a misuse of manners

I went through what I’ll refer to as “my Neopagan phase” from the early ’90s on up to about… 2004 or 2005 or so. I can’t remember, but something like that. I remember when I was in the thick of it, I was particularly fascinated by Celtic folklore, or at least the sanitized hyper-Americanized version of “Celtic Paganism,” because scholarship in this area that’s actually accessible to the public is thin on the ground and when the Llewellyn author crowd can’t find it, they just make it up. And it was hard for me to make much sense of what was there because the Celts haven’t been a direct influence on Western culture as a whole the way the Greeks and Romans have; the cultural biases of the latter are much more prevalent today.

That said, I remember this one author, and I’m vague now because it’s been close to thirty years but I think she said something to the effect that saying “thank you” when someone does something for you was frowned upon among the Celts. The reason, I think she said, was that they believed that if someone does something for you then you are obligated to do something for them, and saying “thank you” was viewed as a shortcut and a way to try to get out of that obligation. Again, it’s been almost thirty years and I might be getting something slightly off, but I’m pretty sure that’s what she said. I haven’t asked any Irish or Scots directly if it’s true, but I have noticed that people in the UK particularly seem more likely to say “cheers” where Americans would say “thank you,” and I wonder if it’s a coincidence.

Now, saying “thank you” is almost unbelievably important in the United States by comparison. Maybe we get it from the French. I have no idea. I do know the fact of this has been the source of much embarrassment for me over the years when I’ve been distracted and forgotten my manners in situations where I ought to thank someone. Doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but occasionally I still trip up.

But I do think there’s some merit to the idea that one of the reasons we like “thank you” is just as the Celts may have seen it: we thank so that we do not owe. I can think of numerous examples of people doing this in my own life and I bet you can think of several in your own as well.

I think we abuse “I’m sorry” the same way.

You see this most often in small children. “Why are you still mad? I said I was sorry!” At that age we think words are magical and that if we say the right ones it will solve all problems. That’s understandable, in small children. In adults it becomes a character flaw, and too many adults possess that flaw.

Sometimes it’s OK to just say you’re sorry with the aim that that will fix the situation. In minor situations, this works. If it was your turn to bring the plastic flatware to the potluck party and you flaked, you’ll just have to run back out and get it, and it’s polite to say “I’m sorry” to demonstrate that you understand you inconvenienced people. But no one in their right mind is going to expect any more than that. The situation’s easy to fix and no one’s feelings should be hurt…

…unless it’s the 50th time in a row you’ve forgotten the plastic flatware. That points to a larger problem, and “I’m sorry” probably won’t fix it. Even going to the store won’t entirely fix it. Maybe you should volunteer for something else next time. Cleaning up the potluck table after the party, say. You got invited to fifty parties, dude. Either you are tired of parties or something else is going on. Work it out. Not at your friends’ expense.

If all you ever do is say sorry and you don’t even run back out to pick up the flatware, that’s an even bigger problem. Feeling sorry about your flakiness isn’t going to help your fellow partygoers scoop the hot chili from the slow cooker into their mouths. Ouch. And if you also forgot the napkins? Maybe stay home next time and don’t volunteer anything.

Magic words only exist in fantasy books. You can’t Wingardium Leviosa away the consequences of your wrongdoing.

If you lied, tell the truth.

If you broke it, repair it or replace it.

If you stole it, give it back or replace it.

If you can’t fix the problem directly, find some way to pay compensation that is appropriate in the recipient’s opinion. Demanding that the wronged accept your opinion of an appropriate restitution is arrogant in the extreme and adds to the damage you have already done.

Those of us a bit more clueless about social skills tend to believe that manners are just empty gestures. But that’s exactly what manners cannot be if they are to mean anything.

Faith without works is dead.

Words without deeds are just wind.

Stop breaking wind and start fixing what you broke.