The Decline and Fall of Modern Manners
By Desmond T. Burke, Deputy Head - Student Life
Posted November 29, 2011
The world has changed quite a bit since I was born in the 1950’s. When I was growing up in southern Ontario, radio was mono and mostly AM, TV was black and white, phones had rotary dials and all were firmly wired to the wall by the only phone company we had, Bell Canada. Computers, so ubiquitous today, were leviathans requiring entire floors of major corporations’ headquarters and no-one outside the military had probably even thought of the Internet. Most Canadians in those days were drawn from a very small number of western European nations. My grandfather, though born in Canada, thought himself a British subject and had the paperwork to prove it.
The Cleavers, paragons of good behaviour that they were, aren’t role models for us anymore. They did seem nice and they would probably have been good neighbors, but their behaviour seems quaint and a bit rigid by today’s standards. Their range of experience, which typified so much of North American life and what it was willing to tolerate, was very narrow. As a culture, we probably needed to loosen up a bit and be more open to the wider world.
But have we loosened up too much? I’m inclined to think we have. People just don’t treat each other as well as they used to. I’m not sure whether people spending so much time in front of screens has begun to disconnect us from how our behaviour impacts others, or whether the increased pace of our lives in our hypercompetitive economy has made polite interactions an impractical intrusion. It may be a combination of both of those. Maybe the decline set in when we began to insulate ourselves from each other when we sat behind the wheel of a car or talked at a distance over the telephone.
There was a time when good manners were one of the tell-tale signs that marked an educated and cultured person or someone who came from the right sort of family. There were rules for how people were to address elders, or introduce new people to each other. It was understood that seats were offered on crowded trains to older people who needed them more, but it wasn’t a perfect golden age. These old practices are mostly gone now. So why bother with manners anymore? What is their value to our children?
There are two ways of looking at the manners we need to pass onto our children. The first is the rules approach. It places rules of behaviour at the center of how we interact. It reminds me of how the Pharisees operated. It didn’t matter to them what community members thought or believed, or if their behaviour brought pain to others. Pharisees just had to honour the rules. The rules were important because they kept the community together and kept strangers out.
I like to think that the good manners we absolutely need to teach our children are a way of looking at our fellow creatures. It’s more of a philosophy and in our winner-take-all, 24/7, short tempered world, it’s more necessary today than ever. Good manners indicate that you don’t always put yourself first. It only makes sense that if everyone expects to go first and receive the most, there will be trouble. Clearly compromise is required for happy coexistence with each other.
The foundation for true good manners is built of patience, tolerance, generosity, kindness and courtesy. They speak of a willingness to put others first, of a willingness to compromise, of a demonstration of our own humility. Knowing which fork to use first doesn’t really matter, but holding a door for the person walking behind whose arms are full or a kind word offered to a person in pain does. Good manners are about our spirit. In today’s Canada, multi-ethnic and polyglot land that it is, we need our young people more than ever who use their good manners, not to keep strangers out but to welcome new people in.
Manners are just one more attribute in the portfolio of virtues that parents and schools need to work together to instill in our children. Research indicates that one of the best ways parents can encourage their children to become readers is to have books in the home and to be seen as a reader. This is because children look to the adults in their lives to model so much of how they will behave in later life. The first step with manners and so many other matters with children is that teachers and parents need to model what we want to see. It’s also important that children occasionally turn off the screens and spend time interacting in real time and space with other young people so that they can learn from the occasionally bumpy interactions how to interact successfully with other. In our modern world it’s becoming all too easy to forget that other people whether in the next car or miles away on the internet are just as real and have feelings that are just as significant.