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Minding your manners

Minding your manners

Minding your manners

24 July 2019

Photo: Chris Liverani

By Mark Hadley

By the end of this article, it’s highly likely you’ll be asking, “How old is this guy?”

To begin with, any article on ‘manners’ almost immediately conjures up images of an elderly gentleman in a cravat, using his carefully trimmed goose feather quill to rail against the depredations of ‘youth today!’

And being annoyed at the kids is hardly something new: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise!” – Aristophanes, first century BC.

One can only wonder how loud the citharas were in ancient Greece the night he carved that complaint. However, gentle reader, the main purpose of this article is not to criticise the behaviour of any particular generation but to draw your attention to the attitude towards manners of our society in general.

Neither am I interested in drawing your attention to a lack of common courtesy. I’m sure even in the day of the horse and buggy, there were drivers who cut in and failed to deliver the appropriate ‘Sorry about that!’ wave.

No, the specific focus here is manners – the cultivated habits that tell us something about who we are.

So, let’s begin by observing five polite practices that are fast falling out of our common culture:

1. controlling your bodily functions

So much about manners relates to self-control, and that part of ourselves we were supposed to have most firmly under our control was our digestive system. Once upon a time you were expected to offer an ‘Excuse me’ if it betrayed you. It took me years to work out why my dad always had to walk up the backyard to check something about a half-hour after dinner. He was literally as regular as clockwork. But now, too often people draw attention to their gurgles, belches and worse, as though they were something to be proud of. It seems ‘It’s natural!’ for me, means it’s normal for you to have to share it too.

2. the reliable rsvp

Your RSVP – Répondez S’il Vous Plaît – was your final word on the matter. If someone sent you an invitation to a party or a wedding and asked you to say if you were going, how you responded was some - thing like giving your word. After all, your hosts were not only investing in your attendance, they were saving a limited seat especially for you. But now people are so uncommitted to their response, that event software has had to create the ‘maybe’ category – the electronic equivalent of ‘If I decide I want to enough’. 

3. standing up for your betters

I can’t remember being taught this; lounging around when parents entered the room just seemed wrong. But I’ve since learned that standing ‘in the presence of greatness’ has been a time-honoured custom in countless cultures for millennia. You can still see its vestiges when audiences stand to applaud a performance, during national anthems or in the presence of high political offices. We stand for their effort and achievement, but also for what they represent. So, standing for older people who’ve made your life possible? Yes, that makes some sense. But apparently not today if you’re occupying a particularly comfortable chair.

4. minding your p's and q's

The above was a catchphrase for more than just speaking clearly, but for being careful with what you said and when you said it. I remember being taught to wait my turn, to ask permission to enter a conversation and certainly not to interrupt – especially my elders. That might sound like a frustrating way to communicate, but it certainly encouraged listening. It also encouraged silence. One of the worst things you could say about someone back then was, “They no sooner had a thought in their head, than it was on the tip of their tongue.” We learnt that it was very possible we weren’t the smartest person in the room – and the quickest way to remove all doubt was to open your mouth.

5. please and thank you

When I was a child I was frequently mistaken for being British. I couldn’t understand why – my accent was as Australian as the rest of my classmates. Then one day a teacher explained it: I was never short of a ‘Please’ or a ‘Thank you’. Manners, even then, were unusual enough to be increasingly foreign. But asking permission and acknowledging a favour have a familiar link. They both begin with the understanding that there’s much in this world we don’t deserve. Yet the more rights we impress on our children, the more we teach them these words have no place in their mouths. ‘Manners maketh the man’ is a phrase that’s recently returned to the popular consciousness via the spy film Kingsman. However, even there it was placed in the mouth of an elderly agent clearly out of his time.

These five polite practices are passing out of popular culture – or at least being relegated to the categories of ‘quaint’ and ‘amusing’ – because they run counter to the way we now see ourselves.

We are for freedom, and they are the habits of a chained mind. What these five have in common, though, is their reminder of our need for humility.

Whether it be in the company of those older and wiser than us, or simply those who occupy the same space, manners remind us of our ‘place’ – something the egalitarian West is definitely not keen on. We live in a society that has run away with the idea of equality. 

Since ‘The Enlightenment’ we have steadily transformed ideas of political and social freedom into the equality of everything – habits, amusements, art, children’s football skills ... It’s no longer possible to suggest that anything is better than anything else, when ‘better’ is just a preference and equal status a ‘right’.

We now live in a world where it is offensive to suggest that anyone should accept second place in opinion or practice to anyone else. And if that’s the case, why teach children to wait their turn? Isn’t their turn now, just like everyone else?

Incidentally, this is the same reason many people reject the Bible. They see it as a compilation of outdated customs, an infringing list of ‘dos and don’ts’. Certainly, much of the book of Proverbs could be interpreted as manners: “A loud greeting early in the morning is the same as a curse” (Proverbs 27:14, CEV).

But, like the passing manners above, the Bible is intent on reminding us that there is a pecking order to the world around us, and we are not at its top. The Bible’s focus, though, is not the smooth operation of society, but our smooth transition to eternity.

It’s not as though God Almighty, the Creator of the universe, needs published reminders to protect his status. He will continue to rule whether we acknowledge him or not (in much the same way dust on your car can never dictate your direction).

But whether we respect him will determine our relationship. The Bible warns that we can’t hope to gain a higher status in the world to come if we don’t first acknowledge our lower status in this one.

When Jesus preached his famous Sermon on the Mount about what the Kingdom of Heaven would be like, and most importantly, who would be allowed into it, he didn’t begin with our value before God, but our need for him: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3-5).

My manners might be quaint and unnecessary, but humility is timeless and essential. It reminds me that I live in a world where others deserve my respect because their age, experience and efforts have earned it for them.

How much more so the eternal God, whose wisdom encompasses everything from dust particles to galaxies, but who died on a cross so I could be saved?

Ignoring him doesn’t make him disappear, any more than ignoring manners makes self-centredness attractive.

Oh, and how old am I? The same age as you. Old enough to know better.

Mark Hadley is the culture writer for Others.

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