Common courtesies

I confess you may find this to be another of those posts on this blog that show me to be some ghastly middle-aged traditionalist. But here I go anyway.

This morning, as I was about to leave a shop, I saw an elderly man with a walking stick who was about to enter; so I stood back and held the door open for him. He walked past and grunted something, perhaps to me and perhaps not; and a couple of teenage girls who were watching had a fit of giggles.

And these days, almost every day of the week at some point I will see a group of youths, usually young men, standing around verbally molesting passers by.

Of course none of these phenomena are unique to our age, and as I have pointed out in other contexts, those who believe that there was once a golden age (whatever that may have been) are deluding themselves. But for all that, I do wonder whether the concept of ‘manners’ has peculiarly disappeared from our social environment at this point in history. As a young boy I went to a boarding school, and every menu for our meals had the words at the foot of the page, ‘manners maketh man’ (sorry, that was not yet an inclusive age in terms of gender). And then, some years later when I was studying for my driving test, the state-published booklet setting out driving theory began with the statement that at the heart of all good driving were the three ‘C’s: ‘care’, ‘courtesy’ and ‘consideration’.

If I bemoan the fact (if it is a fact) that we have lost a sense of manners, it is not because I am yearning to be treated with the respect due to my great age, or that I have some sort of old-fashioned desire for Victorian primness – though there is an interesting analysis of Victorian manners in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book, The De-moralization Of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1996). Rather, it is because I believe that manners and courtesy are part of the glue that allows us to have communities with a sense of community spirit. The basic premise of the idea of a community is that we feel concern for and solidarity with others; and it is hard to generate that condition if on the whole our attitude and behaviour towards others is one of contempt or even just disregard.

On the other hand, manners and courtesy will seem counter-intuitive to people if we do not provide them with the social infrastructures into which these concepts can fit easily. If we maintain local communities without social spaces and supports and without opportunities for young people in particular to make social contributions we cannot be surprised if people discover a sense of fun experienced on the back of other people’s discomfort. Society needs to get people’s respect, but it also needs to earn it. And if someone of my generation wants to be shown respect by today’s youth, we also need to show them respect.

My fear at the moment is that we treat ‘manners’ as some sort of outdated practice that we should now regard as vaguely embarrassing. We need to find a way back from that position, but perhaps we also need to foster a better understanding of what society – and community – really is.

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2 Comments on “Common courtesies”

  1. John Keyes Says:

    Manners are going the way of the dodo. I always hold doors open for people, and always give right of way to people at doors too. If they don’t say “Thank you” I always make a point of saying “You’re welcome” out loud. It’s not that I want to be congratulated for having some manners, but I want people to realise that it doesn’t cost anything to have some.

  2. Ultan Says:

    I’d agree, but really need to downplay the lack of infrastructure provision or community sapce provision. Our understanding of social glue needs to shift a bit I think. Sense of community and social infrastructure for many young people today takes the form of MySpace or Bebo. Hard to see how to roll that back.

    I don’t think this issue can be couched purely in terms of “manners”. Is the racist treatment meted out to the 13 year old black GAA player from Carlow really a matter of “infrastructure” or lack of community “space”?

    Maybe it’s really a massive sense of entitlement, narcissism, arrogance, inability to empathise, lack of sense of history and culture that’s manifesting itself in bad manners, transmitted to kids via parents and the media. The atomisation of society has a role in all this, as we’re turned into consumers who have to operate according to the maxim that “he who dies with the most toys wins” (the marketing manifestation of Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”).

    The basic premise of not treating anybody else in a way that you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself has taken a back seat- at home, on the street, and in work. How to change it? I’m not really sure there’s any one answer, but I definitely think a good education and a commitment to keep learning is the start.


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