Americans and others/A Question of Politeness


A Question of Politeness


"La politesse de l'esprit consiste à penser des choses honnêtes et délicates."


A GREAT deal has been said and written during the past few years on the subject of American manners, and the consensus of opinion is, on the whole, unfavourable. We have been told, more in sorrow than in anger, that we are not a polite people; and our critics have cast about them for causes which may be held responsible for such a universal and lamentable result. Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, for example, is by way of thinking that the fault lies in the sudden expansion of wealth, in the intrusion into the social world of people who fail to understand its requirements, and in the universal "spoiling" of American children. He contrasts the South of his childhood, that wonderful "South before the war," which looms vaguely, but very grandly, through a half-century's haze, with the New York of to-day, which, alas! has nothing to soften its outlines. A more censorious critic in the "Atlantic Monthly" has also stated explicitly that for true consideration and courtliness we must hark back to certain old gentlewomen of ante-bellum days. "None of us born since the Civil War approach them in respect to some fine, nameless quality that gives them charm and atmosphere." It would seem, then, that the war, with its great emotions and its sustained heroism, imbued us with national life at the expense of our national manners.

I wonder if this kind of criticism does not err by comparing the many with the few, the general with the exceptional. I wonder if the deficiencies of an imperfect civilization can be accounted for along such obvious lines. The self-absorption of youth which Mrs. Comer deprecates, the self-absorption of a crowd which offends Mr. Page, are human, not American. The nature of youth and the nature of crowds have not changed essentially since the Civil War, nor since the Punic Wars. Granted that the tired and hungry citizens of New York, jostling one another in their efforts to board a homeward train, present an unlovely spectacle; but do they, as Mr. Page affirms, reveal "such sheer and primal brutality as can be found nowhere else in the world where men and women are together?" Crowds will jostle, and have always jostled, since men first clustered in communities. Read Theocritus. The hurrying Syracusans—third century B.C.—"rushed like a herd of swine," and rent in twain Praxinoë's muslin veil. Look at Hogarth. The whole fun of an eighteenth-century English crowd consisted in snatching off some unfortunate's wig, or toppling him over into the gutter. The truth is we sin against civilization when we consent to flatten ourselves against our neighbours. The experience of the world has shown conclusively that a few inches more or less of breathing space make all the difference between a self-respecting citizen and a savage.

As for youth,—ah, who shall be brave enough, who has ever been brave enough, to defend the rising generation? Who has ever looked with content upon the young, save only Plato, and he lived in an age of symmetry and order which we can hardly hope to reproduce. The shortcomings of youth are so pitilessly, so glaringly apparent. Not a rag to cover them from the discerning eye. And what a veil has fallen between us and the years of our offending. There is no illusion so permanent as that which enables us to look backward with complacency; there is no mental process so deceptive as the comparing of recollections with realities. How loud and shrill the voice of the girl at our elbow. How soft the voice which from the far past breathes its gentle echo in our ears. How bouncing the vigorous young creatures who surround us, treading us under foot in the certainty of their self-assurance. How sweet and reasonable the pale shadows who smile—we think appealingly—from some dim corner of our memories. There is a passage in the diary of Louisa Gurney, a carefully reared little Quaker girl of good family and estate, which is dated 1796, and which runs thus:—

"I was in a very playing mood to-day, and thoroughly enjoyed being foolish, and tried to be as rude to everybody as I could. We went on the highroad for the purpose of being rude to the folks that passed. I do think being rude is most pleasant sometimes."

Let us hope that the grown-up Louisa Gurney, whenever she felt disposed to cavil at the imperfections of the rising generation of 1840 or 1850, re-read these illuminating words, and softened her judgment accordingly.

