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A great philosophical question: Why can’t you bring Pepsi and Ding Dongs to a dinner party?

Karen Stohr

Karen Stohr, author of On Manners, attempts an answer and traces the many connections between manners, etiquette and philosophy. Click here to read the full Q&A.

Q&A with Karen Stohr, author of On Manners

Does Judith Martin really have a Hobbesian view of human nature? Does Emily Post share David Hume’s ideas about good taste? And why—as George Costanza once asked—are wine and chocolate babka more acceptable dinner party gifts than Pepsi and Ding Dongs? Philosopher Karen Stohr, Associate Professor at Georgetown University, sat down with the Routledge Editorial team members, Emilie Littlehales and Andrew Beck, to answer some questions about the relationship between etiquette, manners, and philosophy. For those interested in more on this subject, Routledge will publish her On Manners this November in the Thinking in Action series.

Routledge: Manners or etiquette isn’t a subject that concerns many philosophers. How did you become interested in it?

K.S.: I’ve been reading etiquette columns and books since I was a teenager. (I think I’ve always secretly entertained hopes of becoming the next Miss Manners.) I’m also a huge Jane Austen fan, and of course Austen’s novels focus quite a bit on manners. Even so, it took me a while to find the connection between the central problems of etiquette and the central problems of ethics as philosophers think about them. It really became apparent to me after I taught an undergraduate course on morality and manners a few years ago. Now I see the links between morality and manners everywhere I look!

Routledge: Some researchers have pointed out some more troubling aspects of manners—as a disguise for moral hypocrisy or as a means for maintaining unjust social hierarchies. Do you have a quick, dinner-party response to anyone with these beliefs or suspicions about manners?

K.S.: Only this: anyone who employs the rules of etiquette in an effort to humiliate, mock, or manipulate someone is in fact acting rudely. Immoral behavior is never polite.

Routledge: OK, fair enough. But what about “polite” behavior that is ingrained in the norms of society, rather than perpetuated by an individual? For example, many Americans today—perhaps most—believe it is impolite to talk about politics or religion in a group where there may be differences of opinion. And yet politely holding your tongue in these situations can be an endorsement of an unjust or even cruel status quo.

K.S.: Well, there are more and less polite ways of bringing up controversial subjects. To paraphrase Aristotle, the key is to bring them up in the right way, at the right time, in the right place, and so forth. I don’t think anything from etiquette demands that we let major moral transgressions slide or ignore injustice. Social conflict is sometimes necessary; etiquette only requires that it be conducted civilly and respectfully. It is possible to register disapproval or disagreement without being rude. But it requires considerable self-restraint, and of course, people aren’t always willing or able to exercise that. As we all know, it’s hard work to have a civil discussion about a topic when emotions are running high and the participants have a lot at stake. Etiquette doesn’t tell us never to have such conversations, but it recognizes that they do sometimes devolve into shouting matches or worse. And that’s why it’s not normally a good idea to start in on the idiocy of a particular political platform in the middle of a wedding reception.

Routledge: Could you give a brief description of the relationship between moral philosophy and the topic of manners? How are the two connected in your view? How might an understanding of moral philosophy enhance one’s understanding of how manners and etiquette function in everyday interactions?

K.S.: My view, for which I argue in the book, is that one’s manners are an extension of one’s moral character. The rules of etiquette are vehicles for communicating and acting on our moral commitments in ordinary, daily interactions. Take, for instance, the act of standing in line, which is an important etiquette convention in the United States and much of rest of the world. Cutting to the front of the line is of course rude, but with the help of moral philosophy, we can say something more about the connection between that act and the line-cutter’s moral attitudes and beliefs. Here’s how it works. Immanuel Kant’s moral theory has, as a central component, the requirement that we always treat ourselves and other people as ends with dignity and equal moral standing. The person who cuts to the front of the line without any sort of justification does not abide by this requirement. He acts on the idea that his needs, plans, and projects should take priority over those of others simply because they are his own. But this is an irrational and immoral way of thinking, according to Kant. Morality requires me to recognize the equal moral standing of all rational agents, and standing in line is a way of publicly acknowledging my commitment to that kind of equality. In this way, line-cutting turns out to be not just an etiquette violation, but a moral problem.

