Post 253

The English Evasion: Reflections on Etiquette

Christianity is found all over the world and in different eras. It has bathed certain regions of the world so thoroughly that the foundation of those regions are entirely saturated with Christian values and outlooks. Those who inhabit those regions today have a Judeo-Christian mindset without even realizing it. They take it for granted, for instance, that there is something deeply wrong with suicide and torture and infant-sacrifice and infidelity. When dealing with such issues, the dialogue is different. Those who declare themselves on the side of various forms of immorality have the style of revolutionaries, and this is fitting, because they are rising up against an ancient and wise tradition of moral know-how.

The difficulty that I want to explore has to do with the expressions of Christianity. Although Christianity, and specifically, Catholicism is oft seen as a system of rigorous and overly-restrictive picky rules, the truth is that there is, even within Catholicism – the most intellectually and spiritually complete version of Christianity – a tremendous amount of freedom. Christianity is compatible with every decent human culture. It is not, of course, compatible with all aspects of those cultures which have core practices antithetical to human dignity. In those cases, adoption of Christianity will result in abolition of abortion, infanticide, polygamy, self-mutilation and so on.

It is to be expected, then, that the expression of Christianity will be informed by one’s culture. The idea about how to be a good Christian will be shaped and influenced by the culture in which Christianity is practiced.

The Christian Golden Rule, to treat others as you would want to be treated, is expressed in various ways throughout the world. Cultural customs are retained, to a large extent, and so if you grow up as a good Christian in Japan, you’ll make sure not to walk around in someone’s home wearing your outdoor shoes. If you grow up as a good Christian in Italy, you might be quite accustomed to treating traffic signals as suggestions. If you grow up as a good Christian in Korea, you might interrupt your neighbour in eager conversation, but you’ll never blow your nose at the table, of course.

And that reminds me: did you know about Catholicism’s role in the development of Korean cuisine?

The Korean fascination with the chili is in itself a fascinating story since the chili originated botanically in the Valley of Mexico and Guatemala. The chili, which plays a central part in the high-voltage cooking of Korea, has developed a significance of its own in denoting the machismo of how much one can eat without gasping for breath . . . During the seven-year war that began in 1592 between Japan and Korea, Portuguese Catholic priests accompanied Japanese troops to Korea. The Portuguese took along the chili seeds or plants that the Spanish had brought from Central America to Europe. And so the chili entered Korea via Japan and took hold with a vengeance never to be relinquished.

— Copeland Marks, The Korean Kitchen:
Classic Recipes from the Land of the Morning Calm

(In other words, the Japanese didn’t have an interest in it, but the Koreans said to themselves, “Hey hey hey, whaddya think about mixing in some of this, eh?”)

If you grow up as a Christian in North America, your ideas about how to be a good Christian (or even, about how to be a good person) will be very much shaped by the English social norms. This is not necessarily a good thing. We owe a great debt to England in many ways, but it’s time to stop and think about some of these English tendencies.

Two tendencies are very English. The first has to do with appearing calm in all situations. The second has to do with indirectness.

You’ve heard the expression “stiff upper lip.” It’s a reference to both staying strong against the enemy and staying strong against oneself, where one is tempted to collapse in an emotional heap or pummel one’s mother-in-law. It’s an English thing.

Nevertheless, you would be entirely wrong in thinking that the British are without emotions. Their emotions run as deep as those of any human being. You can see this by noting that their artistic expression has the full range of human sentiment. I like what Elgar I’ve heard, and everyone knows that Shakespeare’s works show great insight into the human heart.

Chesterton spoke about how a Spanish man will run up to embrace his young son, but an English man won’t let himself. Chesterton said a Russian man will say, “Hello, I’m so-and-so and I killed my sister because her boots squeaked, how do you do?” I paraphrase his exaggeration, but there’s something to be said for such an approach. Indeed, there’s an openness of expression found in many other cultures that is frowned upon in the world of the English, particularly in upper-class circles.

England is very much a class-driven society. It is palpable when you’re there. There’s the Queen, and then there’s, well, you. The Trump phenomenon strikes the English as a prime example of the perils of the chaotic and ‘classless’ American way, where ‘just anybody’ can rise up to do anything.

