Mannerisms and Character

“Foyle’s War” is a British television series about World War Two as that is seen through the eyes of a police detective on the southern coast of Great Britain. It is very good at capturing the mixture of the mundane and the extraordinary that took place in those years, the mixture of ordinary violence with war inspired violence, and also provides a sense of the social class situation, British literature always particularly good at that, in this case the stifling lives of the working class and the also restricted lives of the rich, who live in unsightly and uncomfortable manor houses. The most striking feature of the series, however, is Michael Kitchen, who stars as the title character. I resist seeing him in any other role because I don’t want to see his mannerisms utilized for establishing any other character than Foyle. It would seem a betrayal even though, of course, actors always play different characters even when they display the same set of mannerisms in each role. We know John Wayne’s slouch; Jimmy Stewart’s hesitation, Cary Grant’s elegant accent, Myrna Loy’s smile. But I clearly identify Kitchen with Foyle. The character walks stiffly, keeps up a glum or sometimes amused face, raises an eyebrow when he is being quizzical, and when he is angered, he talks more rapidly and with greater exactness and certainty and also with a bit of a sneer. Actors are very good at objectifying their characters, at finding some mannerism which distinguishes the character so that the audience can get hold of the character, but isn’t that true in all of life, in so-called “real” life?

I think we should raise mannerisms out of the realm of the superficial or the affected and into being something close to character itself, looking here to use something external to define character rather than something internal, like libido or rage or psychological type, to do the job. Mannerisms are treated as clues to what a person is, as poker “tells” to a character, when they can also be thought of as the substance of what we mean by character. A man of courage is someone who acts stoically in the face of adversity, which we know because he is calm while going about what to other people does not seem like business as usual. But Achilles was frequently angry, and showed his courage while feeling such, and some people might be light hearted as they face the enemy, reckless in the face of danger, like so many Erroll Flynn characters. So what is persistent in the person is not the emotion but the mannerisms with which it is associated in that person, those mannerisms redefining the emotion or maybe only conventionally associated with the emotion and presumed to be the cause of the emotion, so that emotions and their supposed consequents are treated as the same thing, and so I will adopt the usual shorthand and refer to an emotion as the name for the complex of mannerisms associated with it.

Evidence that this is the case is provided by that most ubiquitous of emotions, love. When we say we fall for someone at first sight or on short acquaintance, what could that possibly mean? Unless you invoke some unproven theory such that people detect one another’s smells and find that theory profound, whether because it is different or similar to other biological theories you know about, or maybe just because it strikes you as peculiar, what you are left with is that people fall in love with one another’s mannerisms: the way the present themselves, not their social roles or their social backgrounds, but because of the lilt of their voice, of the way they enunciate words, of whether they make shyness or boldness appealing, of whether they convey humor (“I want to love someone with a good sense of humor” as all the dating site ads put it) or seriousness. It may be difficult to specify the mannerisms as they stand independant of the emotions they evoke, but that is what is there in front of you, to be seen by the second or third date, and so that is what the person is. 

There are sets of mannerisms that are associated with different social roles. There are such feminine mannerisms (or “wiles”) that include coyness or flirtatiousness, or a tilt of the head, or a beguiling smile. There are mannerisms associated with social class, such as being gruff or snooty. There are mannerisms associated with occupations, such as being assertive if one is a medical doctor, or being pontifical if one is a professor. All these emotions can be broken down into the presence of an expression or a tone of voice or a physical stance. A slave looks and acts deferential.

My point is just the opposite of Erving Goffman who radically reconceived psychology by thinking that we worked on our appearances, that we managed them so that we would appear to be competent members of the human community rather than shams when of course we were all just shamming being adequate. Instead, I am claiming that our mannerisms, which do alter slowly over time and sometimes even with some conscious deliberation, as when we decide, like Ben Franklin, to sham modesty, are our true selves, though not necessarily our most profound or truest selves, but only the selves we carry around with us everywhere and the sort of think a potential boyfriend or girlfriend will glom onto as our essence and our outstanding features, whatever else we may have by the way of fame and fortune.

Jane Austen certainly knew this. As I repeatedly say, Darcy is drawn to Elizabeth because she is both bright and outspoken, even if not as polite as she should be, while Elizabeth takes longer to learn of Darcy’s moral rectitude and loyalty as that is both hidden and comes to be understood as part of his diffident and haughty character. Mark Twain also knew this. In “Pudd'nhead Wilson”, the slave who was the son of a plantation owner carried himself like a slave until he was told he no longer needed to do that. And even Captain Ahab is known for his mannerisms, which include his silences and his moving along on his peg leg, and not just for his obsessions.

Think of the present crop of Democratic Presidential candidates, partly because they have become such a preoccupation that a reader can test my observations against their own, as well as because we know them at least as well as anyone in literature, given the fact that they have, each one of them, been on the stump and the television for so long that they can do very little to disguise themselves, to be anything other than themselves. And what we know about them, more than their positions, are their mannerisms. Elizabeth Warren has a plan for everything but that is less important than the fact that she is so earnest, that her voice gives emphasis to her points, she sounds like a professor, that she gestures with her fingers for emphasis. Julian Castro, on the other hand, was known until the most recent debate as always calm and measured, as that was betokened by a subdued voice and a slow delivery of what he had to say, as if he had thought deeply about it. Bernie sounds like your difficult, combative uncle, but he always sounded that way, and so the problem is that mannerisms can become stale, no longer attractive but just stale or banal. The great movie stars can build a career that lasts for thirty years, but not all of them can. They wear out. Ed Koch once said that he was not reelected to a fourth term for the simple reason that people had grown tired of him, and he thought that was their right as voters.

The question for Joe Biden is not whether his mannerisms have grown stale but whether he can craft for himself a new set of mannerisms or whether he can get people to accept his new elderly personae. Early on, his manner was to be brash and arrogant, a motor mouth. Of late, to be honest, he looks like death warmed over, his eyes sunken, his skin taut over his bones. So will people accept him as an old man with old man mannerisms, never mind that he fumbled his words years and years ago. Can we feel comfortable with a President who is old and has the mannerisms of old people? Can we be comfortable with a President who has female mannerisms, which means more than that she wears skirts or wears makeup? These are the real transformations: what mannerisms are acceptable.