Thursday, May 22, 2008

Manners : who apologizes first ?

"Dear Pearl,
A lady recently got herself involved in a dispute with a gentleman and things got a bit out of hand. Tempers were flying, voices raised and things were said that couldn't be unsaid. It was clear that apologies were due. The lady was wiling to do so, but refused to go first, claiming that a gentleman should always take the first step. Is this so ? As the gentleman was older, shouldn't youth bow to age ? ---- A concerned reader"

I consulted several books on etiquette and most seem to treat the subject of apology rather cursory. there is one statement in "Martine's Handbook" (1866), however that seems to support the lady's thesis :

"Civility is particularly due to all women; and, remember, that no provocation whatsoever can justify any man in not being civil to every woman; and the greatest man would justly be reckoned a brute if he were not civil to the meanest woman. It is due to their sex, and is the only protection they have against the superior strength of ours; "
Altough gratifying, I do take offense at the suggestion that exceptions may be granted to us ladies, simply because we are "weaker", much the same indulgence granted to children. I can only imagine what Lady Hagar would say to that. Let us therefore look at the matter with a diffreent approach. In J. Youngs "Our Deportment" (1881) we find a paragraph that may offer some insight. When discussing some generalities of the true gentleman, the author remarks :

"Politeness is benevolence in small things. A true gentleman must regard the rights and feelings of others, even in matters the most trivial. He respects the individuality of others, just as he wishes others to respect his own. In society he is quiet, easy, unobtrusive, putting on no airs, nor hinting by word or manner that he deems himself better, or wiser, or richer than any one about him. He never boasts of his achievements, or fishes for compliments by affecting to underrate what he has done. He is distinguished, above all things, by his deep insight and sympathy, his quick perception of, and prompt attention to, those small and apparently insignificant things that may cause pleasure or pain to others. In giving his opinions he does not dogmatize; he listens patiently and respectfully to other men, and, if compelled to dissent from their opinions, acknowledges his fallibility and asserts his own views in such a manner as to command the respect of all who hear him. Frankness and cordiality mark all his intercourse with his fellows, and, however high his station, the humblest man feels instantly at ease in his presence"
On treating the qualities of a true Lady, the author adds a list that make us seem divine (ah the wisdom of the good old days), but then adds :

"Here is the test of true ladyhood. Whenever the young find themselves in the company of those who do not make them feel at ease, they should know that they are not in the society of true ladies and true gentlemen, but of pretenders; that well-bred men and women can only feel at home in the society of the well-bred"
Clearly, what was remarked for the true gentleman, can also be said of the true Lady. In polite society, people take the feelings of others not only in consideration, but put them in a foremost position. As to the cause of the dispute, i'm sure lessons can be learned from the following :

Certain honest but unthinking people often commit the grievous mistake of "speaking their mind" on all occasions and under all circumstances, and oftentimes to the great mortification of their hearers. And especially do they take credit to themselves for their courage, if their freedom of speech happens to give offense to any of them. A little reflection ought to show how cruel and unjust this is. The law restrains us from inflicting bodily injury upon those with whom we disagree, yet there is no legal preventive against this wounding of the feeling of others.
Another class of people, actuated by the best of intentions, seem to consider it a duty to parade their opinions upon all occasions, and in all places without reflecting that the highest truth will suffer from an unwise and over-zealous advocacy. Civility requires that we give to the opinions of others the same toleration that we exact for our own, and good sense should cause us to remember that we are never likely to convert a person to our views when we begin by violating his notions of propriety and exciting his prejudices. A silent advocate of a cause is always better than an indiscreet one"
Is it not a disease of our barbarous days, that too often, ones' own feelings and convictions are treated with the deference that actually should be paid to those of the others ? And that while we find in Lillian Eichlers' "Book of Etquette" (1921) :

"Try to be naturally courteous and cordial in your speech. It is a mistake to "wear your feelings on your sleeve" and resent everything that everyone else says that does not please you. To become quickly excited,to speak harshly and sarcastically is to sacrifice one's dignity and easeof manner. Know what you want to say, be sure you understand it, andwhen you say it, be open for criticisms or suggestions from those aroundyou. Do not become flustered and excited merely because someone elsedoes not agree with you. Remember that Homer said, "The tongue speaks wisely when the soul is wise," and surely the soul can be wise only when one is entirely calm, self-confident and at peace with all the world!"
So we could conclude that both the lady and her gentleman sinned against those principles; was it not tempers that flew, voices raised, etc ? Of course, both so much as admitted that faults had been made, so there is no need to rub the salt in. I merely show these quotes as to point out the underlying principles. If it isn't already clear what the true Lady (and true gentleman!) should do when such transgressions occur, take inspiration in this :

Never refuse to accept an apology for an offense, and never hesitate to make one, if one is due from you.

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