Chapter 56

  1. Politeness

Among the qualities of mind and heart which conduce to worldly success, there is no one the importance of which is more real, yet which is more generally underrated at this day by the young, than courtesy—that feeling of kindness, of love for our fellows, which expresses itself in pleasing manners. Owing to that spirit of self-reliance and self-assertion, they are too apt to despise those nameless and exquisite tendernesses of thought and manner that mark the true gentleman. Yet history is crowded with examples showing that, as in literature it is the delicate, indefinable charm of style, not the thought, that makes a work immortal, so it is the bearing of a man towards his fellows that ofttimes, more than any other circumstance, promotes or obstructs his advancement in life.

Manner has a great deal to do with the estimation in which men are held by the world; and it has often more influence in the government of others than qualities of much greater depth and substance. We may complain that our fellow-men are more for form than substance, for the superficial rather than the solid contents of a man, but the fact remains, and it is a clew to many of the seeming anomalies and freaks of fortune which surprise us in the matter of worldly prosperity. The success or failure of one’s plans have often turned upon the address and manner of the man. Though there are a few people who can look beyond the rough husk or shell of a fellow-being to the finer qualities hidden within, yet the vast majority, not so keen-visaged nor tolerant, judge a person by his outward bearings and conduct.

Grace, agreeable manners, and fascinating powers are one thing, while politeness is another. The two points are often mistaken in the occasional meeting, but the true gentleman always rises to the surface at last. Nothing will develop a spirit of true politeness except a mind imbued with goodness, justness, and generosity. Manners are different in every country; but true politeness is every-where the same. Manners which take up so much of our attention are only artificial helps which ignorance assumes in order to imitate politeness, which is the result of much good sense, some good-nature, and a little self-denial for the sake of others, but with no design of obtaining the same indulgence from them. A person possessed of those qualities, though he had never seen a court, is truly agreeable; and if without them would continue a clown, though he had been all his life a gentleman usher.

He is truly well-bred who knows when to value and when to despise those national peculiarities which are regarded by some with so much observance. A traveler of taste at once perceives that the wise are polite all the world over, but that fools are polite only at home. Since circumstances always alter cases, the polite man must know when to violate the conventional forms which common practice has established, and when to respect them. To be a slave to any set code of actions is as bad as to despise them. Perceptiveness, adaptation, penetration, and a happy faculty of suiting manners to circumstances, is one of the principles upon which one must work; for the etiquette of the drawing-room differs from that of the office or railroad-car, and what may be downright rudeness in one case may be gentility in the other.

Benevolence and charity, with a true spirit of meekness, must be one of the ruling motives of the understanding; for without this no man can be polite. Politeness must know no classification; the rich and the poor must alike share its justice and humanity. Exclusive spirits, that shun those whose level in life is not on the same extravagant platform as themselves, can not aspire to the high honor of wearing the name of gentleman. The truly polite man acts from the highest and noblest ideas of what is right.

True politeness ever hath regard for the comfort and happiness of others. “It is,” says Witherspoon, “real kindness kindly expressed.” Viewed in, this light, how devoid of the virtue are some who pride themselves on a strict observance of all its rules! Many a man who now stands ranked as a gentleman, because his smile is ready and his bow exquisite, is, in reality, unworthy of such an honor, since he cares more for the least incident pertaining to his own comfort than he does for the greatest occasion of discomfort to others.

The true gentleman is recognized by his regard for 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, wiser, or richer than any one about him. He is never “stuck up,” nor looks down upon others because they have not titles, honors, or social position equal to his own. He never boasts of his achievements or angles for compliments by affecting to underrate what he has done. He prefers to act rather than to talk, to be rather than to seem, and, above all things, is distinguished by his deep insight and sympathy, his quick perception of and attention to those little 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.

The truest politeness comes of sincerity. It must be the outcome of the heart or it will make no lasting impression, for no amount of polish will dispense with truthfulness. The natural character must be allowed to appear freed of its angularities and asperities. To acquire that ease and grace of manners which distinguishes and is possessed by every well-bred person one must think of others rather than of one’s self, and study to please them even at one’s own inconvenience. “Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you”—the golden rule of life—is also the law of politeness, and such politeness implies self-sacrifice, many struggles and conflicts. It is an art and tact rather than an instinct and inspiration.

Daily experience shows that civility is not only one of the essentials of success, but it is almost a fortune in itself, and that he who has this quality in perfection, though a blockhead, is almost sure to rise where, without it, men of high ability fail. “Give a boy address and accomplishment,” says Emerson, “and you give him the mastery of palaces and fortunes. Wherever he goes he has not the trouble of earning or owning them; they solicit him to enter and possess.” Genuine politeness is almost as necessary to enjoyable success as integrity or industry.

We despise servility, but true and uniform politeness is the glory of any young man. It should be a politeness full of frankness and good nature, unobtrusive, constant, and uniform in its exhibition to every class of men. He who is overwhelmingly polite to a celebrity or a nabob and rude to a laborer because he is a laborer deserves to be despised. That style of manners which combines self-respect with respect for the rights and feelings of others, especially if it be warmed up by the fires of a genial heart, is a thing to be coveted and cultivated, and it is a thing that pays alike in cash and comfort.

What a man says or does is often an uncertain test of what he is. It is the way in which he says or does it that furnishes the best index of his character. It is by the incidental expression given to his thoughts and feelings by his looks, tones, and gestures, rather than by his deeds and words, that we prefer to judge him. One may do certain deeds from design, or repeat certain professions by, rote; honeyed words may mask feelings of hate, and kindly acts may be formed expressly to veil sinister ends, but the “manner of the man” is not so easily controlled.

The mode in which a kindness is done often affects us more than the deed itself. The act may have been prompted by one of many questionable motives, as vanity, pride, or interests; but the warmth or coldness of address is less likely to deceive. A favor may be conferred so grudgingly as to prevent any feeling of obligation, or it may be refused so courteously as to awaken more kindly feelings than if it had been ungraciously granted.

Good manners are well-nigh an essential part of life education, and their importance can not be too largely magnified when we consider that they are the outward expressions of an inward virtue. Social courtesies should emanate from the heart, for remember always that the worth of manner consists in being the sincere expression of feelings. Like the dial of a watch they should indicate that the works within are good and true. True civility needs no false lights to show its points. It is the embodiment of truth, the mere opening out of the inner self. The arts and artifices of a polished exterior are well enough, but if they are any thing more or less than a fair exponent of inward rectitude their hollowness can not long escape detection.

The cultivation of manner, though in excess it is foppish and foolish, is highly necessary in a person who has occasion to negotiate with others in matters of business. Affability and good-breeding may even be regarded as essential to the success of a man in any eminent station and enlarged sphere of life, for the want of it has not unfrequently been found, in a great measure, to neutralize the results of much industry, integrity, and honesty of character. There are, no doubt, a few strong, tolerant minds which can bear with defects and angularities of manner, and look only to the more genuine qualities; but the world at large is not so forbearant, and can not help forming its judgments and likings mainly according to outward conduct.

It has been well remarked that whoever imagines legitimate manners can be taken up and laid aside, put on and off, for the moment, has missed their deepest law. A noble and attractive every-day bearing comes of goodness, of sincerity, of refinement, and these are bred in years, not moments. It is the fruit of years of earnest, kindly endeavors to please. It is the last touch, the crowning perfection of a noble character; it has been truly described as the gold on the spire, the sunlight on the corn-field, and results only from the truest balance and harmony of soul.

, In, pager

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