Manners - superficial, necessary, both or neither?

When I was younger, people often accused me of strange behavior. I used to feel bad, but now I see the accusations in a different light.

I've learned that neurotypical people - folks who don't have autism - have certain expectations for how another person will act. And first impressions are all-important for many. If I want to make a good one, the onus is on me to act as expected.

To do that, I needed to learn how to act ‘normal' in the context in which I found myself. The first step was figuring out what ‘normal' really meant. To my surprise, the answer to that turned out to be simple: normal means ‘well mannered.' Manners were always something I lacked, according to everyone involved in raising me.

I can still remember my mother turning to me, with food on my face, and saying, "Look at you! What would your grandmother say?" She meant to admonish me, but comments like that never worked. Still, she was right. My grandmother Carolyn always complained about my manners. I've always been resistant to following orders or instructions that I find foolish or arbitrary, which was how I saw her advice at the time.

Carolyn persisted in her training efforts long enough that a few things actually stuck. For example, she taught me the right way to hold a knife and fork. Maybe that worked because it made sense. I still don't know of any better or more functional way to do it. Making a fist around the fork - as most children do at first - is both impolite and inefficient. The polite method of holding a fork provides for better control of the tool. It's a good idea that's also good manners.

Even passing food makes sense. I'd be tempted to reach across the table for a bowl of grits or beans, and my grandmother would catch me, "John Elder! Say, please pass me the beans!" My great grandfather ignored her and reached across the table anyway. When he did, bugs and other disgusting things fell from his arms into our plates. And he didn't care. "I'm a farmer," he'd say. As if that excused a live, crawling thing on my bacon. After that I didn't mind hearing, "Pass the food," so much.

If only all manners were that way! Unfortunately, they are not. Consider ingestion of soup from a bowl. When I was small, I used a spoon to eat most of my soup, and then I picked up the bowl, tipped it, and drank the rest. After a lot of struggle, Carolyn finally convinced me that was rude. To this day I won't drink from my bowl if I am with other people. I know that's a sign that I have manners.

Aspergians like me are notoriously logical and straightforward, and much of the time, manners are neither. They are not "common sense,' nor are they, "acting right." That's why manners didn't come naturally to me.

Common sense tells me the most efficient way to ingest soup is to tip the bowl and drink it. In fact, unless you have a spoon that's specifically contoured for the bowl you're using, that's the only way to get every last drop. And common sense tells us not to be wasteful.

Acting right - the moral imperative to treat others as you'd like to be treated - doesn't say much at all about drinking from the soup bowl. I know it's not right to throw food, or jab the person next to me with a fork. But where's the harm to anyone in drinking from a bowl that was assigned to me by the host or hostess? The answer is, there is no harm. There's just more efficient food ingestion and reduced waste.

And yet . . . it's rude to do it. For many years, logic prevented me from complying with rules of etiquette like that. I thought they were illogical and foolish, and I just would not go along. Eventually I came to understand that I benefited from compliance with the social rules, even when they seem illogical, wasteful, or nonsensical. Today, I look at my bowl and realize that it's better to act polite. In our society of plenty, where I seldom go hungry, their positive impression of me is worth more than the small amount of extra soup I'd get by tipping and drinking. I am sure things would be different if I were starving.

For a long time I tried to govern my interpersonal relations exclusively by what felt right; by my moral compass. That strategy served me well around close friends and family, and it's always worked for the big things in life. Unfortunately, a morals-based behavioral strategy breaks down in casual interactions; the sort one has at a dinner party.

There, I encountered strangers who were critical of me. At first, I reacted with hostility to what I perceived as shallow, superficial posturing. So what if I don't hold the door for you? Can't each of us take responsibility to open our own doors? It eventually became clear that my logical and ethical behavior just wasn't good enough - I was alienating strangers with my failure to "act like everyone else."

Manners seem to come naturally to many neurotypicals. I suspect that's because they are accustomed to doing what they are taught, whereas I have always resisted that. It's caused me considerable difficulty.

How do you feel about manners? Are they just superficial? Or do they have a deeper foundation?

Why do we have them?


Unknown said…
My son who is 13 and a balck and white case of Asperger's would read what you wrote and say...See mom everyone else says that about me. I can only hope with love and determination that I will be able to break through his boundaries of "normal" as he has so many of the "problems" and faces many "issues" you faced. In 2009 it is such a cruel world and so very hard for him to understand, be understood and be accepted. I will try to keep up with your blog and show him your struggles as maybe an opening for him to undertsand. Your book was wonderful and gave me such insight to what it is like to be on the other side.
thank you
R said…
I think manners matter only for survival. If one were to approach the heavy man in your picture and say to him, "you are enormous!" one would be liable to get a punch in the face. I am learning this from my own 13 year old son who says things that he thinks which may or may not be harmful to the people around him. I try to tell him that he can think it but he most certainly can not SAY it. I even tell him that he will make people mad and they may violently react by his words.

There is no room in an Aspergian mind for grey. Maybe the man has a thyroid problem. But because the man is perhaps carrying the ice cream cone, mine would say, "I would stop eating those! You may get heart disease and die!"

