Friday, March 30, 2012

A feeble defence of 'etiquette'

One of my primary school teachers used to say that three words – ‘thank you’, ‘please’ and ‘sorry’ – if more frequently used, could solve all the problems of the world. I wasn’t so sure, because despite her infinite wisdom that could apparently solve all worldly problems, she couldn’t even count that they actually totalled four words. Erroneous word-counts notwithstanding, the importance of good manners remains one of the more important lessons I carried with me from school.

More recently, I got entangled in a ground-breaking conversation between two friends about the profoundly enlightening thesis that "ado" is not an appropriate way [for a gentleman] to address a lady. Some ladies are themselves conducting seminars for aspiring executives on how to shake hands, when to stand and sit at business meetings. It seem that ‘etiquette’ is back on the agenda. So I decided to cast the first stone, even under threat of “aspersions being cast” on my own fallible soul.

The problem with words like etiquette, manners, chivalry and courtesy however, is that they sound irrelevant in a world where we barely even notice the insolence of bus conductors and helplessly ignore the loathsome self-gratification of politicians. The demands that those words place on us seem cumbersome, because the busy lives of our generation of Brittney and 50 Cent followers cannot afford to have patience, self control, sensitivity to others and a respectful awareness of their dignity as well as our own.

Historically, good manners and etiquette has been wielded by the wealthy and snobbish upper classes as a bar that divided and elevated them from the so called lower classes. Traditionally the rules that define good manners and proper etiquette were drawn up in the drawing rooms of western aristocrats. They were standardised and comprehensively coded in books by rich upper-class ladies such as Emily Post and planted in diverse cultures all around the world. Being of good manners according to these rules, included cues for hosting extravagant dinner dances and using multiple envelopes and engraved paper to send out invitations; luxuries that most of the poorer classes could not afford and therefore could never adhere to them. For centuries, poverty had denied them the dignity of status that they deserved. Yet despite all the emphasis on etiquette, a majority of primitive tribesmen and forest dwellers are profoundly more human than some people of ‘good breading’ would ever care to be.

Until the early half of the 20th century, tradition had intricately detailed instructions to educate members of “best society” on where to place an oysterr fork. However, that world of silver spoons and embroidered serviettes has since been swept away by a flood of disposable plastic cutlery and paper napkins. The world changed, and tradition offers no timely advice whatsoever on how to comment on a photograph that a friend had just posted on Facebook. Even though there were generations worth of good practice advocating that a gift or an epistle must always be appreciated and acknowledged appropriately, they are conspicuously clueless on whether a text message saying “m :-( 4 U” is an appropriate way of offering condolences to a friend whose grandfather had just passed away.

Unfortunately or not, these antique traditions became a perpetual reference on good manners and acceptable behaviour until promiscuous celebrities, reality TV and Australian cricket fans destroyed any semblance of a memory we had about decency, good manners and common courtesy. But it has been said we often resort to crude behaviour more out of irreverence, than ignorance. The argument goes that our dull apathy towards socially unacceptable behaviour is more a symbol of our generation's protest against the class system that once unfairly segregated and locked entire sections of society based on little more than a birth-right.

Lame excuses for bad behaviour cannot undermine the fact that good manners contribute positively towards a functional society. Two and a half millennia of ‘civilisation’ has taught us nothing specific about the appropriate volume for playing DOOF-DOOF music in a three-wheeler, but they do offer guidelines about common courtesy. Gentility and polite behaviour do reflect an inherent goodness within a person even though they are not an accurate indication of a person’s moral fibre.

Commuters on public transport and those who depend on government services may say that chivalry and common courtesy are running their last race on feeble feet. Indeed it may even be practical, if not excusable to push someone away to squeeze in trough an elevator door (unless you are the one being pushed away).

However, there is a pleasure to be gained as much as given, in sharing life’s little delightful gestures with others. In highlighting the need for good manners in modern society, no one says it more eloquently than Lucinda Holdforth, the author of “Why Manners Matter”. She offers a cold drink and massage for etiquette’s feeble feet. “Good manners don’t merely preserve everyone’s dignity; they actively enlarge the social space...” she points out. “Beautiful manners expand the radius of human co-operation and potential. I think that’s why witnessing a gracious gesture can unexpectedly fill us with joy”.