Category: Non-fiction

Asfa-Wossen Asserate



A book on manners mustn’t necessarily be a how-to guide to correct behavior. Asfa-Wossen Asserate is an Ethiopian prince, who since 1974 has lived primarily in Germany. In his book he shows that manners are more a matter of attitude than the knowledge of complicated rules of behavior. Asserate sheds light on etiquette and customs well as on ethical concepts and their validity and meaning in today’s world. What is unique to his point of view is a certain distance from his subject, and a profound knowledge of behavior in all spheres of our society. Whether addressing the custom of hand-kissing, personal announcements or the issue of punctuality, whether the theme is the concept of “honor” or “equality,” Asserate’s book is a panopticon of European behavior, and he understands how to get to the bottom of this behavior through the use of amusing examples.

But what is communicated above all is that manners help to “smooth a bit the sharp edges of the basic animosity that exists between all people,” as he states in the chapter called “Pretty Pretenses.” That the world consists of differences and that each of us endeavors to promote our own interests is a fact that Asserate simply accepts and believes it would be senseless to bemoan. That this belief does not, however, mean pursuing one’s own interests without consideration of others is something Asserate illustrates through numerous examples, some of them highly amusing. “A hostess would much rather hear her invitation turned down with regret than hear that one honestly is not in the least interested in either her grub or her friends.”

The author more than once offers examples of “a world without manners,” and in doing so shows their agreeable advantages. In the chapter entitled “Vulgarity,” which to Asserate is the embodiment of the “irreconcilable opposite of manners,” he simultaneously investigates the true essence of manners by exploring their negation. Vulgarity to him is not a matter of class, but a question of morals, which also affects aesthetics. “The deeply ugly and the deeply malevolent become one in vulgarity.” Vulgarity is characterized above all by inability: the inability to show respect, the inability to feel responsibility, the inability to acknowledge rank—whereby a person’s rank in a democratic society is defined only with difficulty. Vulgarity also means taking pleasure in denouncing and exposing others. Many of the basic characteristics of good manners are found in the converse of this type of behavior.

In addition to the representation of the diverse phenomena of good manners and the absence of the same, Asserate presents detailed explanations of whence and under which circumstances manners originated. Their roots are found in the courtly rules of behavior, in the courtly literature of the minnesong and in religion. The permeability of the barriers of class and social standing, which accompanied the abolishment of feudalism, called for a system of rules with the help of which social climbers could learn the correct forms of deportment. Even if the “invention of private life” stands opposed to these binding codices, Asserate is still convinced “that this strange mix of condescension toward manners and surreptitious curiosity about them, which emerged in the years following the French Revolution” is characteristic of our epoch.

That good manners do not mean a painfully exact following of certain rules, but a quasi natural internalization of a type of behavior agreeable to others, is something Asserate demonstrates, among others, in his descriptions of those who are “attentive” and those who are “nonchalant.” The attentive individual is always prepared to guess the needs of his fellow beings and when possible to satisfy them. He takes note of names and faces as well as of the backgrounds that go with them. To him, everyone is important, and in interaction with others he himself has no needs (of his own).

The nonchalant individual, on the other hand, is characterized by the charm of his relaxed attitude toward life and his fellow humans. He ignores all rules, because “only sympathy, after all” is of interest. He possesses overwhelming sovereignty, which he fundamentally assumes all others to possess as well, for which reason his attention to them is totally unnecessary. The combination of the two, the humility of the attentive individual and the charm of his nonchalant counterpart, is what Asserate calls the two basic components of European manners. “Whoever is in possession of both has never made a false move in his life. (Humility, on hearing this conclusion, doesn’t believe it, and charm considers it unimportant.)”

The thoroughly elegant representation of scurrilous and anachronistic forms of manners as well, characterized by a sympathy for “those of us born of dust,” includes too great a number of anecdotes, examples and serious discussion to be addressed here. The fact that this book will keep readers laughing throughout is, at any rate, no sign of bad manners.
Heike Friesel

By Heike Friesel, 19.01.2004