New York has been called the most insolent city in the world. To make or to refute such a statement implies so wide a knowledge of contrasted civilizations that to most of us the words have no significance. It is true that certain communities have earned for themselves in the course of centuries an unenviable reputation for discourtesy. The Italians say "as rude as a Florentine"; and even the casual tourist (presuming his standard of manners to have been set by Italy) is disposed to echo the reproach. The Roman, with the civilization of the world at his back, is naturally one might say inevitably, polite. His is that serious and simple dignity which befits his high inheritance. But the Venetian and the Sienese have also a grave courtesy of bearing, compared with which the manners of the Florentine seem needlessly abrupt. We can no more account for this than we can account for the churlishness of the Vaudois, who is always at some pains to be rude, and the gentleness of his neighbour, the Valaisan, to whom breeding is a birthright, born, it would seem, of generosity of heart, and a scorn of ignoble things.

But such generalizations, at all times perilous, become impossible in the changing currents of American life, which has as yet no quality of permanence. The delicate old tests fail to adjust themselves to our needs. Mr. Page is right theoretically when he says that the treatment of a servant or of a subordinate is an infallible criterion of manners, and when he rebukes the "arrogance" of wealthy women to "their hapless sisters of toil." But the truth is that our hapless sisters of toil have things pretty much their own way in a country which is still broadly prosperous and democratic, and our treatment of them is tempered by a selfish consideration for our own comfort and convenience. If they are toiling as domestic servants,—a field in which the demand exceeds the supply,—they hold the key to the situation; it is sheer foolhardiness to be arrogant to a cook. Dressmakers and milliners are not humbly seeking for patronage; theirs is the assured position of people who can give the world what the world asks; and as for saleswomen, a class upon whom much sentimental sympathy is lavished year by year, their heart-whole superciliousness to the poor shopper, especially if she chance to be a housewife striving nervously to make a few dollars cover her family needs, is wantonly and detestably unkind. It is not with us as it was in the England of Lamb's day, and the quality of breeding is shown in a well-practised restraint rather than in a sweet and somewhat lofty consideration.

Eliminating all the more obvious features of criticism, as throwing no light upon the subject, we come to the consideration of three points,—the domestic, the official, and the social manners of a nation which has been roundly accused of degenerating from the high standard of former years, of those gracious and beautiful years which few of us have the good fortune to remember. On the first count, I believe that a candid and careful observation will result in a verdict of acquittal. Foreigners, Englishmen and Englishwomen especially, who visit our shores, are impressed with the politeness of Americans in their own households. That fine old Saxon point of view, "What is the good of a family, if one cannot be disagreeable in the bosom of it?" has been modified by the simple circumstance that the family bosom is no longer a fixed and permanent asylum. The disintegration of the home may be a lamentable feature of modern life; but since it has dawned upon our minds that adult members of a family need not necessarily live together if they prefer to live apart, the strain of domesticity has been reduced to the limits of endurance. We have gained in serenity what we have lost in self-discipline by this easy achievement of an independence which, fifty years ago, would have been deemed pure licence. I can remember that, when I was a little girl, two of our neighbours, a widowed mother and a widowed daughter, scandalized all their friends by living in two large comfortable houses, a stone's throw apart, instead of under one roof as became their relationship; and the fact that they loved each other dearly and peacefully in no way lessened their transgression. Had they shared their home, and bickered day and night, that would have been considered unfortunate but "natural."

If the discipline of family life makes for law and order, for the subordination of parts to the whole, and for the prompt recognition of authority; if, in other words, it makes, as in the days of Rome, for citizenship, the rescue of the individual makes for social intercourse, for that temperate and reasoned attitude which begets courtesy. The modern mother may lack influence and authority; but she speaks more urbanely to her children than her mother spoke to her. The modern child is seldom respectful, but he is often polite, with a politeness which owes nothing to intimidation. The harsh and wearisome habit of contradiction, which used to be esteemed a family privilege, has been softened to a judicious dissent. In my youth I knew several old gentlemen who might, on their death-beds, have laid their hands upon their hearts, and have sworn that never in their whole lives had they permitted any statement, however insignificant, to pass uncontradicted in their presence. They were authoritative old gentlemen, kind husbands after their fashion, and careful fathers; but conversation at their dinner-tables was not for human delight.

