RUDENESS AND POLITENESS
GOOD AND BAD MANNERS
Does anyone under fifty believe in manners? Having recently spent far too long cajoling my youngest to write thank-you cards (not letters) for the various presents he had received for Christmas, I sometimes feel like a dinosaur. Of course he didn’t bother to look up his benefactors’ addresses or get a stamp, let alone post his missives. That was up to his mum. These days, even an email of thanks is perceived as polite – and given the unreliability of the post, I have been known to use it myself, though usually in the form of an e-card from the delightful Web Gallery of Art (http://www.wga.hu/) .
But we live in an age of trolls, and when total strangers feel free to send you abuse without a second’s thought or, in the case of total cowards, a genuine email address, it’s no surprise to find that those of us who object to loud swearing, eating in the street, grotesquely immodest dress, public defecation and more are in a minority. Much of it is the result of thoughtlessness rather than deliberate malice, but it still makes life for everyone else more unpleasant than necessary. I do get pretty fed up at often being the only person to offer my seat to someone elderly or in need on a bus, but I still believe it’s worth doing. At present, I’m finishing a novel about an unhappy marriage which has led to my asking a number of divorced people what led to their situation. An astonishing number have answered that it wasn’t, as I thought, infidelity or boredom or inequality. It was lack of politeness and kindness. We all tend to think that manners are something artificial, and that the closer our relationships the more we can neglect manners. I think the opposite. Nobody deserves thanks, thoughtfulness, generosity and formal good manners as much as your own partner and children.
I know that it’s a pain for the young to write me thank-yous for their presents, but I also believe it’s part of what will eventually turn them into civilised and agreeable adults. Even if I’ve had to explain this to my children in terms of enlightened self-interest (“If you don’t say thanks, the presents will stop” being most effective) it eventually becomes habit, and with luck, a relationship of mutual appreciation is formed. Telling someone to "talk to the hand" isn't funny, or clever.
Nobody likes being reprimanded or criticised, and yet learning to tolerate and even think about such admonitions used to be part of everybody’s passage into adulthood. Now, it’s seen as “dissing”, and can get you stabbed. If you are brave enough to ask somebody to put their dropped rubbish into a bin, you are lucky to get away with invective. People have lost the habit of self-questioning, probably at around the time that church-going and prayer no longer became mandatory, and we are all the poorer for it.
I once used to swear quite a bit myself, until I realised that it was both ugly and monotonous and made a conscious effort to stop. Of course I found substitutes such as “sugar” and “jeepers creepers” ridiculously prissy, and of course there are moments when you just can’t help yourself. I enjoy rude jokes, and Anglo-Saxon attitudes. But repeated swearing, which seems like a release from stress actually becomes a new source of it, and is repellent rather than, as the young tend to believe, daring or funny. One of the major problems writers of books for children and teenagers face is making their dialogue convincing without being true to the tic of invective (and the word “like” inserted into every other word.) I am old enough (just) to remember elderly people who would threaten to wash out a child’s mouth with soap for even using the word “damn,” let alone “bloody”. It was wholly ineffective, but these days when I read a Victorian novel and come across a swear-word indicated by a dash, I can’t help thinking how much more potent it is as an indication of offensiveness than the actual word.
Rudeness is a weapon which should be used in moderation, and only with deliberation. I love Oscar Wilde’s witticism that “a gentleman is never unintentionally rude”, because it encapsulates the understanding that someone who understands the rules of politeness is in control. Though actually, you can be far, far ruder when being polite.
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Well said. The thing I struggle with is the constant use of the 'f' word in a lot of current books - and in the street
Couldn't agree with you more. I have a blanket rule with my godchildren, nieces & nephews. No thank you letter by age 10 equals no more presents. The present list grows shorter every year, sadly unsuprising.