The wealthy and those who pretend to be wealthy are dignified, reserved and very cold – on the outside, that is. On the inside, they’re as warm-blooded as any Chilean, as hot-blooded as a Korean soap opera star.

In the mind of an Englishman, being polite always involves being composed. Enthusiasm must be tempered and so must anger. All expressions of human sentiment must pass through a filter of respectability and decorum. You are left with what is tepid. You are left with what is neither hot nor cold.

But the emotions are there, and all of the anger and the hostility and the peevishness and small-mindedness are there. They are hidden under a veneer of perfect civility. The emotions are there, and the unspoken thoughts are there! Conversely, the words of love and tenderness and loyalty and heartfelt empathy are there. They just remain unspoken, is all. You complain?

The second attribute has to do with indirectness. I was recently chatting with a Ph.D. candidate who has a Slavic background, and she spoke about her impression of Canadians. She said that they were two-faced. She didn’t elaborate, but she did not need to. I know what she means. In their interactions with you, they are unfailingly smiley and agreeable. Once you turn your back, however, they will mutter to themselves or a close friend that you have failed in this way and that. She said that she once asked a classroom of students to separate a list of adjectives into two piles. Put the positive human qualities here and put the negative human qualities over there. Kind, trustworthy, generous, well, those go over here. Selfish, dishonest, blunt, well, those go over there. Whoa! She was so shocked – why do these Canadians categorize bluntness and directness as being a bad thing?

It’s our heritage. Our English heritage tells us that confronting things directly is ill-advised. Confronting an issue head-on could lead to conflict, and, of course, conflict is always bad. It could result in emotions being inadvertently expressed, which, of course, is bad. You see?

The English language therefore makes use of many round-about methods of talking. There are many circuitous ways of making statements and asking questions, to avoid direct engagement. You can speak in generalities, and you can speak using the hypothetical and you can speak in the passive voice where things happen without anybody making them happen. They are just The Way Things Went, The Way They Are and The Way They Will Always Be. And of course, there are many conversations about the weather, to avoid the elephant in the room. “Would you like me to change your tires?” “Oh, no thank you, I had them done just yesterday, as a matter of fact.”

It is viewed as polite, and, sadly, it is often viewed as The Christian Way.

Man. That’s when you need Jesus to walk in and kick the tea tray down the hall.

You’ll see that the heroines of the best English novels (written by Bronte, Austen, Gaskell) don’t play by the rules if the rules get in the way. They surprise and scandalize those who are ‘proper’ because they say what needs to be said and they refuse to say what is expected to be said. Deep down, we admire that, and so such novels continue to be popular. Chesterton’s protagonists are similarly simple and free, and do not follow the predictable style of the English upper classes. His heroes show their cards and they show their loyalty. When lines are crossed, words are spoken and sometimes swords follow words. His protagonists break the mold, and will break window panes if Our Lady is defamed. His heroes know how to fight for a worthy cause and they do.

Chesterton showed that the proper expression of Christianity was not shackled by the English upper-class’s definition of good manners. It’s important to separate the two things. Being well-mannered according to the English or Canadian standard is not an indication of your holiness as a Christian.

As a matter of fact, you can be on both ends of the spectrum at once. Here’s Horace, and he’s as polite as can be, but he relishes every opportunity to show that everyone around him is not nearly as composed as he is. He particularly likes any evidence that someone is flustered or perturbed. He is Mr. Unflappable. He enjoys verbal duels, and will use language designed to confuse or impress or both. He aims to unsettle and disturb others so that he can be, by contrast, very collected. It’s disgraceful, really, especially because it is underhanded. What seems to be politeness and restraint is disguised venom. When he meets his match, Horace resorts to the other English tactic: evasion. When his questions and attacks have been answered in full, he refuses to acknowledge that he has been answered. He poses yet another question. When asked a question, he pretends it went unheard. When asked the question again, he says that it is unanswerable. After causing trouble and hardship to others, he neither apologizes nor accepts responsibility. He haughtily says, “Pity,” and expects you to act as if all is business as usual.

