The cost of good manners

I wonder how many of you recall being asked “Well, what do you have to say?” after an elderly aunt has gifted you a sherbet bon bon.  As if, at the age of five, you were endowed with powers of insight into the bizarre world of adulthood and etiquette that border on the superhuman. It’s like asking “can you hear me?” A question that is as useful as sitting, Canute like, by the seaside trying to hold back the tide. If you can’t hear the questioner then you don’t even know if the question has been asked!  But of course your resulting non response could be interpreted by the questioner as you being ignorant or ill mannered. And the many surprising consequences of good or bad manners in human discourse are occasionally bizarre.

How many of us remember the fateful words, “good manners cost nothing”?  I have searched the internet to discover who came up with this particular bon mot to no avail. The nearest I could get was “Civility costs nothing and buys everything.”  by the redoubtable Lady Mary Wortley Montague (15 May 1689 – 21 August 1762) – this is she.Liotard_Lady_MontaguHer Wikipedia page makes for fascinating reading. She was widely traveled and an early adopter and champion of inoculation against smallpox. An inveterate letter writer and a proto feminist she lived in England, Turkey and Avignon, her daughter was married to John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute and Prime Minister from 1762 to 1763. Quite a life! However I beg to differ with her views; civility can be very expensive.

I cite the story of Tycho Brahe 16th Century Danish nobleman and astronomer. Until researching manners the only thing I knew of Tycho Brahe was that he had a metal nose and an impact crater on the moon named after him. The damage to his nose was as a result of a duel he fought with his third cousin, Manderup Parrsberg after a quarrel over the efficacy of a particular mathematical formula – such a sacrifice for science!

Anyway, what has Tycho Brahe to do with a discourse on manners? Not so much in the manner of his life but in the manner of his death. Tycho was attending a banquet in Prague and he needed to urinate. However he believed that leaving the table would be a breach of courtly etiquette, bad manners in other words. On his return home he found he could no longer empty his bladder and any urination while only in small quantities was accompanied by severe pain. He died eleven days later. In 2010 a team from Aarhus University lead by a Doctor Jens Vellev exhumed Tycho’s remains to investigate. Their conclusion was that Tycho “most likely died of a burst bladder” this was later confirmed by scientists from the University of Rostock.

Perhaps then, for Tycho’s sake we should reconsider “civility costs nothing”.

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