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Manners of the Heart
by Renée Fuller, Ph.D.
The first occasion on which I remember my mother using the phrase was when I was nine years old. I know I was nine because it happened while we were recovering from food poisoning -- a major scandal at the time, which killed over 100 people. Fortunately for us, we had eaten only a small amount of the contaminated meat and so instead of being hospitalized were able to remain at home with a specially hired aide to care for us.

"You see", my mother explained. "Although Mary-Lou doesn't know the rules of etiquette, because they are new to her, she is in possession of something much more important. She has manners of the heart. Which is what all this etiquette business, all these conventions are supposed to be about. That's their presumed purpose. Except that too often we let our manners become mere rituals. We forget their real intent. Mary-Lou knows what really matters to other people -- because she cares. And because she cares, she tries to figure out what's important to you, what will make you feel good, what you need. Mary-Lou has manners of the heart."

Then, as part of my mother's tutelage about people-to-people relationships she continued; "When given a choice between someone who knows all the rules of etiquette but cares less about their real purpose, and someone who's ignorant of much of this but has manners of the heart, always choose the person with manners of the heart. Because that's what's really important. That is what really matters."

Even though I was only nine, I understood what my mother had meant about Mary-Lou. She had an uncanny ability to cheer you up while you were sick, and she had a sixth sense as to when and what food snacks would make you feel better. Then there had been her remarkable awareness of when I didn't want someone hovering over me, and when, as a family, we didn't want a stranger in our midst. On those occasions she had retired to another room, softly singing to herself. Even her singing created a soothing atmosphere making you feel you were in good hands.

Having blandly accepted Mary-Lou's thoughtfulness as my due I hadn't realized that what my mother called manners of the heart was something of value. After being made aware, I assumed that Mary-Lou had a special talent, almost a magical gift that let her know what people needed, what would make a difference to them. It did not occur to me that I too could possess this ability -- that I too could have this gift. However, that naive and rather thoughtless notion came to an abrupt end sometime later.

It was on an occasion after I had been, what I considered with pride, dutifully polite in a proper ritualistic manner. I don't remember the details. But I'll never forget my mother's reaction. She was appalled. There was a look of consternation on her face as she all but exploded; "There was a person at the other end of your words. What did you think you were doing!?"

I tried to explain that I had said what was expected. Had I not followed the rules of etiquette? But my mother refused to accept my explanation.

"You thought of yourself, not of the other person. Following the rules of etiquette without paying attention to how they will be received means you have thought only of yourself. You would have done better to have done nothing. It would have been less insulting."

But I hadn't intended to insult. I was confused. My mother must have realized that more guidance and more detailed instructions were required. Even now, so many years later, I can still hear her. "Look at the other person's face. What does it tell you? Listen not only to their words, but listen to their voice. What is the other person feeling? What words, what actions, on your part will make a difference to them? What will mean most to them? What do they need? What will make them happy?"

The tutelage continued for many years and included the observation:

"Books on etiquette, articles on manners can be useful. But they cannot look at the other person's face; they cannot hear the other person's voice. However, you can. That's the difference between manners by rote and manners of the heart. No book can replace the heart. Manners and etiquette by rote are meaningless at best. At worst they can be an affront. They can hurt."

Sometime later I saw firsthand how ritualized etiquette can indeed be an affront. How it can hurt. It happened after my grandfather had died. A printed sympathy card "on the death of a loved one" had arrived in the mail. My mother looked at the printed card with its signature and exclaimed, "I've known these people for years. They've had dinner at our house many times, and yet they didn't even take the time to write a simple note or make a telephone call! How cold-hearted can you get?! It implies a complete lack of empathy. They obviously couldn't care less. I wasn't worth just a tiny bit of effort. In fact, if they hadn't done anything I would have assumed they hadn't heard that my father had died. That would have been preferable." My mother's pain and indignation was an unforgettable demonstration of how hurtful manners by rote can be.

As I grew older and reached the age of imminent world travel I received the following instructions that have continued to serve me well.

"When you travel to other countries whose intricacies of etiquette are foreign to you, books about local customs and manners can be of help. But their value is not guaranteed. However, you can be sure of one thing. Despite all our differences, people the world over intuitively recognize manners of the heart. All of us sense that that is what really matters. Even in France they recognize and appreciate manners of the heart - at least most of the time."

