Friday, January 2, 2009

A Polite Society

Sorry for the late blogging again! Why do I think that "vacation" means "sitting around at home not doing much of anything," anyway?

We had some things to do today, and while out and about I noticed that, though it was crowded, people here really are generally nice. An accidental bump rates an "Oh, excuse me!" and the same phrase is used by those who need to get past you; we smile at each other, offer help when it's needed (such as holding a swinging door for a mom with a stroller or a person in a wheelchair) and it's all more or less second nature.

So much so, that when I do occasionally encounter a rude person, it's a surprise. Oh, sure, when my girls were little (and obviously close in age) people felt randomly called upon to comment on the fact that there were three of them, and weren't we busy, and they were glad it wasn't them, and so on--but aside from that one lapse people in Texas are rather nice.

According to Michael Deacon of the UK Telegraph, this just isn't true in Britain. He writes an impassioned plea to his own countrymen: couldn't we please be more polite? Excerpt:
I was surprised at the time. I don't think that I would be now. Because in 2008, Britain as a nation became ruder than ever. And I'm not even talking about the kind of rudeness that prompted Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand to leave chortlingly obscene messages on the answering machine of a blameless actor. I'm talking about bad manners.

More and more last year, it seemed that many of us thought it our right to offend or inconvenience others. We considered consideration beneath us. Today, as we decide on our New Year's resolutions for 2009, being more polite would make an excellent choice.

We know that Britain has got ruder because all the signs are there – literally. In overground railway stations there are now notices begging passengers not to assault train staff. In stations on the London Underground there are similar ones pleading with passengers to let others off the train first, not to push each other, not to use seats for their bags. It's bewildering that we should need to be told these things, yet evidently we do. What's next, "Please don't steal", "Please try not to kill each other"?

The latest technology has also brought us innumerable new opportunities to be rude – and look how often we take them. The mobile phone, for instance. In 2008, it became an everyday occurrence to spend a bus or train journey inwardly groaning as some halfwit of a fellow passenger broadcast music through the tinny loudspeakers of their mobile. It was also common to see a customer at a checkout in a shop, babbling on their mobile while an assistant served them.

Then there's the internet. The internet is in many ways informative and entertaining, a revolutionary news resource. But as a means of communication it has become a mouthpiece not only for the decent majority but for the malicious minority. [...]

A long queue at the cash machine, being kept on hold when telephoning the bank, waiting more than 10 seconds to cross a busy road – it's almost a reflex, these days, to take such trifles personally. A phenomenon of the Nineties was road rage. Today, I'm sure that more and more of us feel pavement rage. There are too many people and they're in our way.

More than a million members of Facebook have joined a group on the website, called "I Secretly Want to Punch Slow Walking People in the Back of the Head". Getting angry, in this irrational and impotent manner, only makes us ruder. Either we barge other pedestrians out of our path or we snap, "Excuse me" in a tone more appropriate to a curse.

Like I said, people in Texas are pretty polite--for the most part. I know that traffic brings out the worst in many here, though; and while we may not actually yell at people who are inconveniencing us, does the silent barrage of angry thoughts count for nothing so long as a sweet smile stays pinned to our lips, even as we think of funny ways to describe the offender on our blog later for the entertainment of ourselves and others?

Because sometimes we're very polite--and very insincere. And sometimes we let the human frustration show, and we're being honest. "It's no problem," sometimes means that it is; "Excuse me," can be code for "Come on, pick a bunch of onions and leave, already!" and "Bless your little heart," means--well, it's not always a blessing.

Still, I think Michael Deacon's on to something. Manners do matter, because manners are the veneer of civilization over the wormwood of our barbaric and sinful natures. Without the efforts to be polite, we could quickly degenerate into the kind of people, and society, where there would have to be signs in the produce section that read, "No food fights."

In other words, without manners, we become like children, and not in a good way--specifically, we become like a certain class of middle-school students, who think jokes involving bodily functions are a riot and who will throw food at the slightest provocation. And anyone who thinks this would be a good society to live in is a complete certifiable...ahem, that is, bless his little heart, he should read this book.

No comments: