Manners Make the MannequinCHRISTINE B. WHELAN
Is it moral to fake kindness?
Today's twentysomethings are a generation raised in the therapeutic culture, readily turning inward to analyze their emotions. But they are also a generation known for blunt communication skills and a lack of fidelity to social conventions. Indeed, for many of the college students, being too polite or conscious of the feelings of others is a concerning sign that you are out of touch with your core self.
Case in point: Ask a college student to define honesty and the response invariably will be inward-focused. Honesty is about personal integrity, being true to yourself and facing your fears, my students tell me. However, challenged to explain their attitudes on outward-focused honesty – honesty in social interactions – the conversation slows to a stammer of uncertainty.
Is it honest to look for the positives in an otherwise distasteful situation? Is it honest to search for some element of shared interest, and focus on that, to get someone to warm up to you? Is it honest to yourself and others to admit mistakes, knowing that it might give you the upper hand in the rest of the negotiations?
Should you honestly tell your roommate she looks fat in her summer white pants, or that he should dump his clingy girlfriend? When you put on a big smile for your sixth interview of the day in a seemingly hopeless job search, are you being honest? And where is the line between direct communication and hurtful, unnecessary insults?
These are questions our great-grandparents would have dismissed out of hand. In their world, there was virtue in being polite, and if you didn't have something nice to say, you shouldn't say anything at all. During the inner-directed 1960s, however – the era of the Human Potential Movement and self-actualization – sincerity and expressions of visceral emotions became our new definition of honesty. And these ideas stuck.
I teach a class on the sociology of self-improvement – a great place to debate ideas of honest social interaction. Back in the 1930s (well before self-actualization was cocktail party conversation), Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People was a bestseller because it argued that readers could improve their relationships by offering "honest appreciation" and "sincere praise" to achieve a better social outcome. In story after story, Carnegie describes the power of sincere thanks and a positive word, while gently reminding readers that it's best to admit our own mistakes first before criticizing others. "Honest appreciation got results where criticism and ridicule failed," he concludes. While flattery and insincerity are to be avoided, there's something good in everyone. By accentuating the positive and learning the basics of human interactions, doors will open and everyone will be happier.
I assigned How to Win Friends and Influence People and asked students to test out his principles in their own day-to-day life. After a few weeks, I posed two questions: Does Carnegie's advice work? And, Is it honest?
On the first question, a resounding yes. Students told stories getting out of speeding tickets, mending romantic relationships and winning favor with potential in-laws by using Carnegie's people-friendly techniques.
Liam, a graduating senior, used the advice to land a job. In his interviews, he said:
But on the second question, students were split. Is How to Win Friends and Influence People an honest manual for interpersonal interactions – or a playbook for insincerity and flattery?
By being polite and interested in others, was Carnegie "teaching me how to be exactly who the other person wants me to be instead of being myself?" worried Jodi, a senior. "Truthfulness is about inner honesty, not getting people to like you," several students argued. And yet they conceded that being empathetic and interested in others could work wonders.
At his part-time job, John, a junior, smiled at a co-worker he usually ignores – and the man immediately warmed up, spoke to him, and offered him some gum. Wrote John: "The great irony here is that, while the advice was effective, I'm certainly not sure it was honest. The truth is, I likely would never have smiled at this person had Carnegie not urged me to do so. So if I would not have done this thing of my own nature, how can it be honest?"
Though these acts of empathy created lasting friendly relationships, my students were uneasy because their politeness required effort. If you believe that listen-to-your-gut, inward-focused honesty is the most central tenet of the virtue, Carnegie's pleas for outward-focused politeness and deference will chafe. It's "basically lying to yourself" to smile and act politely toward someone you don't like, some students worried.
C. S. Lewis would beg to differ. In Mere Christianity, he famously encourages readers to live a more virtuous and Christian life simply by "acting as if" they were Christian. "Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, 'If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?' When you have found the answer, go and do it."
Lewis believed that it was possible to train habits of virtue. Carnegie would agree: Acting as if you like someone is a great way to spark a genuine friendship. Or land a job. Or brighten someone's day. Recent psychological research takes this one step further: Finding the silver lining or lesson in a tough situation, or focusing on the good in a person rather than the negatives, reduces stress and boost happiness.
So I'll keep assigning How to Win Friends and Influence People in hopes of continuing the conversation. Acting with integrity isn't just an inward-looking virtue. It's possible to create genuine friendship by treating others as if it already existed.
Christine B. Whelan. "Manners Make the Mannequin." Big Questions Online (December 2, 2010).
BQO aims to ask and explore the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality, with a focus on science, religion, markets, morals, and the dynamic intersection among them. We hope to inspire readers to think beyond familiar categories and disciplinary boundaries and to join us in creating a forum for lively, intelligent dialogue.
Reprinted with permission of the author and Big Questions Online.
Christine B. Whelan is a visiting assistant professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Pittsburgh. She graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, where she was Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Princetonian and was awarded the Daniel M. Sachs Scholarship to attend Worcester College at the University of Oxford. She earned a masters and doctorate from Oxford and has held teaching positions at Princeton University and the University of Iowa. She writes a bi-weekly relationship advice column for BustedHalo, a young-adult website and a monthly column on everyday virtues for BigQuestionsOnline.
Christine Whelan is the author of Generation WTF: From "What the #%$&" to a Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless You, Marry Smart: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to True Love, and Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women. She and her husband, Peter, live and work in Pittsburgh with their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purrron.
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