Manners make us human

Valerie Curtis “argue[s] that, far from being an old-fashioned set of rules about which fork to use, manners are so important that they should be up there with fire and the invention of language as a prime candidate for what makes us human.
The first, and most ancient, function of manners [Curtis writes] is to solve the problem of how to be social without getting sick. Imagine that you and I encounter each other. Although I’d like to hang around in case you have information or goods to exchange, it might be more sensible if I ran away because, to me, you are a walking bag of microbes. …Your proximity to me is potentially deadly. You, too, of course, make the same subconscious calculation. So how can we get close enough to share benefits but avoid sharing our microbes? This is the job of manners.” (p.28)

She continues: “Manners dictate that if I want to interact with you I should stay at a safe distance; far enough away not to spray you with microbe-laden saliva. They tell me that I should clean and cover my body, especially the smelly bits where microbes might lurk, and to share my food with you, but not any leftovers that I have already bitten into. And manners tell me to invite you to my dwelling, but only once I’ve cleaned it of my bodily wastes. I do all of this because I cannot afford to disgust you. If I fail in my manners, you may reject and ostracise me and refuse further collaboration. Worse, you may gossip about my lapses in hygiene and tarnish my reputation, denying me access to the benefits of life as a member of an intensely social species.” (p.28)

She also discusses how disgust and shame are used to teach manners and may enhance these social benefits to manners… and how parents teach children manners through the use of disgust and shame. This is an interesting discussion when you consider how disgust and shame are considered in educational circles these days. Actually, it’s just an interesting discussion full stop, but there you are.

This article is based on Curtis’s new book, Don’t Look, Don’t Touch: The science behind revulsion (Oxford University Press/ University of Chicago Press)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Valerie Curtis (21 September 2013) Why manners matter. NewScientist Vol. 219 No.2935, pp28-29


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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