Unfortunately, there is no mercy for a person who is seen to be ill-mannered.
i'm defently not neurotypical. i defeantly agree with the illogical feeling of maners. i often find my self in torouble because i'm doing the next logical thing and everyone gets upset with me and i dont understand why. i'm deffently from a differnt planet than most. this life gets so frustrating. aspergers is not a current diagnosis for me, i've been wanting to talk to my doctors about looking into the possibility but i'm not sure how to aproch them. i already have a know it all image and a lot of people take that as i dont really know anything.
Rita said…
John, first let me say that I enjoyed your book "Look Me In The Eye" VERY MUCH and even though there's so many people I think could learn from it, I have to return it to my friend tomorrow. (she has been caring for a foster child, Nathan, who we are sure shares your earlier trials, and talents too) We love him very much, and I'm sure that he will be a success in life.
After reading your blog on "manners", I remembered thinking that it was odd that you had to consciously think about asking people about their kids, or their wives or whatever because it seems so "natural" for me to consider these things, especially if I've had a close relationship with that person. I thought as I read those excerpts "why WOULDN'T he think of those things?? Doesn't he CARE about people? Obviously you do, but in a different way. If everyone felt the same way I do about people, we'd probably have too many people running around walking all over eachother. Anyway, I guess it takes all kinds. Some of the things you described were totally foreign to me, some reminded me of my dad, my brother, my nephew, a guy I used to work with and in some cases me! I guess we really are more alike than different. Your writing was very informative and entertaining! Thank you! I wish you and your family the very best!
gminks said…
Manners are a very interesting concept. I think they are very culturally-based. My family is from Georgia too, and the emphasis on manners is almost over-bearing. I think if I went into a store now with my mom and didn't say yes ma'am and no ma'am she'd fuss at me.

I also think manners gave some normalcy to my aspie daughter. She is so shy and quiet, and the manners kept her out of trouble. It gave her a way to understand what she was supposed to do. Her problems started when people broke the manners rules. :)
George Baker said…

You are so right. I can relate to everthing you wrote. I too am diagnosed with Aspergers and had an experience the other day you could relate to. I called someone out at a luncheon for doing what I thought was logically and morally wrong. Since it was wrong I figured it was ok to say so. I later learned how "wrong" I was. My wife explained to me later why it would be a good idea if I didn't do lunch again with this particular group because of my comments. Guess it's something I have to work on. Thanks again for the blog and the book both are great.

Kat said…
Just quickly--why drinking soup from your bowl is bad manners (though, I agree some manners are random an inexplicable)
It looks gross. You look like a horse eating from a tipped trough. Also, it usually includes audible slurping sounds.
It is just really distracting and a little unpleasant to watch.
Hope that helps.
Unknown said…

all of us neurotypical people can relate to your manners guide, however people, especially a child with Aspergers would not see through the same rose colored "standard" way of living. He was giving an example of something his mind could not grasp, only a person with or a parent of someone with Aspergers would understand.
It wasn't a matter of a manners lesson, it was an example of the mindsight of someone and trying to see it through their thoughts & actions.

Thank you so much for helping me look inside from a point of view that is so foreign to me. As a mom of a 13 year old aspie it is so hard sometime. Thank you for sharing so much!
Kathy Torrence said…
Sometimes manners don't make any sense to us NTs either (like the drinking from the bowl - who doesn't like to get the last sip of a good bowl of clam chowder? :). But I think they help to establish clearly defined rules of behavior - and for my AS son, it definitely helps to have a set of rules to follow for social acceptance. "Keep your elbows off the table." But why, Mom? "Because it's good manners." No grey there - easy black-and-white. Now the only confusion comes in when he sees me with *my* elbows on the table...
Agatha said…
Just wanted you to know that I'm Aspergian from a very proper Southern family and recently while eating an asian-inspired dish at a restaurant (with chopsticks), raised the plate to my mouth and herded the rice in. That's the proper way to eat it in Asia. I believe it may also be acceptable to drink soup this way.

By the way, I've found that if you let people know you're Aspergian you're allowed to do some eccentric things ... people will find your explanations for some of these quirky behaviors quite charming under certain circumstances.

I also find myself intentionally pushing at the boundaries of Stupid Rules That Make No Sense more often as I get older (34 now, see rice event above). Feel freer now.
LizzieK8 said…
What I think is that if an Aspergian continues to force him/herself into acting the way NTs want/need/think we should act, eventually the Aspergian has a major long lasting melt down that takes years to recover from, and recovery is only possible if the Aspergian limits contacts with non-accepting NTs and allows him/herself to act and react as one feels comfortable.

Forcing ourselves to be what others expect really damages us. Now to balance that with having to interact in the world....well, no easy answer there.

At around 50 I just gave up trying to figure out how to act, and following through on what I thought I was supposed to do. I don't go out alot anymore. I usually wear an MP3 player and headphones when I do go out so people aren't upset when I "can't hear" them. I just don't try to "be normal" anymore than I have to.

Stress level is way down, health is much better and life is worth living now.....

If I don't interact with others, manners are a mute point....
Unknown said…
My son has Apserger's. When he tries to use manners, he comes across as sarcastic, or even condescending. And, when he is not trying, without using manners, he is just flat out rude. It makes him feel bad when its pointed out to him. However, a lot of that comes from how he is told. A reprimanding message usually leads to a meltdown. If I tell him gently, he apologized and then is prince charming for the rest of the day.

So, in short, manners are superficial, but necessary, when you remember to use them. :)
Samwick said…
man, that guy in the photo is fat. he is really heavily fat.

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