Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Etiquette Training

Today, I read John of Joinville's account of the Fourth Crusade under Louis IX. It's a rousing adventure story and a historical account of the Christian crusaders. What interested me, though, was that Joinville intended the book, in part, as a guide for the king's son and heir towards leading a pious life.

It always interests me so how many older texts offer their readers examples of upright, pious, or dignified behavior to imitate with the intention of making them good people as a result. So, for instance, this text gives us several instances of the king's behavior in situations that were important, or even very trivial, and the son is supposed to follow those examples, and thereby become a good king.

I think most of us see characteristics like piety as internal: you believe or think certain things and, in turn, your behavior reflects that. But these guides to behavior argue just the opposite: you act in a certain way externally and this, in turn, structures your inner life. In a sense, you play the role of being a pious person, and eventually it becomes second nature.

I could be reading too much into Joinville, but it strikes me that there is something basically correct in this. And it's an idea that has sort of returned. Judith Butler wrote about gender as "performativity" in a book that was very popular with college students, but Erving Goffman's book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is the one to read- he got there first and it's much better written. Actually, if you just travel to a different society and watch people go about their daily lives, you'll notice how much of it looks like acting from the outside- how much 'natural' behavior is performed. Or just take a new job and stay there for a year or so, and you'll notice behaviors that once felt unnatural and 'phony' become almost unconscious.

In North America, there is a cultural emphasis on not "acting", on being "natural", but this is a pose like any other, to rip off Brother Oscar Wilde. And it's performed in imitation of others as well. Thus the "natural" pose tends to be weirdly identical and conformist. Claire and I live in a very blue collar town in which a certain percentage of young males behave like roughnecks: walking around without shirts, often drunk in public, starting fights, using continuous profanity, etc. But the ones who behave this way all look, dress, talk, and carry their bodies in exactly the same way. After a certain point, you get so accustomed to the performance that it begins to seem totally fake. It's an affectation of being unaffected.

The implication seems to be that most behaviors are learned, either by conforming to certain rules or by imitating others. So, if it's ultimately just a choice as to how we behave, wouldn't it be better to affect the behavior of, say, a boarding school dandy, if only because it would eventually become second nature? I mean, it seems like dignified behavior would be good for your psychological state, whether or not there's an eternal soul. And acting undignified, with the mistaken assumption that it reads as more natural, would eventually convince you that you are, in fact, undignified.

I do remember getting a bit of this sort of education as a child, mostly in regards to how we behaved towards other children. I'm not sure that the obedience training helped me very much, but perhaps etiquette training conditions you to think more highly of yourself. If you affect the
pose of being a "thug", after a while you might come to think of yourself as inherently undignified; whereas, if you adopt the behavior of a lady or gentleman, you might come to think of yourself as being inherently worthy of more respect. So, maybe more people should encourage their children to be less natural.


Holly said...

Yeah, it's not clear that the hippies did the world any favors with that business. There is much to be said for acting like a professional, or like an adult, or like a civilized human being. Pretending to be dignified or gracious or polite goes a long way. (Pretending to be honest may be a whole other conversation, though.)

Yesterday on the tram, I was hoping that the extremely obnoxious young women near me were just pretending to be come jackasses, and would eventually realize they could get just as much attention by being sleek and poised and conspicuously well mannered... but I'm afraid they will not only continue being shrill, littering loudly, and violating the personal space of others---and worse, teach their children to behave in this way, as well. Ahh, well.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I have no idea when it ends. I probably should mention that the 'young men' in Hamilton who I'm thinking of are quite often older than me. It's just depressing to see men in their late 40s dressed like Dennis the Menace, staggering down the street drunk, starting fights with each other. And all of them seem to have kids. So I don't have any idea where the kids would get taught to be humans. Maybe the public schools could add a course in functional public behavior.

Holly said...

I suppose you could just hope that the societal backlash against the values of the parents will be evident in the values of the kids?

... but I wouldn't hold my breath about that one.

rufus said...

My theory is that everything will improve if we bring back croquet in a big way.