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“Be not forward but friendly and courteous; the first to salute, hear, and answer; and be not pensive when it’s a time to converse.” #66, Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation*

Regarding our power of speech Aristotle observes: “Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech.”

A gift indeed. Much can be said about how to use this gift well–in accord with the manifest generosity and intentionality of nature. We can focus for a moment here on those crucial, and often challenging, moments when we first come upon people in various contexts. Here manners can make all the difference.

Much is captured in the admonition: be the first to salute, hear, and answer. By and large it is by saying appropriate words in greeting, or in response to greeting, that we first manifest our disposition toward others. Even if this is not the time for a conversation, I notice you, I respect you, and I wish you well. We should outdo one another in expressing these things, through appropriate words.

We can use our own words; yet formulaic expressions, which are always ready-at-hand (and so are especially helpful when we are nervous, tired, or distracted), also do quite well: “So good to see you…” “Good afternoon, Mrs…” “You look well today” “It’s a beautiful day isn’t?” Such greetings made even in passing, especially when delivered with care, can lend a deeply human element and conviviality to our chance interactions.

They can also be an entree to deeper conversation, or to beginning really to get to know someone. I wonder how many good conversations–maybe even relationships–we miss out on because we do not make the effort to observe manners in greeting.

There is indeed a time to converse. Given our often frenetic lifestyle, that time might be more often than we realize, or take advantage of. To discover and cultivate such times will take an intentional approach today, and part of that approach can be reclaiming manners in speech.


*As a teenager George Washington wrote out–perhaps as a penmanship exercise–the 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, which are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595.

This is the third in the series: Reclaiming Manners.

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