We recently discussed differences between “good manners” in Switzerland and the rest of the world. Overall, nothing really too shocking. I guess most things are reasonably standardized within Europe.

What did surprise me was how little most people question the (non-)sense of these rituals.

Most people would jump to defend “good manners” by claiming that they are a sign of respect for the other person(s). True – but only to a certain point in my opinion. Of course, when somebody talks you should show some respect and try to listen (and the other person should show respect and not exploit your patience). Of course, you should greet others to acknowledge their presence … but already their the dilemma starts.

In (at least the French part of) Switzerland it is really customary to follow up the “salut”/”bon jour” by an almost obligatory “ça va?”/”comment allez-vous?” … to which you’re obviously obliged to reply by stating that you’re doing just fine, before you return the ball into the other person’s half by repeating this empty phrase. This even happens in text messages on mobile phones and on the radio when random listeners call in to a show. I don’t like this.

Of course in 90% of the cases the other person doesn’t really care, how you are, and he doesn’t need to. Still, if he enjoys these kind of things it’s his right to pose the question. But what really annoys me is that I then have do something dishonest and play along. I’m not sure where the sign of respect is in this whole thing. It seems more of an insult to me.

Even if it’s a friend it should not be the first thing to ask IMO. Personally, I need a bit of time to “warm up” and build up a certain connection before I feel comfortable to reply (and ask) honestly. It’s happened to me before on various occasions that friends about whose state of well-being I really care first reply to my ping-pong question by stating that they are fine, only to tell me 1 minute later that they are actually not feeling too well at the moment. In email communication it’s slightly different though. There this “warming up” phase is more difficult to achieve and obviously I can take all the time I want before replying to a friend. And here I also have more of a liberty to ignore it if I don’t feel like given an honest answer (which is never just a simple “Fine. Thank you.”).

Overall I guess good manners (just like other rituals) help people to make sense of the world by providing some guidelines and fixed patterns. They also help to reinforce the distinctions between social classes. But I don’t think that most of them help to create an atmosphere of warm, honest and relaxed inter-human communication.

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