Saturday 29 April 2017

Emily Hourican: 'Manners aren't an optional extra - they are the glue and we are at breaking point'

A series of cross exchanges caused Emily Hourican to reflect on the passing of the age of consideration

Emily Hourican
Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

We need to talk about manners. Recently, early one Sunday morning, I was standing at the bus stop, waiting for a coach to the airport. It was a clear, bright, winter morning, the kind that makes you happy just to be alive.

Two cyclists approached at ferocious speed. They were the only people out at that hour. The roads and pavement were empty. I watched them, wondering how far they had cycled that morning. Were they on their way back from Wicklow? How wonderful to get up so early and cycle through the breaking dawn.

Then: "Move!" The first cyclist screamed at the top of her voice as she approached me at top speed. "Move!"

"It's a cycle lane!" The man behind her yelled, as he too whizzed past. They had not slackened speed by so much as a whisper, neither had they deviated from their line. In the face of their yelling, I reacted with dignity and aplomb. "Fuck you," I shouted.

At the airport, the flight was delayed. A long queue trailed around, merging and diverging, with many tributaries. At last, boarding began, and the meandering line of people started to get itself into shape. The woman in front of me stepped forward to join the larger mass, whereupon the woman in front of her turned and snapped, "The queue starts over there", gesturing to the back of the hall.

"Well, what a bad-tempered morning," I thought. But more was to come. On the plane, before take-off, I became aware of an altercation between a young man and a slightly older woman seated in the row in front of me. These two strangers were jostling for space over the armrest. "You need to relax," he said, loud and clear, whereupon she whipped round and snapped, "You need to fucking relax!"

At that point, he called a flight attendant over and insisted on being moved on the basis that he couldn't possibly remain where he was. The flight attendant wasn't happy - it was a crowded plane - but she eventually did it, and then couldn't resist her own final, bitter parting shot. "We won't be moving you again if you don't like that seat," she said, quite as if he was some kind of self-indulgent dilettante who liked to try out seats, like Goldilocks in the bears' house.

"Well," I thought, "maybe that's what early Sunday mornings are like? Maybe I'm right to spend most of them in bed?"

But it can't just be that. What is it that has brought us to breaking point? Are we really all now so busy and stressed that we snap over something as minor as a badly formed queue? And if we are, shouldn't we do something about it?

Manners make the world go round. They make our forced interactions with other people something bearable, even pleasant. As such, we cannot do without them. Manners aren't an optional extra. They are the glue.

Unfortunately, we are not maintaining them into the next generation (it's no coincidence that all of the Sunday-morning snappers were about 10 years younger than me). When we all got busy building self-esteem among children, and fostering their creativity and assertiveness, manners were the slack we cut loose. The reflexive ability to put someone else first is disappearing.

In lots of ways, the generations coming up are nicer people - more empathetic, more tolerant, less materialistic. But they are also inclined to pursue their own ends as if these ends were sacred. In doing so, they disregard the garden-variety good manners that include making polite conversation, giving up a seat, generally behaving with consideration. What is the point of all the mindfulness, positive thinking and #CommunityNotCompetition, if we can't have a civil exchange with a stranger?

Having good manners does not mean being a pushover. Some of the most ruthless people I know are also the ones with the best manners. Which means you almost forgive them their shameless ambition, as they hold the door open and politely enquire, "Do you want the window up or down?"

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