FOR ME, MANNERS MATTER
Is it bad manners to talk about good manners? Like politics and religion, there is a feeling in certain quarters that such topics are best left unmentioned in polite company. Since good manners seem to be on the decline perhaps few people care any more. The trouble is that all too often the niceties of life get lost in the welter of heavier issues, but then, as we were always told as children, if the pennies are looked after, the pounds will take care of themselves, and so the demonstration of good manners is surely an indicator of a considerate underlying character. My own upbringing as the son of a working-class Yorkshire couple (father a plumber, full-time mother a former millworker) taught my sister and me the importance of “please” and “thank you”, of “please may I” rather than “can I”, of asking before we left the table, and of never using the word “hate”. These are mere highlights of a code of behaviour that became accepted in our house as the norm. It did not involve any discomfort on our part, and it did seem to help us get by in life without putting too many backs up. When walking down the street I would take off my school cap if a funeral cortege passed by. If someone in our street died, all the neighbours would pull their curtains. The last two customs have fallen by the wayside, but I still baulk at those who wear hats (or baseball caps) indoors, and I find it impossible to walk on the inside of the pavement when accompanying a member of the opposite sex. My neat sideways step behind them does sometimes cause women who are not acquainted with this old custom to wonder what the heck I am doing, but there you are. It matters to me. And when it comes to practicalities, it is me who gets splashed by the passing vehicle when it goes through a puddle. Table manners make for the comfort of fellow diners as well as being useful in avoiding embarrassment. Who wants to listen to someone chomping away with his or her mouth open, or talking when it is full of food and sending gobbets of it on to the clothing of their companions? And yet, with more of us glued to the screens of computers, laptops, mobile phones and tablets for the better part of the day, and fewer sitting down at a table together to eat with knives and forks, one wonders how long these social graces will continue to survive. Operating in isolation, with little need for social intercourse, it is no surprise that social and sociable behaviour suffers when many have so little opportunity to practise it. We stalwarts still open doors for ladies, in spite of frequently being on the receiving end of either a glare or else no reaction at all. At the risk of sounding like your grandma: “a thank you costs nothing”. And I open the door out of respect, out of helpfulness, not because of a misguided feeling of superiority. Those women who deplore this kind of behaviour say more about their own grim attitude to life rather than that of the perpetrator of the act. It is intended as a pleasant compliment and it would be nice if it could be taken as one. I’d lay down my coat in a puddle for a smile. What is also underestimated, more and more in the business world, is the value of good manners towards employees. With ever more importance being placed on profits and cost effectiveness, it is astonishing just how many large companies place no value at all on staff relations. Now, if this sounds like mere whimsy, forgive me, but if you work for a company that treats you well, not just financially but in terms of thoughtfulness and consideration of your feelings, you will more than likely be willing to go the extra mile. A boss who says “hello”, especially if he knows your first name, will engender far more loyalty than one who breezes by and ignores you. This attitude to staff costs nothing. Absolutely zilch. And yet it pays dividends in terms of staff morale and – ultimately – profitability. It astonishes me that more businesses do not appreciate this simple and inarguable fact. And it is not just in business that good manners yield surprising results. Think how grateful you feel when a fellow motorist signals to you to come out in front of him in a traffic queue. It works in reverse, too. Let someone else in and what do you lose? Five seconds in terms of getting to your destination. What do you gain? A warm feeling inside. That said, underlying the outward demonstration of good manners must be a firmly held belief in their value; the cynical use of such niceties is worse than their being ignored. There are those who take great offence at being called “love”, or “duck”, or “mate”, or even “darling” by those people who are not of their close acquaintance – the girl at the supermarket checkout, the cold caller. While I sympathise in the latter case (Mr Titchmarsh to you, and certainly not my first name, thank you) I can’t help but feel that the friendliness of the faceto-face greeting can too often be mistaken for over-familiarity. When tempted to bridle at being called “darling” by someone I don’t know, I have to remind myself of my own particular trait. As a Yorkshireman, I confess to regularly addressing work colleagues, and even people I don’t know and to whom I am speaking on the telephone as “love”. It is, I would claim in my defence, my native idiom, and while it may cause offence to a few, it is intended as no more than a declaration of pleasantness in a world filled with too many far greater troubles. That is surely at the heart of good manners – the ability to divine the feelings behind them and take them for what they are – an outward expression of genuine goodwill intended to make the recipient feel at ease, comfortable, valued and respected in a world where lack of consideration for the feelings and beliefs of others has led to countless tragedies. I shall battle on. I shall keep walking on the outside of the pavement and being splashed by cars; I shall insist on removing any headgear I may be wearing when I enter a house, and I shall keep offering my seat to ladies and my elders on the train and opening doors for anyone at all, regardless of their age and gender. I do it because I can and because I think it matters. Even if they don’t.
Kindness costs nothing: some of our social etiquette may be old-fashioned but we should strive to uphold good manners