Routledge: Many potential readers will wonder with all the problems in the world—global injustice, severe environmental problems, war (just to name some of the biggees)—why anyone should be concerned about manners and etiquette?

K.S.: I certainly wouldn’t deny that war, injustice, and environmental degradation are more serious ethical issues than failing to write timely thank you notes and cutting in line. But it doesn’t follow that it’s morally unimportant whether we express gratitude or acknowledge the equal moral standing of other people in the grocery store. In both cases, the aim is to cultivate moral sensitivity to other people and their needs. I see problems of justice and problems of manners as part of the same general moral question about how we treat other people. So I don’t think etiquette is a distraction from those more important issues. Anyway, to employ a point made by the Earl of Chesterfield, good manners are an effective tool in convincing people to take up your point of view or join your cause. Rude behavior isn’t going to get anyone to reduce her carbon emissions or donate more to Oxfam.

Can you talk a little bit about the difference between manners and etiquette? Do they differ philosophically in any way?

K.S.: In the book I follow Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) in distinguishing between the principles of manners and the rules of etiquette. The rules of etiquette tell us how to behave in a specific setting or context and hence, are subject to considerable variation across time and place. The principles of manners are the underlying moral principles that justify those rules of etiquette. So for example, good manners tell us to show respect to our host and then the rules of etiquette give us direction about how to convey respect in a particular social setting in a way that will be understood by others. If we think of the rules of etiquette primarily as tools for communicating and acting on important moral goals and aims, then etiquette turns out to be far less static and tradition-bound than many people think. Certainly there have been etiquette rules “in the books” that primarily serve to reinforce unjust social hierarchies and prejudices. On my account, such rules can and should be jettisoned in favor of new rules that fit better with our modern ideas about equality and justice. Careful readers of Judith Martin will recognize that she is constantly adapting and adjusting existing etiquette rules in accordance with evolving social norms.

Routledge: Who are some important philosophers who have taken manners seriously as a topic worthy of close philosophical scrutiny?

K.S.: Here are just a few familiar names from the history of philosophy: Aristotle, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer.

Routledge: Schopenhauer? Really? What did Schopenhauer say about manners?

K.S.: Schopenhauer was keenly aware of the important role that manners play in human social life. His view can be summed up nicely by a fable he tells about porcupines. He describes the plight of porcupines trying to huddle together for warmth but getting pricked by each other’s quills when they get too close. For humans, the trick lies in finding the right distance from other people that enables us to benefit from a communal social life without driving each other crazy with our quirks and annoying habits. The conventions of manners help make this possible. Schopenhauer takes a more pessimistic approach to manners than I would, but I think he makes some important points.

Routledge: How can the study of manners in the context of moral philosophy enrich our lives?

K.S.: I think that for many people, questions of manners intuitively present themselves in philosophically problematic ways. Television shows like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Office really bring this out. I begin the book with a discussion of a Seinfeld episode in which the characters are on a Herculean quest for wine and chocolate babka to bring to a dinner party. Elaine is absolutely convinced that this is the only acceptable hostess gift, despite the fact that acquiring it proves to be an enormous hassle. George is skeptical of the point of all if it, and spends the evening raising objections that Elaine can’t answer. (Why, he wonders, can’t they come empty-handed or else just bring Pepsi and Ring Dings?) Seinfeld is philosophically interesting television because it demonstrates how much our daily lives are structured by these seemingly minor conventions and then calls those conventions into question. Once we’ve gotten to that point, we’re in the land of philosophy. One of the tasks of my book is to show how thinking philosophically can help us work out the answers to practical problems about unwanted gifts, friends with bad taste in clothing, crowded elevators, weird neighbors, and so forth.

