We have all kinds of rules to govern our behavior. The law tells us we can't punch our neighbor for accidentally mowing over our daffodils, or kidnap his dog for ransom. But there are other "laws," ones that tell us what's appropriate to say and do in everyday life. My mother taught me some of these: Say "please" and" thank you" and "excuse me" if you burp, share your things, be nice to others. I definitely say "please" and "thank you," but I'm a little less committed to the others.

I'm talking about manners. Now, I'm not a fan of making people feel controlled or telling them one way is the only way. That just leads to oppression and alienation and I think we can all agree that's no good. But there are some manners that disappeared into the ether along with bell bottom pants and cat-eye glasses, and the grocery store and work place are more unpleasant for it.

As you've probably figured out, I get most of my life philosophies from movies and TV. And the Alicia Silverstone, Brendan Fraser movie "Blast from the Past" offers the most concise and best explanation of manners and the people who practice them -endangered species, the gentleman and the lady -- that I can offer.

According to Adam (Fraser), a gentleman or a lady is simply someone who makes sure the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible. Manners are a way to demonstrate respect.

What a nice thought.


Advertisement

If we were to actively try to make others comfortable and treat them with respect, would we fight with our spouses in public? Break wind at the dinner table? Interrupt someone while they're telling a story to talk about ourselves? Practicing a lady's or a gentleman's manners isn't easy, especially when faced with people you genuinely dislike. I do my best to be polite in these circumstances. If I can't, I adopt Thumper's philosophy -- "If you can't say something nice... don't say nothing at all." It's hard to break through the crust of my disdain and pull out a couple nice words.

But we don't have to wear our feelings on our sleeves -- we can try to put on a happy face and practice our manners even among our foes. In fact, if some random barbarian has just been monstrously rude, it's actually kind of fun to meet their bad behavior with an over-the-top "well, I hope you have a wonderful day!"

If you want an extreme example of impeccable manners, look no further than "Downton Abbey." Even their prim little brawls are polite, their barbs and insults elegantly worded and kindly delivered.

In one scene from last week's episode, Lady Mary is seated with her father, Lord Grantham, discussing a rather dull topic -- the fate of England's great estates -- with an esteemed guest and local bachelor (with very cute dimples I might add). Lord Grantham, a stuffy, stuck-in-his-ways codger, lodges an articulate insult at his daughter in front of company.

She blanches, for just a moment, but never loses her poise. A kindly smile quickly flashes across her face and she promptly turns to her guest and changes the subject, sidestepping the argument completely and preserving her guest's comfort.

Now, that's a lady (and Lord Grantham is no gentleman). I wonder, if "Downton Abbey" was set in present day, how Lady Mary would have reacted.

JH Mae is a Banner columnist.