In Praise of Old-Fashioned Standards and Good Manners
Societies and communities have rules. I’m not talking about laws here, but the more informal rules governing how members of a community are expected to behave — the rules such as those concerning politeness, manners, courtesy and privacy.
These rules can, at times, be restrictive. Some of them are nonsensical. Not all rules of manners and etiquette are helpful ones — and I spend a lot of time arguing against the bad ones — but the good ones are usually based on consideration and a solid sense of right and wrong.
For example, when you visit someone and they feed you, a traditional rule of good manners and courtesy was that you eat what you are given and you don’t leave food on the plate. You don’t leave food, because doing so is wasteful and it’s inconsiderate to the person who took the trouble to buy and prepare it for you.
Rules about politeness and manners can also be a good thing because a community can be built on them. The ‘rules’ lay down a common foundation, understood by everyone, on which community life can be built.
It is right that these rules are always open to both question and modification. And I’m the first to ignore nonsensical social rules whose main purpose is to protect the ignorant and the bigoted from criticism. On the other hand, there are many traditional social rules that are genuinely based on encouraging decency and consideration. The trouble is that our modern societies seem increasingly keen on enforcing the nonsensical rules, whilst ignoring the good ones.
I‘m well aware that, in times gone by and even in communities that followed strict codes of behaviour, many people simply followed the rules out of habit, rather than out of principle.
Manners and consideration are not the same thing. When someone opens a door for you, you might say, ‘Thank you!’ out of habit, because you have been trained to say that since early childhood. Or you might say it out of genuine gratitude that someone else has put themselves out — albeit in a small way — for your benefit. The first reason is a question of manners, the second is consideration.
Being genuinely considerate is far more important than merely having good manners. Having good manners, however, can often be a start to learning to develop proper consideration for others. This is how it often used to be for children. To start with, being children, they relied on the good manners their parents taught them. They ‘got by’ using manners until a more thorough education taught them consideration.
Sadly, I think we’re now spawning generations of school-leavers, many of whom have neither manners nor consideration. In our society in general, social rules of manners, politeness and consideration are no longer followed as they once were — to put it mildly! This is one of the reasons why communities are breaking down.
Households no longer share basic rules of etiquette and manners with each other. People used to visit their neighbours for a cup of tea, a slice of cake and a conversation. Now, however, people no longer share a common understanding of how things should be done. They don’t know or don’t care about what are reasonable standards by which a host or a guest should conduct themselves.
A simple example: You invite a neighbouring family round for some Christmas cake and a cup of tea. You hand out the Christmas cake — and then you sit there and watch the parents pick out the marzipan and leave it on the plate, without so much as an apology. What chance do the children have in such circumstances?
Such people don’t stop for one second to consider the hours someone has dedicated to making that cake — marzipan included. It never occurs to them to put themselves out slightly, just eat the bloody cake and at least try to like it. It never occurs to them to think that, if they don’t like marzipan and won’t eat it, then they really ought to leave the cake to be eaten by someone else — someone who’ll appreciate the whole cake, marzipan included. They don’t consider how the person who baked the cake must feel seeing their lovingly-made cake torn apart and a big chunk of it left on the plate. Is it any wonder such people don’t get invited round again?
Increasingly, it seems that each household and each cliquey group of friends or colleagues has its own, unique, but largely irrational standards of expected behaviour that the rest of the world is not privy to — and each individual group is largely ignorant of the standards that once existed throughout the wider community.
Today, when people have guests around, they often don’t even have the politeness to turn off the TV, so that they can engage their guests in conversation. People don’t have the politeness to have anything to contribute to a topical and reasonably intelligent discussion. People no longer seem to care that, as a guest or host, it’s your job to have some sort of basic awareness of what’s going on in the world and some interesting opinions to offer.
Also, there is no longer a common understanding of what we ought to be able to discuss without someone taking offence. People feel so awkward, they end up not visiting their neighbours or inviting them around anymore.
In the past, you might have considered politics to be a suitable subject for polite conversation. After all, it dominated the news bulletins and almost everyone had some sort of general awareness about major political issues. But now things are different. Start talking politics and many people feel awkward and may be instantly offended because they don’t have a clue what is being talked about — their ignorance is being exposed.
Furthermore, many people no longer seem able to cope with differences of opinion, without taking offence. Differences of opinion used to be the staple of healthy conversation. They gave you something to talk about. Now, however, people only feel comfortable if they can talk about something they all entirely agree about — so nobody is actually learning anything. People are just so ridiculously precious, it turns a simple conversation into a minefield.
There was once (in many countries at least) a single, nationally-recognised set of rules on good manners which, if followed, would see you clear in almost any household in the country. Now, standards, if they exist at all, are highly localised — not merely to a region or a town, but actually to individual houses. What goes in one house may be totally unacceptable just next door. This is one of the reasons so many neighbours no longer have anything to do with one another.
Compounding this situation is the problem that people are no longer willing to discuss the standards under which they live. There have always been some differences in the way neighbours lived their lives, but people used to be prepared to discuss these differences. If a neighbour’s children were lacking good manners, you could discuss it with their parents without them getting overly defensive about it. Now, they’ll just take offence. They’ll see it as a personal attack on their parenting skills if you ever broach the subject at all, regardless of how politely you do so.
If people visit and don’t like something, they won’t say what they don’t like and why. They simply don’t visit anymore. If they have a guest round and don’t like their behaviour, they just don’t invite them round anymore. But they daren’t actually discuss what the issue is.
Standards aren’t just no longer standardised — they are no longer allowed even to be discussed. Just how, exactly, do you build a community on attitudes like that?