Classroom Manners: Analyzing behavior with primary sources

Civil behavior is required for civil society and a civil classroom. Web articles about why, how, and where children and young adults should learn manners are common. But can lessons on polite behavior in the classroom mask important truths that should be addressed rather than concealed?

A common classroom rule is “Show respect to others.”  But what if someone’s words and actions do not deserve respect? Are the standards for polite behavior different for boys and girls, men and women? These modern-day conundrums can be examined in the classroom by using examples from the past.

Polite Behavior in the Past
Good manners
This image and the header image demonstrate expectations for men and women in the late 19th century. From Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms. Chicago: Hill Standards Book Co., 1888

In England and the American colonies in the 1700s, many assumed polite manners automatically reflected good morals, thoughts, and intentions. Rude behavior was thought to be rooted in bad morals and a corrupt nature. This view of human behavior was influenced by Enlightenment philosophers who believed men were rational and virtuous if educated properly.

Enlightenment thinkers didn’t agree about the behavior of females. Some, such as the French philosopher Condorcet, believed women were equal to men, but society cheated women of a proper education.  Others, such as Rousseau, thought that women were incapable of rational thought and behavior and only needed to be educated to take care of a home and children.

In the following primary source, published in 1913 in Munsey’s Magazine, the author Karin Michaelis argued that society forced women to pretend and hide their real thoughts and feelings.

How Social Etiquette Breeds Lies
Society’s rules of etiquette are such that a woman’s small untruths are counted as good form. . . .She who cannot show a smiling face and talk agreeable even to her worst enemy when they meet on neutral ground has not the qualities required of a woman . . . She must be able to hide her feelings, to look as if she was enjoying herself thoroughly when she is ready to fall asleep from boredom.
The women who enters into the life of society is compelled to lead an absolutely double existence, together with her society toilet (clothing and makeup) she puts on a society manner, a society face – yes, even a society soul.

Examining Manners in the Classroom

Many people believe one can or should “fake” good manners to hide selfish motives or their true thoughts. Ask students to consider if phony polite behavior is a good thing, or not? Is it okay to use good manners to manipulate others or create good impressions just to get ahead? Should the rules be the same for males and females? Is it ever okay to have different rules for different people? Encourage students to really consider the wider role of polite behavior in human interaction, now and in the past.

For lots more history and primary sources related to manners and etiquette –  Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

Telephone Etiquette in the 1950s

"The Telephone and How We Use it" booklet. c. 1950s; etiquette, manners
“The Telephone and How We Use it” booklet. c. 1950s

New technology calls for new etiquette. What are the rules of etiquette for texting? for Twitter? for other types of social media? Why do good manners in communication even matter? Ask your students to explore these questions and make comparisons to “old” manners and technology from the past.

Telephone Etiquette of the 1950s

This 24-page booklet, published by the Bell Telephone Service in the 1950s, was distributed to teach children how to use the telephone and the correct manners for telephone conversations. Suggested activities are even included in the back. The rotary phone is obsolete, but have telephone manners (p. 16) also changed? If so, what are the expectations for polite smart phone use?

Teaching Manners in the 21st Century

Ask students to consider why a society should or shouldn’t have standards for behavior (manners or etiquette). How does one learn manners in the 21st century? Who teaches these lessons in correct behavior – parents? teachers? peers? Should students have more lessons in polite behavior? If so, what behaviors need to be covered? How should adults learn the new behavior for the new technology?
The entire booklet is available here http://www.classicrotaryphones.com/useit1.html