When I was a kid I had a very negative view of manners. I was taught manners and forced to use them. But I didn’t understand what they were for. To my 10-year-old self, manners felt like a form of social control, rules dreamed up by adults who felt driven to make kids behave like “little ladies and gentlemen.”
Consequently, I actually felt uncomfortable about being polite. I found it stressful and it felt phoney. So I avoided using manners when I could. That’s unfortunate because, as you might have learned earlier in life than me, manners have value. Coupled with genuine concern for others, manners can be a tool for co-regulation, helping to reduce the stress of social situations.
I want to share a story about how an elderly stranger’s artful courtesy helped co-regulate me through a fairly limbic moment the day my youngest son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. I don’t know how much you know about Type 1 diabetes, as opposed to Type 2. Unlike Type 2, which tends to come on gradually, Type 1 comes out of nowhere. By the time obvious symptoms appear it’s usually a health emergency. When we arrived at the ER, our boy was very, very sick and we were all in high stress mode, trying to hold ourselves together.
He was too weak to walk, so I ran to grab a wheelchair. That’s when I almost lost it.
I can’t remember exactly why, but in my frantic haste, I couldn’t seem to pry a chair loose from the corral where they were kept. What I remember very clearly is that I was perilously close to a full-blown adult tantrum.
What I will never, ever forget about that day is the saintly, elderly volunteer who ambled over and very quietly and graciously helped me. In terms of co-regulation, he did all the right things: soft voice, relaxed body language, gentle (but not ingratiating) smile. He adroitly kept the focus away from what I was doing wrong, and focused on helping me. So I didn’t see him as a threat, which could have easily been the case.
In short, he treated me with genuine courtesy.
If I look back on this through a Self-Reg lens, you could say the man “lent me his calm” and reframed my behaviour. He didn’t chide me for manhandling the wheelchairs, but saw that I was stressed out, and that the best way to stop me from yanking the chairs was to be helpful. He didn’t know exactly what all my stressors were, but I expect he could see that the two he could address were my inability to wrangle the wheelchair and my need to get one quickly. And—really important—he didn’t increase my stress by making me feel foolish. As a result, I went on my way with the equipment I needed, feeling calmer, a little grateful, and with more energy available to help me support my son through the tough day that lay ahead.
Bottom line: this guy was doing Self-Reg, and his understanding of genuine (as opposed to rule-driven) courtesy helped him do it. To me this is one wee example of how the capacity for Self-Reg is there in all of us. It’s there in all the various ways we’ve learned to be sensitive and responsive to other people’s needs, including their stress. Can you look back and see ways in which you’ve done Self-Reg in the past, before you’d ever heard of Self-Reg? I’ll bet you can. But now Dr. Shanker’s framework gives us a clearer and more comprehensive way of thinking about it.
I can’t help but wonder if my younger self might have been more comfortable with manners if I’d been taught them via a Self-Reg, rather than a self-control, perspective. Who knows? I guess I should just be thankful that, as Stuart says, “it’s never too late.”