Do we need: Good manners?

Old-fashioned British politeness is supposed to lubricate the wheels of social intercourse. Or is it just a substitute for sincerity? Whatever. Just shut up and read, says William Hartston
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Could I start by saying how terribly grateful I am that you've called in at this page and started reading my little diatribe against good manners. I do hope I'm not intruding and I know how busy you must be, but if you could possibly spare the time to read a little further I really would consider it a favour. Of course, if you've something better to do, I won't mind at all. Do read the weather forecast first if you want to. What I have to say is really not important. Oh, you can stay! That's wonderful. Thank you so much!

There, that was a complete waste of time, wasn't it? As indeed are the vast majority of all the pleases, thank-yous, excuse-mes and would-you- be-so-kinds that have spread like weeds throughout our supposedly civilised verbiage. I'm not in favour of rudeness, of course, so before you dip your pen in your trusty green ink to complain about how ill-mannered I am, just shut up and pay attention for once.

The first thing we have to clarify is the weasel word "politeness". The new Chambers 21st Century Dictionary defines "polite" as: "well-mannered, considerate towards others; courteous" - and therein lies the problem. Consideration towards others is an intrinsic part of all that is good about humanity. Good manners, however, are extrinsic rules imposed upon us as a substitute for genuine thoughtfulness. Codes of etiquette evolved as a shorthand for consideration. Pleases and thank-yous entered the language as convenient signs of respect and gratitude. By subscribing to a society's verbal etiquette, we acknowledge respect for the rules of that society, and, by implication, for its individual members. It's a good theory, but in practice good manners become a substitute for true consideration. And when young children are indoctrinated into supposedly correct rules of behaviour, it may even serve as an inoculation against the development of genuine feelings. What parent has not experienced the following ritual conversation:

Small Child: "Can I have a biscuit?"

Large Parent: "Can I have a biscuit, what?"

SC: "I want a biscuit."

LP: "What's the magic word, then?"

SC: (mumbles) "Please."

LP: "I don't think I quite heard that."

SC: (shouts resentfully) "PLEASE."

LP: (giving child biscuit) "What do you say?"

SC: (grudgingly) "Thank you."

My nice, polite little children, like all others in the land, were indoctrinated into this ludicrous catechism, which led at a later date to the inexorable sequel:

SC: "Can I have a biscuit, please?"

LP: "No, lunch will be ready soon."

SC: (imploringly) "Plee-ease."

LP: "No, it'll spoil your appetite."

SC: "But I said please."

LP: "I've told you no. Not before lunch. Stop asking."

Cue tantrum from SC.

It's inevitable. The child has played the game by your rules, and now you're breaking them. I once asked an extremely well-brought-up four-year- old why you say please. "Because you want someone to give you something," he replied, with impeccable logic.

"And why," I continued, "do you say thank you when they've given it to you?" "Because it's something I wanted," he replied. "Yes, but you've got it now. So what's the point in saying thank you?" He stared heavenwards and rolled his eyes in exasperation at my raising such an obviously unanswerable question. "I don't know," he said, and the conversation was at an end.

Well, I must say I don't know either. Good manners, originally intended to lubricate the wheels of social intercourse, now serve precisely the opposite function. The oil of unctuousness has turned into a viscous pollutant gumming up honest communication of emotions. Worst of all, it makes its practitioners think they are being polite when all they are doing is uttering a mindless incantation.

Small children, however, are not the only ones for whom good manners have become a form of intimidation. Our spoken language is full of menacing politeness. "Can I help you" meaning "either buy that book or stop reading it", and "with every possible respect" meaning "with no respect at all", are perhaps the most frequently encountered. The one I hate most, however, is the sign: "Thank you for not smoking". Look, I don't smoke, and I don't need your thanks for not doing so. If I did smoke, and you didn't want me to, I'd rather you came out with it directly and said "No Smoking" rather than indulge in this parody of pseudo-politeness. How is a smoker expected to respond to your ludicrous notice? Should he or she point out its illogicality: "Thank you for your thanks, but I'm afraid you are mistaken. I am not smoking." Where would we be if everyone, on barging past fellow pedestrians, said: "Thank you for not obstructing my path", or addressed late-night revellers with a "Thank you for not throwing up on my shoes"?

I must, however, confess a certain fondness for the ritual politeness of one particular drunken tramp. After his excessively polite and forelock- tugging "Please sir, could you possibly see your way to sparing the price of a cup of tea, God bless you, sir" met with a firm shake of the head, he exploded into a fist-shaking "Well, fock you then". It had, if nothing else, a refreshing honesty of emotion.

Good manners are truly the English disease. A survey a few years ago revealed that 70 per cent of London travellers say "please" and "thank you" when buying tickets on the Underground, compared with 50 per cent in Tokyo, 30 per cent in Hamburg and 10 per cent in New York. That is precisely why the English are so bad at complaining. Indoctrinated into ritual politeness, our capacity for verbal aggression has faded away. We are intimidated by waiters when they serve tepid or unpalatable meals, by bus companies when they have kept us waiting in the rain for an hour, by telephone companies who cannot repair a fault on the line for several days, by councils who provide ever-worsening services for ever-rising taxes, by water companies who cannot mend their own leaky pipes.

When did you last send back a poor meal in a restaurant, or actually complain about that rude bus conductor, or demand a refund on your ticket, plus reasonable damages, because the train was late or cancelled? It's because you are too damned polite that you don't do such things, and by remaining polite we are all sanctioning poor service and low standards. The British conspiracy of good manners has a good deal to answer for.

The same four-year-old I mentioned earlier was once bought, without any pleases or thank-yous but many gratifying smiles and twinkling eyes, a chocolate rabbit. Some 10 minutes after he had devoured it, he gave me a hug and said, unprompted: "Thank you for buying me that chocolate rabbit." Accept, eat, think it over, then say thank you. That's genuine gratitude. But if you've said your pleases and thank-yous according to the ritual, the chance of honest spontaneity is denied.

So let us declare an immediate moratorium on standard forms of politeness and instead try to inculcate in our children some genuine emotions and honest expression of them. We might even try showing a little more thoughtfulness ourselves, because good manners, as generally practised, are a feeble substitute for sincerity.

Thank you for reading this far. I've taken up far too much of your time already, but if you still feel moved to write in disagreement, please feel free to do so. We won't publish your letters, because this is the last of the present series of Do We Need and, to be quite frank, if you do disagree with me then you're totally wrong and I really don't want to hear your misconceived views on the matter. Anyway, have a good day, and we really must have lunch sometime.

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