the god of good manners. When you are thus tempted,
Cesare Pavese’s observation is worth considering, “Perfect behavior is born of
complete indifference.”


Perhaps the real issue isn’t your honesty, your integrity, or
your manners. Rather, it is your discomfort with how you fear others will react
to you if you actually say what you think, accurately express your feelings,
and practice the candor you profess to value so highly. Often the issue is
dealing with the bad manners of other people. As Gabirol put it, “The test of
good manners is to be patient with bad ones.” the famous Anon. expressed the
idea this way, “Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you
– not because they are nice, but because you are;” and F. Scott Fitzgerald
said, “It’s not a slam at you when people are rude – it’s a slam at the people
they’ve met before.” The best conclusion is that there is never a good excuse
for bad manners and that “situational integrity” isn’t integrity at all. Calmly
and respectfully stand up, speak up, shut up, and sit down and then politely
listen, making it immediately evident that you indeed are nice.