The manners of American officials have been discussed with more or less acrimony, and always from the standpoint of personal experience. The Custom-House is the centre of attack, and critics for the most part agree that the men whose business it is to "hold up" returning citizens perform their ungracious task ungraciously. Theirs is rather the attitude of the detective dealing with suspected criminals than the attitude of the public servant impersonally obeying orders. It is true that even on the New York docks one may encounter civility and kindness. There are people who assure us that they have never encountered anything else; but then there are people who would have us believe that always and under all circumstances they meet with the most distinguished consideration. They intimate that there is that in their own demeanour which makes rudeness to them an impossibility.

More candid souls find it hard to account for the crudity of our intercourse, not with officials only, but with the vast world which lies outside our narrow circle of associates. We have no human relations where we have no social relations; we are awkward and constrained in our recognition of the unfamiliar; and this awkwardness encumbers us in the ordinary routine of life. A policeman who has been long on one beat, and who has learned to know either the householders or the business men of his locality, is wont to be the most friendly of mortals. There is something almost pathetic in the value he places upon human relationship, even of a very casual order. A conductor on a local train who has grown familiar with scores of passengers is no longer a ticket-punching, station-shouting automaton. He bears himself in friendly fashion towards all travellers, because he has established with some of them a rational foothold of communication. But the official who sells tickets to a hurrying crowd, or who snaps out a few tart words at a bureau of information, or who guards a gate through which men and women are pushing with senseless haste, is clad in an armour of incivility. He is wantonly rude to foreigners, whose helplessness should make some appeal to his humanity. I have seen a gatekeeper at Jersey City take by the shoulders a poor German, whose ticket called for another train, and shove him roughly out of the way, without a word of explanation. The man, too bewildered for resentment, rejoined his wife to whom he had said good-bye, and the two anxious, puzzled creatures stood whispering together as the throng swept callously past them. It was a painful spectacle, a lapse from the well-ordered decencies of civilization.

For to be civilized is to be incapable of giving unnecessary offence, it is to have some quality of consideration for all who cross our path. An Englishwoman once said to Mr. Whistler that the politeness of the French was "all on the surface," to which the artist made reply: "And a very good place for it to be." It is this sweet surface politeness, costing so little, counting for so much, which smooths the roughness out of life. "The classic quality of the French nation," says Mr. Henry James, "is sociability; a sociability which operates in France, as it never does in England, from below upward. Your waiter utters a greeting because, after all, something human within him prompts him. His instinct bids him say something, and his taste recommends that it should be agreeable."

This combination of instinct and taste—which happily is not confined to the French, nor to waiters—produces some admirable results, results out of all proportion to the slightness of the means employed. It often takes but a word, a gesture, to indicate the delicate process of adjustment. A few summers ago I was drinking tea with friends in the gardens of the Hotel Faloria, at Cortina. At a table near us sat two Englishmen, three Englishwomen, and an Austrian, the wife of a Viennese councillor. They talked with animation and in engaging accents. After a little while they arose and strolled back to the hotel. The Englishmen, as they passed our table, stared hard at two young girls who were of our party, stared as deliberately and with as much freedom as if the children had been on a London music-hall stage. The Englishwomen passed us as though we had been invisible. They had so completely the air of seeing nothing in our chairs that I felt myself a phantom, a ghost like Banquo's, with no guilty eye to discern my presence at the table. Lastly came the Austrian, who had paused to speak to a servant, and, as she passed, she gave us a fleeting smile and a slight bow, the mere shadow of a curtsey, acknowledging our presence as human beings, to whom some measure of recognition was due.

