There comes a time in every young person’s life when he or she must wise up to polite behavior, embrace adulthood and shun the crude manners that are acceptable only for children. That time, for most of us, is now. No longer is it acceptable, let alone charming, to reject conversation in favor of muteness, to avoid eye contact, to willfully ignore a joke. Manners exist to ease and enhance experiences with other people, and good conversation reigns in polite society. With it, you’re a desirable companion; without it, you’re awkward.
We all know what it’s like to mention a great professor or a terrible movie and receive a grunt or shrug in response. We know that it’s unsatisfying and frustrating. After all, sometimes it’s not easy to make conversation, especially when you haven’t established a successful rapport with someone. But we try because that’s how we get to know each other, and we succeed only when the effort is returned.
Contrary to the self-righteous attitudes of many intellectually mature 20-year-olds, conversation becomes a skill and an asset in the adult world. Adults who can’t make it are considered immature and rude. Good conversationalists, on the other hand, are sought out in realms both professional and personal for their honed skills. Thus, carrying on verbally with fellow humans assists at the most selfish level: It ingratiates you to people, encouraging them to do you favors.
More importantly, though, it makes people feel dignified. If an acquaintance sees you on the street and asks what you’ve been up to, don’t shrug and stare blankly. For heaven’s sake, make something up about a class you’re taking, or about the new book you just bought. It seems phony, but at worst it’s harmless chatter, and the alternative — rudeness — is inexcusable. Unresponsiveness is not an endearing quirk. And fortunately, for the mentally sound, it is not a serious, ingrained problem. It’s just a rude habit, one that should be broken as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, we choose to be rude. Our ability to choose, to alter our behavior, is evident often during class, when students whom you know to be unresponsive in social situations talk their heads off to impress the teacher. We may be able to get away with rude behavior among our peers, but adults expect better. Let’s face it: Sometimes we humor our professors, our parents, our bosses at work. We have to, because it makes them feel more comfortable and sets the tone for deeper connections. When we’re talking to adults, we’re polite. We converse.
Here is our problem: We’re now becoming adults. We, like professors and employers, should expect good manners. Sometimes, we innately reward our well-mannered peers by admiring them from afar or by sitting with them in the dining hall. But at the same time we relish the pseudo-cuteness of the standoffish, as if it’s mysterious, even mature. This is our greatest mistake, for maturity lies not in the artful disguise of social dysfunction, but in the rectification of crudeness and graceful growth into adults.
Our plight, then, is one that reaches to the elemental core of etiquette, far beyond conversation only. It is the plight of growing up, the profound confusion and sense of loss that lies at the core of the evolution of character. It is the plight of learning how to act in a way that is at once true to ourselves and appropriate in mixed company. We can’t cling to our childish minds and bodies, but we can cling to old habits, and our methods of communication are difficult to change.
Instead of maintaining childish conversational habits, though, we ought to tap into what we really miss about being little kids: honesty. As we grow into our adult selves, we must take advantage of our mature faculties to use brainpower and manners in ways we never could before. With that power, we should nurse the honesty that really matters and refine our conversational skills for our own sake and for the sake of those around us.
Helen Vera is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.