Etiquette and Adam Smith
by Candace Smith for AdamSmithWorks
Edmund Burke wrote that “Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible [unaware, unconscious, imperceptible] operation, like the air we breathe.” Adam Smith fully agreed.
Smith uses the word, “manners,” thirty-six times in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. And for good reason. Manners are essential for a free and open society to exist.
Manners are bottom up, uncodified, consensual rules of tacit knowledge. Simply verbalizing or reading about them is not sufficient to transfer them to people; they are often learned at home. In reference to her son, if a mother receives the compliment, “He has such good manners,” she has a sense that she is doing her job. All of that prompting and correcting and forcing, and reminding, “Mind your manners, Johnny!” is paying off. Many a parent seeks help in educating their children to be mannerly and polite. Schools, too, seek to teach the virtue of being kind, and the benefits of having good manners in order to get along with others and progress in life.
“A very young child has no self-command…When it is old enough to go to school, or to mix with its equals, it soon finds that they have no such indulgent partiality [as parents often do]. It naturally wishes to gain their favor, and to avoid their hatred or contempt. Regard even to its own safety teaches it to do so; and it soon finds that it can do so in no other way than by moderating, not only its anger, but also all its other passions, to the degree which its play-fellows and companions are likely to be pleased with. It thus enters into the great school of self-command; it studies to be more and more master of itself, and begins to exercise over its own feelings a discipline which the practice of the longest life is very seldom sufficient to bring to complete perfection.”
The journey of self-mastery takes all our lives.
It is from experience with others that we learn to become social, and through self-command to “humble the arrogance of our self-love and bring it down to what others [humankind, society, the impartial spectator] will go along with.” This is not a simple process.
It is generally the case that people think themselves sufficiently skilled when it comes to having manners. If an individual comes into the personal realization that he/she is lacking knowledge that will explicitly help in getting along with others and accomplish true self-satisfaction, he/she doesn’t sign up for a course in manners. It’s too late for that.
Etiquette, however, can be taught directly, but the individual alone must choose to learn and practice it. Knowledge of the “how-to’s, what-to-do’s and not-to-do’s,” situationally, contextually, and relationally is the stuff of etiquette.
We learn from Smith that human beings seek “a mutual sympathy of sentiments” with others, and the modern desire expressed as being likeable and seeking to be agreeable with others reflects Smith’s understanding that our sociality is the back and forth experiencing and trying on for size the behaviors that fit us when we are being the best version of ourselves. The word, “etiquette” had not been used in Smith’s day, but the code of behavior regarded as specific and precise for given situations was clearly recognized by Smith.
As an etiquette enthusiast and educator, I have realized that if a person mindfully aims to become “etiquette-ful,” that person can exact more self-command, can be a better conductor of self in particular and general situations, showing up and viewed as “recognizably respectful to others and to himself.” Moreover, if a person catches the “etiquette” bug, he continues to want to discover more of, as Adam Smith might say, awareness of the “impartial spectator,” in every social moment we have. Taking a breath, stepping back and pausing as first actions in social moments helps us line up with the general rules of civility as we continually balance our self-love with what we are learning others will go along with. We become actively involved in imagining what it must be like to be on “the other side of me.”
Aiming to be etiquette-ful implies that you aim to be aware, alert, and mindful of extending actions of kindness due to a kindness that has been extended to you. Yes, as Smith says, “Kindness is the parent of kindness,” and if he were in our world today, he would agree that being etiquette-ful is recognizing that there are shared rules that we experience as “good” in all regards when in the company of others. An etiquette-ful person is aware that he is both an actor and spectator of his own and in regard to other’s actions. He is a chooser and at his best, he would be in self-command.
Smith expresses the need for self-command and harmony in social situations, as exampled in this passage. “It is indecent to express any strong degree of those passions which arise from a certain situation or disposition of the body; because the company, not being in the same disposition, cannot be expected to sympathize with them. Violent hunger, for example, though upon many occasions not only natural, but unavoidable, is always indecent, and to eat voraciously is universally regarded as a piece of ill manners. There is, however, some degree of sympathy, even with hunger. It is agreeable to see our companions eat with a good appetite, and all expressions of loathing are offensive. The disposition of body which is habitual to a man in health, makes his stomach easily keep time, if I may be allowed so coarse an expression, with the one and not with the other. We can sympathize with the distress, which excessive hunger occasions when we read the description of it … We imagine ourselves in the situation of the sufferers, and thence readily conceive the grief, the fear, and consternation, which must necessarily distract them. We feel, ourselves, some degree of those passions, and therefore sympathize with them; but as we do not grow hungry by reading the description, we cannot properly, even in this case, be said to sympathize with their hunger. …Such is the aversion for all of the appetites which take their origin from the body: all strong expressions of them are loathsome and disagreeable.”
As one student wrote to me, “…Being social isn’t easy. But I am choosing to be addicted to etiquette in a good way. I now ask myself often, “What would Etiquette say to me right now? This helps me know what to do in the next moment.”
Though etiquette is typically defined merely as the code of polite behavior in society, it requires an understanding of manners. I contend that the intentional choice of learning etiquette helps us find and align with every good manner we could conceive of.