By Antonia Feitz
web posted September 27, 1999

Recently a New South Wales magistrate dismissed a charge of offensive language against an Aboriginal man who'd told a policeman to f*** off. The magistrate said the word was in common usage and no longer offensive.

Well it might be common in the lower courts, which by definition are the habitat of criminals and other low-life, but it is not common in the Supreme Court. Or in parliament. Or in church. Or in news bulletins. Or in the majority of classrooms. In short, the magistrate was not only wrong, he has contributed to the further debasement of public standards.

In an article commissioned by The Australian newspaper last year, I made a passing reference to table manners. Subsequently a reader expressed the opinion that table manners had nothing to do with real manners. She suggested they were an affectation.

I once knew a family who shared that view. Though educated people, the parents decided that teaching table manners was too much trouble, so they built a cement-rendered brick room where their children ate like pigs from a common dish with their hands. Occasionally the room was hosed out. The parents justified their total abrogation of duty by saying, "They'll learn manners when they need to".

In other words, like cuckoos, the parents left it to other adults to train their children. Not nice. Very ill-mannered in fact.

Good manners are indeed the oil of social machinery. They literally smoothout our social interactions. True civility - which is indispensable for a civilised society - is first learned by children in the small things of life such as manners, including table manners. Good parents teach their children to say 'please' and 'thank you'. They teach them to share graciously, and to write 'thank you' notes to grandparents who send them a birthday card (plus birthday cheque with any luck).

None of this is natural behaviour. It must be taught, and the only effective teaching is good example. Children soon see through the hypocrisy of parents whose nagging amounts to nothing more than, 'do as I say, not as I do'. The idea of parental 'quality time' is absolute codswallop.

There's more. Because greetings don't come naturally to everybody, most children have to even be taught to say 'good morning' and 'good night'. And while some children are by nature blessed with sunny dispositions, many are not. They have to be taught that while it's perfectly natural to be in a bad mood sometimes, it is wrong and unacceptable to inflict a bad mood on the rest of the family by surly behaviour.

These days, many would object that inculcating children in such manners represses them. That it somehow suppresses their spontaneity. But this is nonsense. As with most things in life, it is not a matter of either/or - either spontaneity or manners. It can be both, and in fact the educated, accomplished and well-mannered person has far more opportunities to be creative and enjoy spontaneity than the ill-mannered brute who can only react to stimuli.

Others will object that good manners are arbitrary and elitist.

Arbitrary, yes. Certainly all cultures have different ideas about what constitutes good manners. The classic example is that while belching is not acceptable at the Western table, the Bedouin belch to show their appreciation of a meal. Well, a Bedouin chief (Hugh Griffiths) in "Ben Hur" did. So it must be true.

Be that as it may, the arbitrariness of what constitutes good manners does not negate the fact that the conventions - whatever they are - are adhered to within any particular group. Cross-cultural comparisons are worthless in this matter.

And elitist? Definitely not. Good manners cost nothing but parental time. Children from the poorest homes can be well-mannered, just as those from rich homes can be brattish and rude.

In short, acquiring good manners teaches us to bear, and to forbear. In his "Golden Sayings", the Greek Stoic, Epictetus, (fl. AD 100) said "there were two faults far graver and fouler than any others - inability to bear, and inability to forbear, when we neither patiently bear the blows that must be borne, nor abstain from the things and the pleasures we ought to abstain from. So, if a man will only have these two words at heart, and heed them carefully by ruling and watching over himself, he will for the most part fall into no sin, and his life will be tranquil and serene." (CLXXXIII)

Given that many people have never received any moral training, let alone training in good manners, it's not surprising that there are so many dissatisfied, angry and ill-tempered people around these days. And their lack of civility and manners is making life difficult for everybody else.

For a start, ill-mannered, foul-mouthed parents invariably produce ill-mannered, foul-mouthed children. Teachers increasingly have to 'socialize' children before they can have any hope of teaching them. Ill-mannered children are incapable of accepting any correction no matter how mildly given, and consequently are often unteachable. So the vicious circle is set up.

In the workplace too, good manners make a big difference. In her now classic, "Everyday Cookery and Housekeeping Book" (1865), Mrs. Beeton instructed young 19th century housewives to make it their first duty after breakfast to go to the kitchen and say, "Good morning, Cook", to the cook.

It's still good advice. A boss who fails to practice the elementary courtesy of saying 'good morning' to his staff will not be held in much regard. Likewise, an employee who is rude to customers is not good for business.

People who rudely jostle others to barge onto the bus/train/ferry irritate other commuters, and only serve to raise the temperature of general ill-will in society. Road rage is another example of people's lack of any training in patience. And it's a sad day when, in a snarly, 'if they want equality they've got it' attitude, people of both sexes fail to assist a young mother struggling down steps with a baby in a stroller, and a toddler in tow.

Far from being obsolete, good manners are now at a premium. With competition being so fierce for the best jobs, short-listed applicants are increasingly assessed not just in interviews, but via a weekend selection process, often in a classy hotel. Over the weekend they are not only questioned on their CV, but scrutinized for their behaviour. Do they have table manners? Are they courteous? Considerate? Well-spoken?

What a sad irony it is that the disadvantaged are further disadvantaged by a prevailing ideology which proclaims all cultures are equal. In the real world, they're not. If people refuse to accept the mores of the dominant culture, they will remain marginalized. And no amount of welfare will compensate for the lack of acceptable standards of speech and behaviour.

Antonia Feitz is a regular writer for Enter Stage Right.

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