Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gentle People of Gracious Privacy

Hello gentle reader,
Got graciousness?

To be a lady or a gentleman surely includes being gracious. And being gracious includes “Don’t pry, don’t spy.”

In the days of slow tropical ceiling fans, back during colonial days in India, up in the cooler hill stations, the British ladies were serious about propriety. The wives would send invitations to any formal event on a card. To be prim and proper, the lettering would be expensively engraved, not merely printed.  The ladies were gently made fun of by Colonel Robert Masters in his memoir Bugles and a Tiger. Masters said the ladies would run their thumbnail over the card to determine if it was engraved. The humor, of course, comes from seeing “elegant ladies” stooping to pry.

It was an “officer and gentleman,” Robert A. Heinlein, in his science fiction (sf) novels, who role modeled consideration for privacy. Writing in the first person, with a regular person like you or I as the viewpoint character, he might show a lady politely moving out of earshot as you telephoned, or a man being embarrassed at noticing the return address on an envelope he was distributing to you. It was British sf writer William F. Temple who showed you being handed a stack of your private journals, recovered by Peter, who blushes as he hands them to you. You don’t worry that Peter might have read them, because you know he attended a fine boarding school: Peter is a gentleman.

In my own life, when I lived an a nice shared house, a fellow took a phone call one day from one of our roommates, and then passed the handset to me, looking puzzled at why Anne would be calling someone she sees every day. Turns out she had left her journal by a chair, and would I please put it away? She trusted me not to read it. Anne knew I was a gentleman.

To “never spy” is a matter of self-respect, civility, and more: practical self-interest. Back in Europe we said, “People who listen at keyholes seldom hear good news.” The American version of the proverb might refer to windows or eaves troughs, but the principle is the same. In the real world we change our speech, our attitude and even our very actions, according to where we are .The parlor is not the kitchen, which is not behind the barn. The locker room at the church side-annex is not the Young Men’s Christian Association, which is not a college locker room. In other words: What people say behind your back is not what they say to your face.

When it comes to compliments, I might say, “Wendy, I told the ladies at church you are pretty.” But I would never say, “Wendy, I told my teammates I wouldn’t kick you out of bed for eating crackers.”

I’m still amused, years later, at a knot of five or ten young soldiers who always hung around together. They liked to think they were better than all the other guys on the base. What amused me, as an older soldier, was knowing that each of those men also thought he was superior to all his friends, too—and not one of them had a clue that each of his friends were thinking the same thing! It was a British gentleman and Nobel prize winner, Bertrand Russell, who noted that if we all suddenly had mental telepathy then we would all lose our friends… but soon we’d become friends again, as who wants to be lonely?

Remember the Watergate tapes? I never felt lonely and degraded when I was surprised by undisciplined swear words, on tape, being used by responsible people in expensive suits and ties in the White House. I never felt degraded by a private secretly intercepted phone conversation where someone was ranting and raving as if Europe were still under the Third Reich. No. Because I respect the wisdom of the old proverb. Because what someone says in private behind my back is none of my business. As an upright old judge would say, “It’s inadmissible evidence. Disregard it.”

Needless to say, I’m sure many folks would not disregard private talk abruptly made public. I’m equally sure many men and women have no desire to see themselves as ladies and gentlemen. Such a pity.

Today I know a frail lady in a power wheelchair. Wears soft pink. Smiles gently. Very nice, kind and thoughtful. What truly defines her as a lady, in my eyes, is how all the handi-bus drivers in their rough working gloves feel like gentlemen beside her. Around her, I see men in our community change their speech, attitude and even their very actions.

I think, gentle reader, being gracious creates a better world.

Sean Crawford

The books referred to are:
By Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers. Both works won the Hugo award, both are still in print.
By Temple, The Automated Goliath. No longer in print, but a childhood favorite. I have large swatches memorized.
By Russell, The Conquest of Happiness. Still in print since 1930, often found in the philosophy section. Like the other books, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it.

~As for how wholesome, clean cut, well-meaning fellow Americans can get into illegal wiretapping and killing Karen Silkwood, see my essay Reflections on Surveillance, archived October 2013… Or, still playing in the local cheap theatre, see the Oliver Stone major motion picture, Snowden.

~I just realized something: the exciting downtown Seymour Street recruiting office of my youth is no longer there, hasn’t been for years.

~I moved away from home after eleventh grade. Like Buffy Anne Summers, and so many other kids, I went to the big city. To protect their privacy, many young people would change their names or take romantic street names. Buffy changed her name to Anne. If you would try an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to introduce you to the series, one that doesn’t give away the plot and details of any episode arcs, (the way certain fan-favorite episodes do) then Anne is the episode to see.

One of the kids role models off of Buffy’s strength in helping others, and then she later turns up, with a new totemic name, helping street kids on Angel.



  1. Sean, there are some people who seem to feel knowing the right "manners" like which fork to use at a fancy dinner, etc. is being gracious. I feel graciousness is an attitude that doesn't depend on proper manners and such but on the spirit in which your actions are taking place. Some people may be rough around the edges but still may be the most gracious people in generosity and kindness to others. There are others who say and do the "right" thing but are condescending in their manner of speech.

  2. Yes, attitude and spirit.
    Human nature exists through all social classes, including both the unsafe folks, and the safe and supportive.

    As for the latter, I was at a man's house party Saturday night, a house with (at least) three bathrooms and a sunken living room.

    Late in the evening I told him, "You are a man of the world" and he said he really liked my work with the handicapped. He said that two firms were (blank) over (blank) million dollars, and what was the point? He said that to set my work in a good perspective.

    Say, you know what helped my food self confidence? Going to formal Europe, as a part of NATO, and experiencing that meals among formal people are like language barriers: a little good will and common sense go a long ways, without regard for precise rules.