Recently I read an article summarizing common manners that children should learn. One of them was that a child should say “excuse me” when interrupting or bumping into someone. One commenter mentioned that the phrase “excuse me” should be replaced with “pardon me” as the former could be presumed to be sarcastic. That made me think about how much a person ought to modify her behavior based on the perceptions of others.
I admit, most of my life I have tried to please people. If I had an overarching goal for 2014, it would be to finally shake off the shackles that urge me to consider everyone else’s opinions and feelings before my own. Being considerate is a regular theme here on the blog, and it mostly stems from my mantra that I should treat others in the same way I wish to be treated. But how far is too far to go in considering others? Consider the example above. Is it acceptable for an adult to just assume, upon hearing the words, “Excuse me” from a child, that the child was being sarcastic? Is it acceptable for a child to tiptoe through life always wondering how his words will be perceived by others to the point that everything he says has to be based on a preconceived judgment call of his listener’s reaction? When laying out the issue in this way, surely one can see how quickly that way of thinking, speaking, and living would become exhausting and dull. Bringing matters back to the theme of this blog, how should a well-bred woman make decisions when considering the perceptions of others?
A dearly respected woman I knew as a child often told me that she felt it inappropriate for two adults of the opposite gender to be together in any situation alone, even if they both had spouses, be it a room of a larger building or a house. Once when she was visited by a male friend of her in-laws, she politely refrained to invite him into her home based on her convictions. As I aged, I did not see the need for her rule, thinking it stiff and prudish. I myself have admitted a couple of repairmen into my home since marrying, and I am unsure whether the awkwardness I felt was from the guilt of not following my friend’s rule or from the incessant frivolous chatter the repairmen engaged in. There was a time, before I became more self-respecting, that I found other men generally treated me better when my husband was present. I have since grown to both demand and give more respect as I have aged, and that has eliminated a lot of the awkwardness in these types of interactions. But that was not my friend’s main reason for her rule; she was afraid that the neighbors would think something negative if they saw her inviting a man into her home with no one else, besides her children, present. She assumed what the perceptions of others would be and acted accordingly.
There is no denying that what women do will be noticed and judged by others. There is no escaping it, either. A well-bred woman typically has a firm foot in society, and will therefore not wish to engage in behavior that consistently alienates others from her, no matter her motives. But a well-bred woman also has a deep-seated character, true and moral, that guides her actions, and although she is not perfect all the time, she strives to always have a good reason for everything she does. She also prizes individuality and personal development, and she will do what she wants and what is best for her and her family even if it does not always conform to the opinions of others. Therefore, I believe the key to a well-bred woman’s dealing with the perceptions of others is balance. She should not rely so heavily on what others might think that she makes every decision based on this assumption. One cannot really know what others will think anyway, and often one would be surprised to know how little others do notice every minute detail one mentally strives about. On the other extreme, she should not live life so carefree as to never consider how others may be affected by her choices. An example that comes to mind is the recent encounter I had with someone’s sharing my personal information in an attempt to do a good deed, as I later found out. She was well-meaning but oblivious to the discomfort she caused me when I was contacted by a stranger who knew far more about me than I did about them. All of it ended up stemming from my acquaintance’s desire to do something kind, but she completely forgot to visualize the situation from my point of view and perceive how I might have reacted. In this case, I believe that considering my feelings should have carried more weight than the woman’s individualistic desire to carry out this particular plan as a gesture of goodwill.
I cannot give a list of specific rules telling you when to choose to guess someone’s reaction and when to follow your heart. I believe the truly well-bred woman will be able, as she lives and loves and feels her way throughout the years, to strike a balance of knowing how to act in each situation. For the example of a child’s speech, I believe that considering the colloquialism in one’s local area is in order. If a woman lives in an area where “excuse me” is commonly taken to mean something sarcastic, while “pardon me” is readily understood and appreciated, she will probably choose to teach her children the latter phrase out of consideration to others. But if that is not the case, there is no need for every woman across America to make her children adopt the “pardon me” phrase; in another area where it is colloquially out of context, it could appear as sarcastic as “excuse me” does in some areas. A well-bred woman knows the general fluctuations of societal current in her area and is able to deftly steer her life ship through the boulders of public opinion while staying true to the undercurrent of her unique convictions, personality, and style. In the case of inviting a male visitor into her home while she is alone, a repair truck in the driveway and a brief stay is less likely to leave a suspicious impression on the neighbors than a mysterious stranger keeping long hours. Overall, it is up to each individual to decide how deeply influenced she will be by the perceptions of others. I cannot tell her the level of comfort she should feel, because only she knows it. And overall, as a well-bred woman in progress myself, I strive to respect the decisions of others and return them the very good grace of not jumping to conclusions about their behavior, no matter what they should choose to do.
“Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:7)