Routledge: What is the status of the subject of manners in contemporary philosophy? What do you think accounts for this status?

K.S.: Anecdotally, I know of quite a few philosophers interested in manners. It’s not hard to find fans of Judith Martin and Jane Austen in philosophy circles. There have even been a few scholarly articles published on the subject in recent years. That being said, I don’t think that most philosophers really think of it as a subject for philosophical inquiry. I’m hoping to help change that with this book. In general, practical ethics has been gaining ground in the profession over the past several decades, and I think the philosophical study of etiquette is a species of that. In my view, thinking about manners amounts to thinking about how to apply moral philosophy in everyday life.

Routledge: Is the topic of manners treated differently in philosophy than it is in everyday society? Does Hume treat manners differently from Judith Martin, for example?

K.S.: Hume and Martin are, of course, engaged in different enterprises. Hume is trying to work out a broad theory of ethics based on his understanding of human moral psychology. Martin, by contrast, specifically says that she is not doing moral philosophy. (I think she is wrong about that, but never mind!) And yet, they are interested in many of the same topics, although they take them in different directions. Martin seems to have a darker, more Hobbesian view of human nature than does Hume. She is less focused on the aesthetic and moral appeal of good manners than on their importance in preventing us from coming to blows over who was next in line at Starbucks. There is more overlap between Hume and Emily Post, who shares many of Hume’s ideas about the value of social conventions and the basis for our judgments of good taste.

Routledge: Historically, it seems that moral philosophy has been a field dominated by men, while manners and etiquette are oftentimes considered the domain of women (and are also oftentimes thought of as pertaining to hospitality and other domestic matters). Does connecting women and etiquette risk reinforcing the idea that “a woman’s place is in the home”, or undermine feminist beliefs in any way?

K.S.: Well, my immediate response is to say, “No, of course not!” but that would be an overly quick answer. Although I know plenty of men who read etiquette columns, I think there’s little doubt that the subject tends to be considered rather feminine. What especially bothers me is the implicit background assumption that if a topic is mostly discussed by women, then it must not be intellectually serious or philosophically substantive. Even a quick read of the history of domestic advice and etiquette is enough to disprove this. Women like Catharine Beecher, Emily Post, and Lillian Eichler were brilliant thinkers with interesting and important ideas about the best way for human beings—men and women—to live out their lives. Domestic advice givers like Beecher aimed at making the lives of women in the home less difficult and risky by educating them about more efficient and safer ways to manage a household. Dismissing them as writing about “just etiquette” or “just homekeeping” is a mistake, both in terms of feminism and in terms of moral philosophy. Alas, that has pretty much been the way matters have gone. Emily Post in particular is underappreciated by moral philosophers. She was really a remarkable woman, and people who think she is just reporting on the practices of an elite social set are missing out on a very interesting thinker and an important figure in the history of American culture.

Routledge: At times, acting in a way that demonstrates good manners may entail telling a lie or acting in a way that may be inauthentic. Do moral philosophers see this as problematic in any way?

K.S.: That depends on the moral philosopher! Some moral philosophers worry more about deception and hypocrisy than others. But even Immanuel Kant, who is among the most vociferous opponents of lying in the history of philosophy, recognized that we simply cannot go around saying every true thing that comes into our heads. He values honest communication as much as anyone, but he also recognizes that this kind of honesty comes with a price. As he puts it, “No man in his senses is completely candid.” He takes the view later argued for by Emily Post, which is that we need to cultivate tact—that ability to say true things that focus on the positive and avoid causing pain. As for concerns about inauthenticity, I think that it is just true that good manners sometimes demands that we present ourselves in a way that doesn’t reflect what we are actually like. But I would deny that this is a form of hypocrisy, at least when that polite front, to use sociologist Erving Goffman’s term, represents an ideal to which we aspire. If I act grateful for a present that I actually think is hideous, am I misrepresenting myself? Not if I think that I should feel grateful. In that case, my forced gratitude is an expression of what we might call my better self, or the self that I wish I could be at the moment. And I don’t think there’s anything hypocritical about putting forward the morally best version of ourselves, so long as we are doing it for the right reasons. If I am putting on an act so as to deceive or manipulate people, like Pride and Prejudice’s George Wickham or Persuasion’s William Eliot, then there’s a moral problem. But that’s not usually what’s happening when we act grateful for an ill-chosen present. We’re not grateful, but we think we should be grateful. So in expressing gratitude that we don’t feel, we are not being hypocritical in the usual sense.

Routledge: Has our increased dependence on electronic communication, and our decreased tendency to engage in face-to-face interactions changed the way we view manners in our society? Have they had any impact on morality? For instance, in a sense we are now more available and accessible than we’ve ever been before, even though our interactions may take place online rather than in person. Does our increased access to others have potential to increase our moral respect for them?

K.S.: I am fascinated by the ways in which electronic communication has reshaped how we present ourselves to the world and how we interact with others. Facebook status updates, tweets, and text messages are entirely new conversational forms with their own emerging etiquette rules. Most of those rules are unstated, and there can be significant disagreements among users about, say, how long one has to answer a text message or when a status update on Facebook has crossed the line into providing too much information. Moreover, as most of us recognize, electronic communication deprives us of crucial information that we depend on to make face-to-face interactions go smoothly. I can’t tell if someone has been insulted by my offhand remark if I can’t see her expression. So we have to resort to subtle and not-so-subtle ways of conveying the necessary emotions. But then again, old-fashioned letters have always posed the same problem. I think a very interesting ethical issue that arises from technologies like social networking sites and Twitter is whether they amount to a new form of narcissism. Does the world really benefit from a constant stream of 140-character banalities from 175 million registered Twitter users? (I grant that some people have elevated tweeting to an art form, but such people are few and far between.)

Routledge: In a certain sense, etiquette and manners seem like vestiges of a bygone era (or at least a bygone standard of behavior). As our lives become increasingly different from the way they were in the days of Jane Austen or Emily Post, will manners and etiquette evolve, or will they become less and less important? How would the way in which manners develop or disappear from society effect morality?

K.S.: None of us live like Jane Austen’s characters, but that doesn’t seem to have lessened her appeal in the present day. No doubt Austen’s enduring popularity rests in part on a kind of nostalgia for a different, perhaps more gentle and noble kind of world. But that’s not the whole of it. For one thing, Austen’s characters are not slaves to the conventions of their times. Elizabeth Bennet violates plenty of etiquette rules in the service of more important aims. We look to etiquette writers to guide us through a changing and complex world, and good etiquette writers are up to the task. Emily Post wrote her books and columns during a time of tremendous political and social upheaval in American society. She was well aware of the need for etiquette rules to change with the times, and had no problem jettisoning rules that had become outdated or useless. Even so, we should be wary of the temptation to think that etiquette no longer matters because few of us throw multi-course dinners or attend the opera in formal dress. Maybe rules about glove lengths aren’t relevant anymore, but people certainly get fired up about, say, whether it is rude to answer a text message during a conversation with live people. The specific nature of the etiquette problems change, but our need for reflection and guidance on the subject has not. If I am right that manners are the expression of our moral characters, then manners are important whenever and wherever morality is important. In a nutshell, so long as we live with other people, etiquette will never be out of style.

Related Products

  1. On Manners

    By Karen Stohr

    Series: Thinking in Action

    Many otherwise enlightened people often dismiss etiquette as a trivial subject or—worse yet—as nothing but a disguise for moral hypocrisy or unjust social hierarchies. Such sentiments either mistakenly assume that most manners merely frame the “real issues” of any interpersonal exchange or...

    Published November 11th 2011 by Routledge