The reasons for good manners

Saturday, February 12, 2011; 3:02 PM

Take your elbows off the table.

Don't talk with your mouth full.

Look people in the eye when you speak to them.

Write your thank-you notes.

You've probably heard all or most of those orders from your parents. And even though you do them, you might wonder why grown-ups make such a fuss about good manners.

"I think manners are important, but I wouldn't like to be one of those high-society English people with their pinkie stuck out," said Isabel Uriagereka Herburger, 11, of Washington. "For myself at home, I could care less about manners, but at other people's homes I'm more careful."

Manners are about more than using the right fork or not slurping when you drink. Those rules of etiquette might be expected in certain situations, but not doing those things isn't going to hurt anyone's feelings. Good manners are a way to show others that you care about them. Manners also make it easier for everyone to feel comfortable in social situations.

Think of manners as traffic lights for life, said Pier Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who has written books about manners. On the road, traffic lights turn a world full of cars moving in different directions into an orderly system that allows everyone to get where they are going.

"The rules of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction," Forni said. "They make it so that we don't crash into one another in everyday behavior."

Even cavemen used manners!Manners have developed over tens of thousands of years as a key element of human society, and they might even have helped the species survive.

Early humans lived in groups in order to hunt, share food and keep one another warm. But to live so close together, Forni said, humans had to learn to think about others, not just themselves. Think of it this way: If every person in the group looked out for only himself, the group would fall apart.


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