These days, wherever I go I hear people bemoaning the demise of good manners.
Just off the top of my head, these are some of the biggest bugbears: those who conduct long conversations on their mobiles while ignoring everyone else at the dinner table; those who let their kids run riot in public places without any attempt to discipline them; those who never bother to say ‘thank you’ (never mind writing a thank-you note) for a birthday present or a dinner party; those who arrive late as a matter of course and never ever bother to apologise for their tardiness.
As you can see, the list is long and exhaustive. But what is most worrying is that what seems boorish and offensive to some is seen as perfectly acceptable behaviour in someone else’s book. Most of the serial offenders, when confronted with evidence of their ‘bad manners’, confess that they had no idea that they were, in fact, offending anyone. (‘Arre, what’s a 15- or 20-minute delay between friends, was the most common response.) So when it comes right down to it, what are good manners? And is there a bare minimum that we can all agree on in an effort to keep the wheels of social discourse running smoothly?
Well, first off, good manners dictate that you don’t make people around you feel ill at ease, gauche, awkward or plain ignorant. It is perhaps best illustrated by the famous – and possibly apocryphal – story of Queen Victoria who was entertaining an African chief (or the Shah of Persia, depending on which book you believe) at a royal banquet. When the finger bowls were laid out at the end of the meal, for the diners to wash their fingers in rose water, the visiting potentate picked up the bowl and started drinking from it. Completely unperturbed, the Queen followed his lead, gesturing to all the other guests to follow suit, so that he wasn’t embarrassed about having done the wrong thing.
Now that is what good manners are all about: making the other person feel at ease at all costs. And we will all be better people if we assume them in our everyday life. Don’t snicker when the shop assistant mispronounces the name of a French label. If you really want to correct her, it’s much nicer to just repeat the name with the correct pronunciation.
Do it a couple of times – with a straight face please – and she will get the message. You really don’t need to humiliate her in the process. If one of your dinner guests appears uncomfortable using cutlery to eat such tricky stuff as crab on the shell, start eating with your hands so that he can follow suit without feeling he has committed some sort of social solecism. If you can tell that the mother of a colleague is not too fluent in English, switch to Hindi halfway through the conversation. If the parents of a young child are mortified when he spills his drink on your pristine carpet, tell them it doesn’t matter; you were bored of that colour anyway.
And while you are at it, don’t forget that the essence of good manners is treating other people’s time with the same respect as you accord your own. If you have made an appointment keep it; if you are running late, phone and apologise. If you have accepted an invitation to a sit-down dinner, turn up. And be there on time; don’t saunter in when the main course has been served and then depart before dessert can be wheeled out. A lot of effort has gone into putting the meal together. It won’t kill you to sit down and appreciate it.
If you are with people, pay attention to them. If you are expecting an urgent call that you can’t possibly miss, apologise in advance. When it comes through, keep it short. Or else excuse yourself and conduct it in private. Don’t keep messaging, tweeting or Facebooking when you are in company. It is just a non-verbal way of telling those you are with that they are not important (your social media presence is). So, stop fiddling with your smartphone or staring at your iPad; invest in some face time instead.
But most important of all, don’t forget that basic courtesies go a long way: saying ‘sorry’ when you tread on someone’s toes instead of just brushing past; an ‘excuse me’ when you are intruding into a conversation or someone’s private space; peppering your speech with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. This politesse costs you nothing and buys you an enormous amount of goodwill. (And it’s even better if you can throw in a winning smile for good measure.)
From HT Brunch, April 7
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