Minding Our Manners


When my four siblings and I were in elementary school, my mother instituted Wednesday dinners in the dining room as an opportunity for us to learn and practice good manners. On those Wednesday evenings, Mom introduced us to table manners and polite conversation. Our dad took advantage of the opportunity to teach us to conclude the meal by pounding our fists on the table, reciting, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” So, I learned how to be polite and use good table manners, and I learned doing so was optional.

Obviously, the idea that manners are optional is not very revolutionary in 2015. At times, it seems manners are a thing of the past, something our culture is opting out of all together. Understandably in some instances: I have never found any use for the etiquette lesson I received in how to peel and consume a banana with a knife and fork.

However, even as a child, I realized that screaming and pounding on the table in a communal demand to be served ice cream usually made dessert less—rather than more—likely to happen. I began to understand that a different strategy for getting my needs recognized and addressed might not only have more success but would also be more in line with the values I began to profess and the faith I came to put in the power of love.

Researching church governance and conflict resolution led me to thinking about manners. I came across a reference to an impromptu speech by an English lord in 1925 entitled “Law and Manners”. In that speech, Lord Moulton introduced what he called the three domains of human action: “First comes the domain of Positive Law, where our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed. Next comes the domain of Free Choice, which includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom.”

I imagine that most of you can recognize these first two domains within your lives. Free Choice: A domain with actions for which you claim and enjoy complete freedom. For example: “What color underwear you did or did not put on this morning” .

It’s difficult to avoid recognizing the domain of Positive Law : that area where actions must be taken to avoid legal or natural consequences. For example, stopping the car when the traffic light is red, to, avoid a traffic ticket or a collision.

Lord Moulton identified a third domain, the one I find most significant. He called it the domain of Manners. He meant manners in a very broad sense: “signifying the doing of that which you believe you should do, although you are not obliged to do it.” In the domain of manners, certain behaviors are practiced and some disciplines are followed simply because they are the right (the moral, the ethical, the civil) thing to do.

Manners include actions we take routinely, but they still have great value in fulfilling our needs for safety and for connection with one another. Actions like: saying “please” and “thank you,” offering greetings and signs of respect, not interrupting in a conversation, waiting for our turn in the check-out line, offering assistance when we see someone struggling. We think of all these actions as common courtesies, things we expect from others and that we routinely offer.

Actions in the domain of manners may also be less routine, more intentional, and more challenging. They may require more effort, such as dealing with your feelings after you’ve been emotionally triggered before responding to someone . Or using language that identifies your wants and needs in a situation without making demands or assigning blame.

We choose to take these actions for the sake of maintaining positive relationships and to promote caring interactions with one another. We take these actions not because we are forced to (that’s the domain of positive law) and not just because we have the freedom to (that’s the domain of free choice). We take these difficult actions because our values demand it and we seek integrity.

Reverend Gilbert Rendle, in his book Behavioral Covenants in Congregations, suggests: “The middle territory between law and free choice, between conformity to the group (the norms and laws of society) and autonomy of the individual, is where congregations can lay claim to a special space to practice behaviors that conform to and give evidence to their beliefs and values.”

When I began attending UU services regularly a few years back, I asked people I met here why they were part of this congregation- why they spent time and energy being part of UU BG. By far the most common response I heard was “the community”. Many reported having found a place where they experienced acceptance and belonging, some among you who had been denied that elsewhere.

Community was definitely something I was seeking, but what made me want to become a part of this one was not just because I was looking for people I was comfortable hanging out with. I was looking a for a community that not only espoused principles and values, but one where people were committed to practicing behaviors that conformed to those values. An authentic community where people were willing to do the work of maintaining relationships that were honest and caring, a community that offered ultimacy and intimacy.

Being a member of a UU congregation I see as an opportunity to be part of a community with intentions and aspirations I share and attempt to embody. This being a faith community without creeds or dogma can make it challenging to pin down what the shared values that establish our intentions and aspirations for our behavior are.

Well … consider the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another, the goal of world community… Sound familiar? (Visit http://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles )to see the Seven Principles.)

I consider it reasonable for UU communities to espouse these principles as the values they would affirm and promote for our behavior in the domain of Manners. Not the manners found in books on etiquette. The manners of our UU communities are to be found in the covenants we make.

Earlier in the service we recited our church covenant in which we promise to live in harmony and civility, with awareness, tolerance, acceptance, and celebration of our diversity. A noble intention- but hearing it recently I was reminded of something my daughter told me about her experience in elementary school: “Everyone was always telling us to get along with each other, but nobody ever really told us how.”

Having a Covenant of Right relations are one way UU communities gets a little more specific about the how. The insert in your bulletin has the proposed Covenant for Right Relations that is up for adoption by our members.

Rev Gilbert Rendle broadly describes what Covenants of Right Relations ask us to attest to:

  • that we as members of a community agree to forgo insensitive, uncaring, responses to one another,
  • and that we commit to listening to each other’s concerns as we search for answers to how we will deal with what we find challenging as well as comfortable.
  • We commit to supporting one another in practicing obedience to the unenforceable in real and practical ways.
  • We remind ourselves and each other that rumors, innuendos, divisiveness or disgruntled complaining are not effective ways to communicate concerns or disappointments.
  • We agree to encourage each other and be willing ourselves to risk speaking openly and face-to-face about our hopes and our times of discouragement.
  • We try to remember that building a consensus does not mean letting everyone have exactly what they ask for, nor does it offer an opportunity for only one faction to win.
  • We acknowledge it takes the hard work of practicing our most considerate behavior when we may be most tempted not to and when others may be failing to do so.
  • We make these commitments so that we will be able to develop plans and strategies for living out our shared values and impacting the wider community in positive ways.

We live in challenging times, times of upheaval and demands for facing problems of great complexity for the global community and our own BGUU community. As individuals and as a community there have been times, and there will be times, when we all fail to keep our covenants as fully as we hoped and intended.

That is when it gets messy, confusing, sometimes very hurtful,, messy and confusing. Our community has been struggling with such a situation. As we move forward there is a need for understanding, forgiveness, and a recognition of the ways we may have failed to be the community we hoped to be.

We need to make the promises of this new covenant and use them as our guide, so that even when damage has been done and righteous anger erupts, when we see others as not playing by the rules or as standing in our way, we still commit ourselves to doing the hard inner work of both examining our own behavior and working respectfully with others to find the way back to our fullest truest values and intentions and acting accordingly.

Sometimes, hope is hard to find, and peace seems a distant dream. It is easy to become preoccupied with self and to give up on the hard tasks of maintaining relationships and building community in the face of personal discomfort and challenge.

But this seems a self- defeating response, a squandering of the opportunity to grow in integrity and compassion. The need we all have to connect with others and contribute to the well-being of one another is a critical piece of what makes us human and— some us believe—divine.

Being part of the UU BG church community offers us opportunities for practicing our manners while building an authentic community, so that together we can acknowledge our position in part of an interdependent web of social, economic and environmental threads, and attempt to make just and responsible choices in how we use and share our resources and in how we treat each other.

So let’s all mind our manners, and get our ice cream.

Delivered by Susan H. Webb on 4 October 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green.

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