If Politeness is such a successful life skill, why is it disappearing?

Politeness costs you nothing. That’s been the mantra I have drummed into my Son’s head since he was able to understand what the hell I was saying to him. It has paid off. Not only have his good manners enchanted the people he meets, they have also given him a calm confidence and a generosity of spirit. So, if being polite is such a successful life skill, why are so many people so rude?

etiquette

The word ‘etiquette’ was created by the French King Louis IV (920-954), more than 1000 years ago and was later used to great effect by Louis XIV to control his courtiers (as anyone knows who was a fan of the TV drama Versailles!) In this day and age, etiquette still refers to rules and boundaries. But are we all teaching politeness to our kids?  I don’t think so. If we see a young person giving up their seat on a train or helping someone across the street, it is, sadly, a rarity.

Good manners only take a moment and cost absolutely nothing. I love the reaction you receive when, for example, you open a door for someone. It makes the recipient feel special. And offering these small kindnesses makes us feel great too. I remember my son telling me that he had opened a door for a teacher at school and they had just barged through without saying thank you. He wasn’t expecting praise for his gesture, just reciprocal politeness. Perhaps etiquette should be added to the school curriculum – and not just for the pupils!

Gillian, one of our readers, wrote to us asking about social manners which she feels are in short supply, in particular, thank you notes. Ah, thank you notes – or letters as I was taught when old enough to write them. There were rules and they had to be adhered to. Otherwise your name would be mud. The letter had to be a letter – a card, postcard, phone call or email simply would not cut it (and, if it had existed then, definitely not a digital text). It had to be handwritten with care and be exactly one and a half pages long. The sentiments polite rather than gushing or amusing. That wasn’t all. It had to be written and put in an envelope, stamped and posted within 24 hours of whatever it was you had received – supper, lunch, a gift.

Over the last few years however, I have started to find that the pleasure equated with receiving a gift is dampened by worrying about writing the thank you in good enough time. I freely admit they are my least favourite thing to find in my postbox – I find these missives dull reading. Personally, I’m happy with an email or text thank you these days. It’s the making contact to say “I appreciate what you did for me” that I regard as important, not the manner in which it is made.

Unfortunately you see inconsiderate behaviour absolutely everywhere these days. Going to the cinema for example – people talking/eating loudly while the film is showing. It’s quite common to see couples in a restaurant ignoring each other in favour of checking their mobiles or taking selfies. And using your car in a city can sometimes be equated to moving through a war zone – honking horns, other cars cutting you up and impatient drivers making threatening gestures if you are sticking to the speed limit.

Slowly but surely manners seem to be disappearing. Why is everyone so selfish and self-obsessed these days? Narcissism is bad enough, but loutish aggressive behaviour also seems more prevalent. I don’t remember being anxious walking along a street at night when I was young (OK, I know that was many decades ago!) but is this the case in 2020?

Another mantra of mine is “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” However, people hiding anonymously behind their social media seem to think they have the freedom to write hateful and cruel things to those they often have never even met, let alone know. I doubt they would be so brazen and hurtful if they were actually in the same room.

If you really want to brush up on your etiquette, you might enjoy browsing the latest Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners. Apart from guidance on humblebragging, selfies and vaping, it’s an “indispensable guide to the bewildering world of contemporary conduct” – including how to use an emoji, navigate a message group, or attempt online-dating with aplomb.

My parents encouraged me to treat others as I would like to be treated. So let’s set a good example to everyone we meet by showing how it’s done. A simple please or thank you will go a long way. As will a friendly smile. If we all did a little bit of that, the world would surely be a better, kinder place.

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