Now, years later, my mother's words still carry an importance and meaning. And because of their significance, I have related them to numerous children and even to an occasional adult. As parents and educators we try to pass on important teachings that have worked for us -- including the lessons and ideas which we learned from our parents and teachers. In mature adulthood we can see what was effective in the long run; what approaches, what advice made a difference in our lives. I have also found that these lessons represent a common sense that surpasses much of what I was taught as a psychologist. It is the wisdom that was learned by generations of parents, teachers and grandparents who passed on to subsequent generations the lore of productive living. These understandings reflect a wisdom that is not based on theory but on what achieves beneficial results.

Regardless of how much technological innovations have changed our world, some things have remained the same. Unchanged are the fundamentals of people-to-people interaction. And among the most important of these fundamentals are manners of the heart.

In passing on my mother's teachings I have found that children are fascinated by the realization that the expression on people's faces and the sound of their voices is a form of language. And that by looking into people's faces and listening to their voices you can tell what makes others feel good, or bad. Many children are surprised at how rapidly they become aware and even proficient in this non-verbal speech which communicates so much. They find that practicing the understanding of the facial-voice language is an exciting challenge.

Once children have become knowledgeable about the voice-facial language, they are ready for the next stage. This is the adventure of looking inside themselves to find out what they would want in a given situation and thereby begin to understand what others would desire. For someone their own age this is a relatively easy task. When however, they have to picture themselves as adults this becomes a truly imaginative enterprise. I have found that it helps when you play the game of: "I'll wave my wand and you are now the age of your (mother, father, etc.)." Then I present them with the setting and continue with, "Now that you are your (mother's, father's etc.) age, what, given these circumstances, would please you? What would you like to happen? What is it that you would want to avoid because it would be unpleasant, perhaps even make you unhappy?"

Children are surprised to find that by play-acting in this way they quickly realize what would please the other person and what to avoid. In addition, something else seems to be gained. The training in learning to observe what makes people sad, what creates joy, raises the awareness of how alike we all are. It is the beginning of an identification with other people, gradually leading to an understanding of the human condition. In our present me-me age with its egocentricity, that is an important lesson.

By teaching manners of the heart we raise children's awareness of our connectedness with other people. We create the understanding that we are all brothers and sisters; that we are all relations under the skin.

Children are reassured when told that even if they get things wrong, other people can feel their intent. And intent is what matters the most. "Because if you are thoughtful, which shows that you care, it will feel like you're giving the other person a present that's intended just for them."

Then there is how to write thank-you letters that will communicate genuine pleasure. I usually begin by asking the child, "Remember the sort of thing that makes (Grandma, Dad, etc.) laugh. And remember the time when everyone giggled -- and the sort of things that makes her/him actually strut with pride -- or the time when he/she declared that that was a wonderful happening?"

Once the child has keyed in on the characteristics of the intended recipient, the next stage becomes relatively easy. Because, "You now have the clues that will tell you what to write so that your thank-you letter will be a genuine thank you. You can begin with, 'Your present is just like. . . It reminds me of the time when . . .'" Even very young children can haltingly put together such a note. And they understand that this time they have written a real letter.

My friend, ten-year old Molly, had desperately asked her parents for weeks, "What do I say?" She was supposed to write a thank-you letter to her grandmother for a really lovely present. "What do I say?" is a phrase most of us have uttered again and again in our own childhood. And don't most of us remember those dreadful, lame letters we wrote that must have informed their recipients of our desperate reluctance. However, once Molly was clued in it didn't take her long to understand.

The first thing I did was let Molly forget for the moment the anxiety-provoking letter she was supposed to write. Instead we concentrated on what made grandmother laugh, what she liked to talk about, and what she would talk about repeatedly with pride. We laughed a lot about grandmother's distinct personality. "Now you can weave some of these into your thank-you letter. You begin by telling grandmother what means most to her, you recount the scene where she described how proud she was, and that that's what her present meant to you." In her own awkward ten-year-old style Molly put together a letter. Grandmother has kept the letter to this day. It wasn't one of those lame notes most of us have written, nor did it come out of a book on etiquette. Instead it was a letter meant just for Molly's grandmother.

I had forgotten I had done something similar with teen-age Rick for a condolence letter he had to write. But when years later I received a letter from him on the death of my own father, his letter had a double significance. It contained a phrase that I will treasure. "Your father must have been as proud as I will be if someday I have a daughter like you." I too, have kept that letter.

That's what manners of the heart are about. They come from the heart, and speak to the heart.

Copyright © Renée Fuller, 2001, all rights reserved


Dr. Renée Fuller is a psychologist and creator of the successful reading program, Ball-Stick-Bird. Please see their ad on page.
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