Much is, or should be, made of the murder of common manners by popular culture. Broken English is the norm on television and radio, adults dress like children in sneakers for every occasion, and not one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey knows how to properly set a table. The Real Housewives of Orange County aren’t any better. Modern America is experiencing a slow, painful death of civility, and is the worse for it.
Critics of rigid behavioral systems point to their predisposition to stifle; much valuable thinking was lost to the Victorians for their blind adherence to the “proper” over the pragmatic. These critics are correct: any system of behavioral requirements, such as polite manners are, is potentially strangling. Nobody should be denied a job because the way he knots his tie is different from the way they do it at the proper university. That said, there are common courtesies which we would be the worse for losing. Manners are like the grease on railroad tracks: they keep things moving along smoothly, with as little friction as possible. While our man shouldn’t be denied a job for the wrong tie knot, he should have sufficient respect to wear a tie to the interview.
The connection between manners and our man’s tie, and his outfit in general, is appropriate because civil behavior is very similar to clothing: appearances aren’t everything, but they can be accurate indicators of more internal values. A stained shirt can mean a slovenliness of habits which might extend to other areas: should you trust that man to prepare your taxes, if he can’t manage even to keep up his own appearance? If the lawn is poorly kept, can the rest of the house be much better? Clothes are often an accurate reflection of their wearer’s other traits: tidiness, respect, consideration for others, industry, taste. If a man is possessed of these traits, his outfit may reflect it. Their absence may also be reflected.
Good manners, from proper dress to polite conversation, show respect. Attorneys wear suits to court every day not because they’re concerned for fashion, but to show respect for the judicial process of the United States. Mourners wear suits to funerals for the same reason: respect, for the departed and for the solemnity of the occasion. Good manners are the same; they dress up behavior, as much as clothing dresses up the body, to make it presentable for an occasion, to make it respectful of its surroundings. The decline of proper manners (which is not to say formal manners) is especially tragic in that it also marks the decline of respect for people, places, and institutions. An economic recession may be as good a time as any, then, to remind young college graduates: when you secure a job interview, be polite. Make eye contact. Shake hands firmly. Speak English correctly. Send a ‘thank-you’ note. And wear a tie.