It was such a little thing, so lightly done, so eloquent of perfect self-possession, and the impression it made upon six admiring Americans was a permanent one. We fell to asking ourselves—being honestly conscious of constraint—how each one of us would have behaved in the Austrian lady's place, whether or not that act of simple and sincere politeness would have been just as easy for us. Then I called to mind one summer morning in New England, when I sat on a friend's piazza, waiting idly for the arrival of the Sunday papers. A decent-looking man, with a pretty and over-dressed girl by his side, drove up the avenue, tossed the packet of papers at our feet, and drove away again. He had not said even a bare "Good morning." My kind and courteous host had offered no word of greeting. The girl had turned her head to stare at me, but had not spoken. Struck by the ungraciousness of the whole episode, I asked, "Is he a stranger in these parts?"

"No," said my friend. "He has brought the Sunday papers all summer. That is his daughter with him."

All summer, and no human relations, not enough to prompt a friendly word, had been established between the man who served and the man who was served. None of the obvious criticisms passed upon American manners can explain the crudity of such a situation. It was certainly not a case of arrogance towards a hapless brother of toil. My friend probably toiled much harder than the paperman, and was the least arrogant of mortals. Indeed, all arrogance of bearing lay conspicuously on the paperman's part. Why, after all, should not his instinct, like the instinct of the French waiter, have bidden him say something; why should not his taste have recommended that the something be agreeable? And then, again, why should not my friend, in whom social constraint was unpardonable, have placed his finer instincts at the service of a fellow creature? We must probe to the depths of our civilization before we can understand and deplore the limitations which make it difficult for us to approach one another with mental ease and security. We have yet to learn that the amenities of life stand for its responsibilities, and translate them into action. They express externally the fundamental relations which ought to exist between men. "All the distinctions, so delicate and sometimes so complicated, which belong to good breeding," says M. Rondalet in "La Réforme Sociale," "answer to a profound unconscious analysis of the duties we owe to one another."

There are people who balk at small civilities on account of their manifest insincerity. They cannot be brought to believe that the expressions of unfelt pleasure or regret with which we accept or decline invitations, the little affectionate phrases which begin and end our letters, the agreeable formalities which have accumulated around the simplest actions of life, are beneficent influences upon character, promoting gentleness of spirit. The Quakers, as we know, made a mighty stand against verbal insincerities, with one striking exception,—the use of the word "Friend." They said and believed that this word represented their attitude towards humanity, their spirit of universal tolerance and brotherhood. But if to call oneself a "Friend" is to emphasize one's amicable relations towards one's neighbour, to call one's neighbour "Friend" is to imply that he returns this affectionate regard, which is often an unwarranted assumption. It is better and more logical to accept all the polite phraseology which facilitates intercourse, and contributes to the sweetness of life. If we discarded the formal falsehoods which are the currency of conversation, we should not be one step nearer the vital things of truth.

For to be sincere with ourselves is better and harder than to be painstakingly accurate with others. A man may be cruelly candid to his associates, and a cowardly hypocrite to himself. He may handle his friend harshly, and himself with velvet gloves. He may never tell the fragment of a lie, and never think the whole truth. He may wound the pride and hurt the feelings of all with whom he comes in contact, and never give his own soul the benefit of one good knockdown blow. The connection which has been established between rudeness and probity on the one hand, and politeness and insincerity on the other, is based upon an imperfect knowledge of human nature.

"So rugged was he that we thought him just,
So churlish was he that we deemed him true."

"It is better to hold back a truth," said Saint Francis de Sales, "than to speak it ungraciously."

There are times doubtless when candour goes straight to its goal, and courtesy misses the mark. Mr. John Stuart Mill was once asked upon the hustings whether or not he had ever said that the English working-classes were mostly liars. He answered shortly, "I did!"—and the unexpected reply was greeted with loud applause. Mr. Mill was wont to quote this incident as proof of the value which Englishmen set upon plain speaking. They do prize it, and they prize the courage which defies their bullying. But then the remark was, after all, a generalization. We can bear hearing disagreeable truths spoken to a crowd or to a congregation—causticity has always been popular in preachers—because there are other heads than our own upon which to fit the cap.

