My grandma often counsels me from her witty, always raunchy and deeply profound aphorisms of advice, which she has cultivated over a lifetime. “The fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but don’t go for a man who falls in love like that.” Or, “Only flip someone off when you really mean it; don’t overuse that shock value.” Or, more practically, “Save 10 percent of every paycheck.” This weekend, she opined: “Just be graceful, and it will all work itself out.”
Graceful? The online cottage industry of etiquette blog spots and How to Be Ladylike WordPresses situates “grace” in the realm of 1950s sexism. These bloggers discuss grace as seen-but-not-heard comportment, with little snips about elegance under pictures of Audrey Hepburn and advice on stockings. In this aesthetic, grace is a ballast of old, white finishing schools and bridge clubs.
These authors of sites like ElegantWoman.org (I’m not kidding — someone literally spent money on that domain name) have incorrectly conflated grace with politeness. Polite, the lapel pin of insincerity, codes for being disingenuously civil to someone you may very well dislike. Anyone can manually learn the choreography of politeness, which may be why Bono called this duplicitous decorum “death by cupcake” (funnier if you imagine him saying it wearing those purple-tinted sunglasses). Imagine an entire category of wikiHow on civility — read it, and voila! Polite: the fundamental social banalities of any environment.
Grace is a very different breed.
Grace — as Nana meant it — is existential elegance. The verb accompanying “grace” is “to have,” whereas one “acts” polite. Therein lies the distinction: politeness is a mask; having grace comes from reservoirs of inner confidence. It’s a nuanced distinction, but important — being graceful is not an act, but rather a state of living. To be graceful means radiating internal self-assurance into the world. Thus, gracefulness also puts your conversational partners completely at ease, allowing them space to feel more comfortable being authentic. Conversational grace means tabling your personal insecurities, an attitude that in turn soothes the insecurities of your interlocutor. In that sense, perhaps, grace is social mindfulness; it invites people to be their best selves.
Or, for a good old SAT throwback — polite is to rude as graceful is to vulgar, a more insidious, base impoliteness. Grace and vulgarity are much harder things to learn (and unlearn) by simply reading etiquette blogs.
Although Yale graduates are a well-educated and hypothetically polite brigade of workers, how many of us are truly graceful adults upon graduation? Perhaps our fundamentally insecure campus relies too heavily on external validation for self-worth. To draw from Nana, Yale undergraduates, as a generalized whole, are not yet comfortable in their own skins. Our insecurities tether our conversations to a wariness of each other — we lack the grace necessary to create authentic relationships. Considering the Yale public sphere, let’s treat grace as a civic virtue of sorts, the power to elevate conversations, create more engaged community members and celebrate people as and how they are. We need more grace at Yale.
To use the global sociopolitical wordbook we all know and love, grace is the linchpin of soft power. Coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, soft power is the ability of a nation-state to attract rather than coerce, to persuade through appeal rather than through force. States nurture their soft power through an emphasis on their reputations, bolstered through hosting the Olympics, having fantastic and internationally loved music or exporting their unique cuisine. In other words, soft power is the embodiment of grace.
Grace must carry more social currency at Yale: a focus on the soft power of the people we know and those we have yet to meet. If more of our campus had grace, we would have fewer section assholes, fewer messy break ups and fewer catty rumors. Our flock of resume-padded Canada Geese would fly a truer north. With a Yale degree would come not only the expectation of intelligence and work ethic, but also a human who moves through the world with elegance. This outward respect can only come from self-respect — this is the essence of grace.
That, and truly impeccable posture.
Amelia Jane Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .