We all need a break sometimes, so this week I am taking a break from writing about work. But if you’re so committed you can only fit in time to read about the workplace, then I am sure you can squint your eyes and look hard enough to find some application to the workplace in this article.
“Research conducted in Australia and New Zealand revealed that rude and undermining co-workers, managers, or leaders can actually negatively impact employee engagement and productivity.” (Bad manners at work – bad for business, Forbes)
Confusion reins – on our trains
Men are confused enough as it is without reinventing the basics of acceptable behaviours half way through our lives. A good friend of mine, who is in his fifties, found himself on a crowded train a year ago when a woman boarded and stood near where he sat. As he’d done many times before and in reflection of his basic training as a youngster, he stood and offered his seat to this woman who proceeded then to verbally remove strips off his hide for the insult. Taken aback and not inclined to argue with this woman (for that would be bad manners), he retreated quickly, sitting back down apologetically. Then, to his fascination and I am sure amusement, a third party entered the fray, an older lady who began to give the younger one a good dressing down for being rude to my friend. I have no doubt there will be a range of reactions to this story. Was he ill-mannered or ignorant in offering his seat, regardless of his genuine intent, or was she ill-mannered in chastising him? Should the older lady have butted in or butted out? There is no definite answer other than we are all confused. Who is right and who is wrong?
And what’s the deal, with the evening meal?
During the evening meal, whether you hold your knife like you’re about to act out the shower scene in Psycho, like you’re writing a love sonnet with a feathered quill, or the correct way, as I do, makes little difference to the quality of the eating experience. Some manners seem to be little more than a reflection of what we have been taught is appropriate and are definitely unsupported by a meaningful purpose.
It’s all about the book, and how you wear it
Soon after my wife left school, her parents bundled her off to Sydney for a week of deportment classes. Not because she was a wayward teenager by any means, but they felt that a solid grounding in appropriate behaviours and manners would stand her in good stead, and it has. She really enjoyed the week, although some of the lessons have lost their currency in the changing behavioural landscape. Her only real disappointment has been that in all the time since, she has never found an opportunity in a public forum to walk down a flight of stairs with a book on her head, but I am sure it will come, we just need to be patient.
What are these pesky things called manners and where do they come from?
Here’s my ill-informed theory regarding the origin and meaning of manners. We all have cultures that we grow up in and that evolve over generations and centuries. Manners are those little elements of our culture that are formed into unwritten laws that we must uphold and that reflect and define us, our coat of arms, our identity. Anyone who doesn’t uphold the manners we consider valuable is not like us and so, frankly, they are a bit odd, uncouth or poorly educated – unfortunate in some form or fashion. That aside, I do think that manners have practical application in the demonstration of fairness, respect and consideration and that their weathering away over time is a loss to us all.
Public Transport: where manners give way to raw survival instinct
For my research on the gradual death of manners, I choose the public transport system where poor behaviours and bad manners are far more reliable and consistent than the train schedules themselves. I have long thought that if you want a manners-free adventure just take a trip on public transport. It seems that the anonymity we all have in the most crowded of public spaces avails us of the opportunity to strip away our manners like our very clothing, back to our naked instinctive selves. What’s more, we seem to think nothing of this naked behaviour and the shocking impact on those around us.
Back to the question of sit-down/stand-up
So what do I do in the same circumstance, you may well ask, since I went through the same basic training as my friend? Picture this: Faced with offering my seat and the attached social dilemma, I sit, rooted to my seat, not having a clear option. There’s a lady with two legs in plaster, a walking stick, a zimmer frame and celebrating her 93rd birthday, hovering near my seat looking anxious and uncomfortable. I am flooded with thoughts of my friends demise. With her frozen shoulder she is struggling to reach, let alone hold the swinging loop handle above her. The arthritis isn’t helping. It’s a psychological standoff between me and six other gentleman, each at least 25 years my junior, and sitting in the seats around her. Who will relent and stand up for her? I keep my eyes firmly fixed on my book. Not a muscle flinches. I must look almost blind, I am so far hunched over, and my neck begins to ache with the tension. There’s no way she knows I have noticed her, surely not. If nothing else, and there is nothing else, I can take comfort in my firm resolve. I have learnt that any form of bad manners is quite acceptable if you avoid eye contact. Just avert your eyes, Peter. I follow the example of the younger folk, offering nothing.[i] The difference is I spend the evening utterly disappointed in my behaviour.
Who invented the queue and is it still relevant
There is little I enjoy more than arriving first and on time at the train station for my poorly scheduled train, and watching the crowd slowly grow around me like mushrooms on time lapse video. There I am, standing at attention, safely and respectfully behind the yellow line (per instructions from the public address) awaiting the arrival of my train, when last minute Larry turns up and perches himself sloppily between the train and me. He has no consideration for the claim I’ve staked. Alternately he waits until the door is opened, slips in from the side, blocking my path and joins half a dozen other pushy commuters desperately pushing against those alighting to make sure they get one of the seats. This desperate urgency even happens with an empty carriage. Clearly never had their ears clipped as youngsters.
Seats – just how many do you need, let alone think you have a right to
There is very little room between the seats on the trains. There should be a sign saying please check your personal space at the door; you are now entering an unpleasantly intimate circumstance with a perfect stranger. Last week I watched as a lady tried to scramble over another who had her legs crossed, to sit opposite her. The seated lady’s raised foot was almost at the height of and in the middle of the opposite seat. She was reading a document of some sort, so clearly she was important – too important to share the space that wasn’t hers to begin with. She made no attempt at all to uncross her legs, retreat into her space and allow the other lady the uncomfortable seat she was entitled. Of course, she didn’t make eye contact, so her behaviour was quite acceptable. I had her pegged as a rude and inconsiderate person, perhaps with a less than average emotional intellect given what I had witnessed. At her stop I listened as she conversed with friends at the door. She appeared to be an intelligent professional.
A bag on a seat is another personal favourite.
“Unlike every other bag in the carriage that resides on the floor, my bag is a little sensitive, not to mention expensive, so do you mind standing while my bag sits on the seat next to me. Surely you understand, there is only another 25 mins and 10 stations to go, so it’s hardly worth moving everything around. Thanks.”
Rude irritations too numerous to mention
The list of unpleasantries and thoughtless behaviour goes on. Loud phone conversations and broadsheet newspapers opened in full. Slipping laptops, that slip off the owner’s lap opposite and rest against my knee for an entire trip. I have even had someone fall asleep on my shoulder, which, but for the moustache they were sporting, might have been bearable.
Ah manners …
when I was a young man, it was all very clear, no ambiguity and certainly no indifference.
Stand up that they may sit down,
Stand back that they may enter first,
Wait your turn that they may finish their sentence, and
For goodness sake take your hat off inside.
As always, love to hear your thoughts on the topic of manners and their demise.
P.S. If you enjoyed this article, then fantastic. If your happy to share on social media, please do it really helps. And If you want to subscribe, please do for an email alert once a week when I post a new article. Have a great week.
[i]I promise I am just making a point here, I would in fact vacate my seat.
To my nephew James Westmore for his wonderful artwork
To Rosie Broadfoot for her tireless editing