Being well bred is not about creating, seeking out, or living in an environment in which others treat us properly. So much of what I read online puts the responsibility on the individual to create their world. Think about phrases such as “Create the life of your dreams,” “Surround yourself with those who appreciate you,” “Don’t associate with haters”– and the overall message that if you act a certain way you will command respect. I have been researching corset wearing lately for shaping up purposes after discovering that I have diastasis recti (I had four kids in five years); I was surprised to see a line stating that wearing corsets increases one’s posture and poise, which can therefore elicit greater respect and attention from those around the wearer.
Reading all of this, being bombarded by it every day, especially by those of us who enjoy self-improvement blogs and reading, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that much of what happens to us is controlled by us. Another reason that it’s hard for me to let go of that concept is that I was raised in legalistic religious settings for most of my youth, and I heard preaching that lifestyle choices were directly linked to outcomes that I know now happen randomly to people across the globe.
But the truth is simply this: being well bred (or living a refined life, living holistically, living mindfully and joyfully, or whatever one’s goal is in pursuing the well bred lifestyle) does not involve creating circumstances, either directly or indirectly, that coincide with one’s values. Of course, one should create circumstances that meet one’s needs; be it moving into or out of a housing situation, picking the best job or career, eating and dressing a certain way, reading this or watching that on television, etc. Everyone has control over some aspects of life, if we take the time to figure out what they are. Beyond that, we have control over our response to what happens to us.
To be more specific, I have gotten the impression from reading various etiquette, well breeding, and gentility websites and books that the polite people of the world need to attempt to instill politeness everywhere, similar to how anti-smoking activists have mostly eliminated smoking in public places and restaurants. Some of these politeness pioneers only insist it be done gently and subtly, leading by example; others will go so far as to consider themselves the voice meant to caution a stranger’s disruptive child, to lecture a rude customer in line in front of them, etc. I believe that such people have good intent. It’s not that I don’t think what they’re doing will work, though I am sure that leading by example is more effective than lecturing or jumping into another family’s disciplinary issue. But my point is that although we do lead by example, for better or for worse, our motive should not be trying to create a happier, more self-serving (for indeed it would be) world that teems with gracious, polite, well adjusted people who both appreciate our efforts to be well bred and reciprocate with their own best intentions. We should live as well bred as possible based on our knowledge and capabilities; however, to do so out of a desire, ever so subtle or well meaning, to change others or elicit different reactions is misguided and futile. That is because there will always be at least one person that won’t reciprocate, can’t appreciate the efforts, and simply won’t care. They won’t care how tall and straight your corset makes your stand; your soft words will only infuriate them more; they’ll think your well manicured appearance is an attempt to show off or one up. In my opinion, it seems the number of sociopaths and narcissists is skyrocketing in the United States today, and in my short existence I have seen many reactions that simply did not make sense based on the “If I act properly, I’ll elicit a favorable response” logic.
I feel this subject urgently needs to be discussed because there is so much opinion to the contrary, that living this way or doing that thing will “win friends, influence people, command respect, earn yourself a job promotion.” I even see job promotions, greater influence, higher pay, and a happier existence promoted as the effects of having a personal style or color analysis done. While I would love to have a personal image analysis–I’ve already picked out this creative stylist for when I save up the funds–I want it for myself—for the pleasure I derive from fine form, beautiful symmetry, and coordinating colors in my best hues. Dressing as mindfully as possible would make me feel happy and better about myself. I have already noticed a marked difference in the behavior of those around me when I wear my best colors; in public, people often rush to open the door for me or offer to assist me. But I don’t do it, nor do I believe I should do it, to manipulate other people. I have been reading a lot lately on psychology and the effects people have on each other (Quiet by Susan Cain is a must read), and I keep going back to the Bible’s frequent descriptions of people as sheep (1 2 3). Manipulating people is easy; so easy, in fact, that most of us do it every day either unwittingly or with the best intentions. But to behave in any way in order to elicit positive responses from others is manipulation and should not be one’s reason for acting well bred.
To sum up, we cannot, nor should we try, to control the circumstances around us in order to create a more genteel life. We cannot teach every rude person how to respond better to us; no amount of dressing well will ensure we’re always treated like the Queen; a soft answer doesn’t always turn away wrath; and there are so many narcissists on the loose that I have considered becoming a hermit. We should always do what lines up with our principles and act in a way that enriches our own lives; responding graciously to a rude person enables us to sleep well at night and teaches our children a valuable character lesson; dressing well elevates our mood and reduces stress; soft words spoken in the heat of the moment will need no taking back. We will probably influence many others for good, but there are those that will not be changed and it isn’t our responsibility to try changing them. It’s time to take the burden for other’s behavior off ourselves, my friends; a life well lived in line with your principles is your legacy to the world, not your obligation.