The brutalities of candour, the pestilent wit which blights whatever it touches, are not distinctively American. It is because we are a humorous rather than a witty people that we laugh for the most part with, and not at, our fellow creatures. Indeed, judged by the unpleasant things we might say and do not say, we should be esteemed polite. English memoirs teem with anecdotes which appear to us unpardonable. Why should Lady Holland have been permitted to wound the susceptibilities of all with whom she came in contact? When Moore tells us that she said to him, "This book of yours" (the "Life of Sheridan") "will be dull, I fear;" and to Lord Porchester, "I am sorry to hear you are going to publish a poem. Can't you suppress it?" we do not find these remarks to be any more clever than considerate. They belong to the category of the monumentally uncouth.

Why should Mr. Abraham Hayward have felt it his duty (he put it that way) to tell Mr. Frederick Locker that the "London Lyrics" were "overrated"? "I have suspected this," comments the poet, whose least noticeable characteristic was vanity; "but I was none the less sorry to hear him say so." Landor's reply to a lady who accused him of speaking of her with unkindness, "Madame, I have wasted my life in defending you!" was pardonable as a repartee. It was the exasperated utterance of self-defence; and there is a distinction to be drawn between the word which is flung without provocation, and the word which is the speaker's last resource. When "Bobus" Smith told Talleyrand that his mother had been a beautiful woman, and Talleyrand replied, "C'était donc Monsieur votre père qui n'était pas bien," we hold the witticism to have been cruel because unjustifiable. A man should be privileged to say his mother was beautiful, without inviting such a very obvious sarcasm. But when Madame de Staël pestered Talleyrand to say what he would do if he saw her and Madame Récamier drowning, the immortal answer, "Madame de Staël sait tant de choses, que sans doute elle peut nager," seems as kind as the circumstances warranted. "Corinne's" vanity was of the hungry type, which, crying perpetually for bread, was often fed with stones.

It has been well said that the difference between a man's habitual rudeness and habitual politeness is probably as great a difference as he will ever be able to make in the sum of human happiness; and the arithmetic of life consists in adding to, or subtracting from, the pleasurable moments of mortality. Neither is it worth while to draw fine distinctions between pleasure and happiness. If we are indifferent to the pleasures of our fellow creatures, it will not take us long to be indifferent to their happiness. We do not grow generous by ceasing to be considerate.

As a matter of fact, the perpetual surrender which politeness dictates cuts down to a reasonable figure the sum total of our selfishness. To listen when we are bored, to talk when we are listless, to stand when we are tired, to praise when we are indifferent, to accept the companionship of a stupid acquaintance when we might, at the expense of politeness, escape to a clever friend, to endure with smiling composure the near presence of people who are distasteful to us,—these things, and many like them, brace the sinews of our souls. They set a fine and delicate standard for common intercourse. They discipline us for the good of the community.

We cannot ring the bells backward, blot out the Civil War, and exchange the speed of modern life for the slumberous dignity of the Golden Age,—an age whose gilding brightens as we leave it shimmering in the distance. But even under conditions which have the disadvantage of existing, the American is not without gentleness of speech and spirit. He is not always in a hurry. He is not always elbowing his way, or quivering with ill-bred impatience. Turn to him for help in a crowd, and feel the bright sureness of his response. Watch him under ordinary conditions, and observe his large measure of forbearance with the social deficiencies of his neighbour. Like Steele, he deems it humanity to laugh at an indifferent jest, and he has thereby earned for himself the reputation of being readily diverted. If he lacks the urbanities which embellish conversation, he is correspondingly free from the brutalities which degrade it. If his instinct does not prompt him to say something agreeable, it saves him from being wantonly unkind. Plain truths may be salutary; but unworthy truths are those which are destitute of any spiritual quality, which are not noble in themselves, and which are not nobly spoken; which may be trusted to offend, and which have never been known to illuminate. It is not for such asperities that we have perfected through the ages the priceless gift of language, that we seek to meet one another in the pleasant comradeship of life.