By the end of this article, it’s highly likely you’ll be asking, “How old is this guy?”
Any article on ‘manners’ immediately conjures up images of an elderly gentleman in a cravat, using his goose feather quill to rail against the depredations of ‘youth today!’ And being annoyed at the kids is hardly something new. Aristophanes, in 1 BC, complained, “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise!” One can only wonder how loud the citharas were in ancient Greece on the night he carved that complaint.
The purpose of this article is not to criticise the behaviour of any particular generation, but to draw attention to the attitude of our society in general to manners — those cultivated habits that tell us something about who we are.
Let’s examine five polite practices that are fast falling out of our common culture:
1. Controlling our bodily functions
So much about manners relates to self-control, and one part of ourselves we were supposed to have most firmly under our control was our digestive system. Once we were expected to offer an ‘excuse me’ if it betrayed us. Now, too often people draw attention to their gurgles, belches and worse, as though they were something to be proud of. It seems that if ‘It’s natural’ for me, means it’s normal for you to share it, too.
2. The reliable RSVP
Our RSVP — répondez s’il vous plaît — used to be our final word on the matter. If someone sent us an invitation and asked us to say if we were going, how we responded was like giving our word. After all, our hosts were investing in our attendance. Because people are now so uncommitted to their response, event software has created the ‘maybe’ category, the electronic equivalent of, ‘I’ll go if I decide I want to enough’.
3. Standing up for your betters
Standing ‘in the presence of greatness’ has been a time-honoured custom in countless cultures for millennia. You can still see its vestiges when audiences stand to applaud a performance, during national anthems or in the presence of high political offices. We stand to acknowledge their effort, achievement, or for what they represent. So, standing for older people also makes some sense — but apparently not today if you’re occupying a comfortable chair.
4. Minding your Ps and Qs
The above was a catchphrase for more than just speaking clearly, but for being careful with what you said and when you said it. I remember being taught to wait my turn, to ask permission to enter a conversation and certainly not to interrupt — especially my elders. It certainly encouraged listening. It also encouraged silence. I learnt that it was very possible I wasn’t the smartest person in the room — and that the quickest way to remove all doubt was to open my mouth.
5. Please and thank you
Asking permission and acknowledging a favour have a common link. They both begin with the understanding that there’s much in this world we don’t deserve. Yet the more rights we impress on our children, the more we teach them these words have no place in their mouths.
‘Manners maketh the man’ is a phrase recently returned to the popular consciousness via the spy film Kingsman, albeit in the mouth of an elderly agent clearly out of his time. The above are passing out of popular culture, or being relegated to the categories of ‘quaint’ and ‘amusing’, because they run counter to the way we now see ourselves. We are for ‘freedom’, and they are the habits of a ‘chained’ mind. What the above five points have in common, though, is their reminder of our need for humility.
Whether it is in the company of those older and wiser than us, or simply those who occupy the same space, manners remind us of our ‘place’ — something the egalitarian West is definitely not keen on. We live in a society that has run away with the idea of equality. Since the Enlightenment we have steadily transformed ideas of political and social freedom into the equality of everything— habits, amusements, art, children’s soccer skills. It’s no longer possible to suggest that anything is better than anything else, when ‘better’ is just a preference and equal status a ‘right’. We live in a world where it is offensive to suggest that anyone should accept second place in opinion or practice to anyone else. And if that’s the case, why teach children to wait their turn? Isn’t their turn now, just like everyone else?
This is the same reason many people reject the Bible. They see it as a compilation of outdated customs, an infringing list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’.
But like the passing manners above, the Bible is intent on reminding us that there is a pecking order to the world around us, and we are not at its top. The Bible’s focus, though, is not the smooth operation of society, but our smooth transition to eternity. It’s not as though God Almighty, the creator of the universe, needs published reminders to protect his status. He will continue to rule whether we acknowledge him or not, but whether or not we respect him will determine our relationship. The Bible warns that we can’t hope to gain a higher status in the world to come if we don’t first acknowledge our lower status in this one.
When Jesus preached his famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ about what the Kingdom of Heaven would be like and, most importantly, who would be allowed into it, he didn’t begin with our value before God, but our need for him: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” Matthew (chapter 5, verses 3–5).
Humility is timeless and essential. It reminds me that I live in a world where others deserve my respect because their age, experience and efforts have earned it for them. How much more so the eternal God, then, whose wisdom encompasses everything from dust particles to galaxies, but who died on a cross so I could be saved? Ignoring him doesn’t make him disappear, any more than ignoring manners makes selfcentredness
Oh, and how old am I? The same age as you. Old enough to know better.