Friday, October 12, 2012


"Mind your manners." It's an expression many of us have heard while growing up. But it works for worlds we create as well.

What are the expressions of politeness in the cultures you create? Is it people opening doors for others? Tipping a hat? Taking turns? Is it how they address each other? Do they use formal terms such as Mister, Miss, Mrs., Master, Mistress, Captain, Lord, Lady? Do they use words such as Please and Thank you?

Manners are often considered ways to keep a society functioning. Rules of etiquette may reflect class or status.

And what is the opposite of polite behavior? Swearing? (Which also involves what are the swear words? Are they religious in nature? Reflecting bodily functions?) Are swear words only used in times of great emotion? Or have they become so commonplace, so drained of their power to shock or offend, that every other word a character utters is a swear word? Would a dragon picking his teeth be considered rude, or is it only rude if he doesn't use a toothpick?

What are the taboos? What cannot be named or discussed? Are there food taboos?

Are manners reflective on age or class?

What are the signs of respect in the culture? Do people bow, tug their forelock, or wai (bow over hands pressed palm together)? Is a deep bow more respectful than a mere inclination of the head? Are there gestures associated with the bow? If you have winged beings, are the wings always kept tightly closed against the back? Would open and raised wings signal respect? Or would that (as in many terrestial birds) be a threatening/challenging gesture? If you have a tailed society, is it forbidden to touch another's tail without permission? Is it rude to tap someone with your tail? Are "excuse me" or "pardon me" phrases in common usage? Or are some offenses only cleared by a duel? If different civilizations come into contact, could a gesture considered polite in one culture be considered rude in in the other?

I always enjoyed Georgette Heyer's Regency romances and her depiction of a polite society with the emphasis on manners and rules of civilized behavior. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden Universe also has a polite space-faring civilization where rude Terrans misbehave at their risk. CJ Cherryh's Foreigner series is another example of a a mannerly culture. There are many fantasy stories about how wise it is to deal politely with the elves and the Seelie Court.

Sometimes the bad guys in a story are the ones with poor manners. The rude louts who try to destroy everything the hero or heroine holds dear. But then there are also those tales where the villain has perfect manners - so much so that it is scary to watch his or her plans for the world. Sometimes that veneer of civilization is stripped away when the evil plans are overturned, other times the villain remains polite even in defeat. Which do you find more disturbing?

"Where are your manners?" is a question I like to think about when world-building. And I prefer the answer to be "Why, yes, they are in this story."

Do you notice how manners are portrayed in stories? What are some of your favorites?


  1. Interesting article. I think it's fun to write about characters that are polite or that are rude or somewhere in between. Im my tween novel, Just Breeze, the prince from an island is very polite, like rising when a girl/woman enters the room. He's from a different culture than Breeze is so his manners are based on his culture.

    Historical fiction has a different set of manners, depending on the time period. I love the Civil War era and tried to give my characters manners suited to their time.

    I think a villain with manners would make a very interesting character. He'd present himself as the ideal man/woman, but his/her other nature would show itself at times. Getting ideas here for new characters.

  2. I was born in the 60s so I guess that makes me Gen X. I really think my generation was the last to realize the value of manners. It irks me to no end when I hold a door for someone and get not even a nod. I usually reply with "EIther thank me or tip me". The rudest people, I find, in NYC, are NOT native NYers (of which I am one) but folks who come here from around the US and think it is hip and cool to be rude SOBs. I can also state something that might sound like reverse racism but I have found it to be true and I test it regularly and have yet to be proven wrong: People of color ALWAYS say thank you. Whether they are teens or seniors - if I hold a door for a person of color I WILL ALWAYS ALWAYS get a "thank you". Are manners a cultural thing? There is an ANNOYING sense of entitlement that I find amongst younger people (under 20) and it is ALL the fault of the parents who I see "negotiating" with 6 year olds about bad social behavior. There- I said my piece. Thank you...

  3. Does it also bother you? Or is it just me, sweating the small stuff?

    Entering an office building lobby this morning, I stepped aside and held the door open to let a young woman march through. She walked by, nose up like Miss America, avoiding eye contact, ignoring me, as if I was not there. Is it really too much to ask for a little smile or simple "Thank you"?

    Well, Okay.... she might have been preoccupied in her thoughts, day dreaming or something like that... Perhaps she's accustomed to be treated like royalty all the time, having her servants pampering her and kissing her ass constantly? Who knows? But no matter what her excuse might have been, to me, her behavior was no other than rude and disrespectful. I suspect, however, this kind of attitude might be just a sign of her ignorance: she just simply does not know any better. And how should she? She's never heard her parents say "please" or "thank you". Nobody ever taught her to be courteous and polite.... her family, the school system, the whole society failed miserably by not showing her how to be a compassionate, caring human being.

    But back to my subject - those moments of random kindness, the little things, that should make us feel better about ourselves and might help us to make it easier through the day, but they don't, because someone always steps in to erase a smile off your face by being a rude asshole.

    Just the other day, I found myself in an awkward situation: carrying a file box with my both hands I struggled to open a front door into a building. After a handful number of folks walked by indifferently, finally a young man leaving the same building paused and held the door open for me to pass through. Nice guy, crossed my mind... but only for a brief moment, until I noticed this agonizing expression on his face, demonstrating how much pain he's just suffered by offering me a helping hand. And then, responding to my "Thank you", he snapped in the most contemptuous tone in his voice: "Yeah...".

    What kind of answer is that? Has he already used his daily limit of "Welcome" words and could not waste another one on me? Who knows? And who cares! Again: rude and disrespectful! I recall a similar episode while back: a middle-age woman replied to my grateful "Thank you!": "Hmmm...", without looking at me or even opening her mouth. I missed my chance to tell her: "Sorry ma'm, English is my second language, but I believe a right and polite answer should be: "You're welcome!". And let me ask you a question: what do you tell to your kids if they ask you: "Mommy, what do I suppose to say if someone thanks me for something?". Do you teach them, the correct answer is: "HMMM"?

    I could have told her that, but I did not - because.... what'd be the point? She'd probably just walked away without a word and without getting a point anyway.

    Small potatoes? Perhaps. But be aware! Small potatoes usually tend to multiply a multiply and some of them grow bigger and bigger and bigger.......