In the other corner, we have Horatio. Horatio is a character. He has a big laugh and a big heart. His poker face is second to none, but if the Oilers lose in overtime, he takes it pretty hard. Horatio doesn’t colour within the lines and you never quite know what he thinks, until he tells you. He’ll tell you his opinion using words you’ll understand, and is unimpressed when archbishops use phrases such as “ratified this truth” when half the congregation has English as its second language. When you’ve made him happy, you’ll probably know. When you’ve hurt him, you’ll probably know. He’ll call you out using words you’ll understand. Those who cross him claim to be utterly mystified as to his reasons, and you can believe them if you want. I’m going with Horatio. At least he tells the truth.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Etiquette is well and good until it becomes a lie. Decorum and manners have their place, but they mustn’t reign as king. By the time politeness has demanded this and that and the next thing, it might have become a demanding dictator. It can become a way of life that is so ingrained that one views everything through the lens of etiquette, and, what’s worse, it can become a counterfeit Christianity. Everything is judged by whether it meets the modern definition of good manners. It’s no longer Good versus Evil; it’s Good Manners versus Bad Manners.

Good manners and general civility in society is important, but it cannot be confused with virtue, and it must give way, as needed, to the demands of a moral life. We cannot forfeit truthfulness and genuine dialogue in the name of good manners. To do so would be to limit our lives and to lead a two-faced existence. How many people imprison themselves behind a false mask of congeniality, going to their graves without expressing and living the truth of what they think and feel?

Does this mean that I am advocating temper tantrums when things don’t get well at the bank, the dentist’s and the podiatrist’s? No, it does not. Does it mean that I am in favour of screaming matches? It does not. It means that I am in favour of dialogue that doesn’t necessarily follow the script, because honest dialogue rarely does. I am in favour of real questions being asked and fair questions being answered fully and truthfully.

I know that there are saints who tell us to smile always and to be cheerful always, but those must be classified as suggestions applicable in some, but not all, contexts. Suggestions are good, but they should not be burdensome. These ideas are not in the Gospel and they are not in church teaching, so let’s not get carried away with this type of thinking, and treat, “Thou Shalt Smile” as the eleventh commandment. Jesus didn’t go around wearing a t-shirt that said, “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.” He did what he needed to do and he wasn’t smiling while he suffered in the innumerable ways that he suffered. It would have been unnatural.

The emphasis on demeanor is in the same category as St. Josemaria’s direction that one must not talk about food while eating. He says one should talk about intellectual or spiritual things in order to dignify the duty of eating. Such things about the details of everyday life are suggestions, not commands of the Catholic Church. To think otherwise would be to make the Church excessively and obsessively controlling. In the case of this suggestion, there are valid arguments in favour of talking about food at the table, in keeping with the themes of sincerity and simplicity in other parts of his writing. After all, Jesus wants us to be like children, and children will joyfully talk about food or whatever comes to mind, for that matter. Children are natural, and we’d be in a stifled world if we couldn’t speak about food and prayer and gardening and the latest homily and fiber optic networks in the same wide-ranging conversation. Besides, the cook is often anxious about whether the food has pleased her guests. If I enjoy food, I say so simply, and when others say they like what I serve, that makes me happy too. Why complicate matters? Similarly, if I am pleased, I smile. If I’m not, I don’t. Why add layers of Christian ‘requirements’ to life? Take such things as ideas for yourself, reminding you that there are things more important than food to talk about, but don’t take it as a rule, and don’t judge Sister Annata when she says these are the best asparagus spears she’s ever had.

So let’s be clear about things. At the end of the day, we’ll be judged on what we have in our heart towards God and our neighbours. Jesus had, at all times, immense love of God his Father. His heart could not have been more cheerful and happy, and he was full of love for those around him, but this was not expressed by a strict adherence to Jewish etiquette. He was a gentle man, but he wasn’t evasive. Indeed, when necessary, his words were direct and as sharp as a sword.

He was a gentle man, but thank God, he wasn’t an English gentleman.