Story: Manners and social behaviour

Page 1. Defining manners

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Manners versus etiquette

Manners are rules that govern social behaviour, promoting goodwill and co-operation. They are sometimes enforced verbally, as when parents instruct their children to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, or in writing, through etiquette columns and books. Usually they are simply absorbed and understood by all, and those who do not observe them will experience social disapproval.

Some people distinguish between etiquette and manners, claiming that good manners have nothing to do with how you hold a knife and fork, but instead depend on a sensitive awareness of other people’s feelings.

Balm for a stressed society

A 2012 newspaper editorial remarked: ‘in a world as busy, fast-paced and densely-populated as ours, taking the time to say “please”, helping strangers in need, letting someone into the traffic ahead of you, or just waving to say thank you from a pedestrian crossing are not optional extras, they are a show of respect, a balm for a stressed society.’1

The origins of manners

Manners vary according to culture, and may change over time. Some derive from religious or ethical beliefs – for instance biblical commandments to honour your mother and father and to treat others as you would like to be treated, which are common to many religions as well as Christianity.

Different expectations

There are often different expectations of men, women and children. For example, in the past men were expected to be gallant towards women, opening doors for them and standing up when they entered a room. This behaviour derived from the medieval code of chivalry. Children were expected to show respect for older people by, for instance, speaking only when spoken to and addressing adults using their titles. While these rules have relaxed considerably, they are still in evidence in some situations.

The wide reach of manners

Manners may govern appearance, including the types of clothes people wear on different occasions. They often affect behaviour, for instance showing special consideration to the frail or infirm. They influence language, for example in the way people greet each other, make requests and express gratitude. There are specific codes for certain situations, for instance office etiquette, and for particular occasions, such as weddings or formal visits to a marae.

  1. Dominion Post, 19 May 2012, p. 4. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Manners and social behaviour - Defining manners', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 Sep 2013