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Mind Your Manners

Don’t you sometimes get the feeling that good manners are being given a quiet burial in our increasingly combative world? I certainly do, writes Seema Goswami.

sex and relationships Updated: Mar 28, 2009 16:12 IST
Spectator | Seema Goswami
Spectator | Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times

Don’t you sometimes get the feeling that good manners are being given a quiet burial in our increasingly combative world? I certainly do. No matter where you go, whom you deal with, what you do, you find that good manners are in danger of imminent extinction. People are rude and intrusive on the phone, they are, if anything, even more abrasive in person, and nobody seems to give a damn about showing even the most basic of courtesies to anyone else.

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but this new-propensity for addressing everyone by their first names, irrespective of age, status, or how well – or slightly – you know them, leaves me cold. Everyone, from PR people you barely know (nor are ever likely to) to cold-callers trying to sell you something, insist on using your first name.

Even worse are those nurses who address their patients by their first names irrespective of their age, in an attempt to establish them as the lesser partners in a power equation. Surely, just because someone is old and infirm does not mean that they should be treated like children, reduced to an infantile level in the way they are cared for.
But this is the least of it. The biggest offenders are those who have never quite mastered mobile phone etiquette. I have lost count of the number of people who ring your mobile and then, when you answer, say, “Who’s that?” Hello, you are the one who’s calling me, I always bark back. What do you mean: who’s that?

And then, there are those who cannot bear to be parted from their mobile phones, no matter where they go. They will be attending a book reading or watching a play and their phone will go off. Instead of being embarrassed and switching it off, they will answer it, ignoring the black looks of everyone else, and stage-whisper, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk now.” So, switch the damn thing off, won’t you?

Oh, never mind, they say. We will put it on silent mode so that it doesn’t disturb anybody. Except of course, it does exactly that, when it starts flashing in the middle of an exciting action sequence in a movie hall. How can you concentrate on what’s happening on the big screen, when a small screen to your right (and left) is flashing intermittently all through the three hours you spend at the theatre?

Frankly, it’s enough to make you swear off cinema altogether and fall back on the home comforts of the DVD.
This insensitivity to the feelings and needs of other people has become endemic. Often I’m trapped in the window seat of a plane and ask the gentleman (I’m using the term loosely, of course) if he could allow me to get past him to go to the loo, only to have him scrunch up in his seat and ask me to squeeze past his well-upholstered thighs. Could he possibly get up to allow me access to the aisle? Well, of course, he bloody could. But he doesn’t see why he needs to bother.

And then, there are those passengers who think nothing of reclining their seats as far back as they will possibly go, even when you are trying to set up your tray table so that you can eat your ghastly airline meal. Their heads will be practically in your lap as you struggle to eat your jeera pulao and yellow dal without splattering it on their shining pates. If you ask the air-hostess to intercede on your behalf and get them to keep their chairs upright at least until the food service is over, they sigh elaborately, look back angrily at the demanding madam who has made this completely unreasonable request, raise their chairs by the merest fraction and go back to snoring loudly.

The same kind of rude inconsiderate behaviour is par for the course at the gym. The men – for some reason it is always the men – sweat copiously over every machine they use. To inflict maximum damage, they leave off their shirts and work out in skimpy singlets so that we can all feast our eyes on their abundance of bodily hair and marvel at the efficiency of their sweat glands. Once they are done, they move on without bothering to give even a cursory wipe-down to the machine in question. So, either you clean up their mess, or you give up on your own work-out and go home.

I wouldn’t swear to it, but I can’t help but think that these are the people who also bump into you on the street without bothering with an “Excuse me”, who brush you aside so that they can be served first in a shop, and who are rude to waiters and air-hostesses as a matter of principle.

They make me incandescent with anger at their thoughtless behaviour, at their casual dismissal of the courtesies that we should be able to take for granted. But I can’t get my own back on them, without following their own graceless example – and that I am not willing to do.

As the saying goes: I may not be able to change the world I live in; but why allow the world I live in to change me?

First Published: Mar 28, 2009 16:05 IST