Politeness is always welcome, whatever the language

Kelner's View


Here is a thought for the weekend: are we as a nation becoming
more polite? I ask this because of something I noticed on the
London Underground the other day.

There I was, on the platform at Knightsbridge, when a train arrived and a recorded announcement struck up: "Mind the gap, please." Now, I have to admit I'm not a particularly frequent user of the Tube, but I don't recall instructions to passengers being suffixed by "please" in the past. A colleague suggested it might simply be because it was Knightsbridge: further round the Monopoly board, one might discover less politesse. I'm not so sure.

Public announcements everywhere tend to be more courteously framed these days. Have you been on an inter-city train recently? It's as if the announcer is auditioning to be a chat show host, with a litany of friendly invitations and a minute-by-minute commentary on the progress towards your destination. Gone are the days of "the buffet is open", and banished is British Rail's mantra of "never explain, never apologise".

This new age of public politeness can only have a wider beneficial effect, and a report published yesterday seemed to confirm this. The average Briton will say "thank you" 5,000 times a year, according to a survey which interrogated the nation's manners. That means around 13 expressions of thanks every day, which seems an awful lot of gratitude to me, even on Thanksgiving Day.

The point is made, however, that the words "thank you" may be dying out, and one in three Britons prefers to respond in a more colloquial form. I have a friend who will only say "cheers" when he means "thanks" and, according to the survey, other ways to show gratitude include "ta" (there may be a regional split here), "merci" (you probably need to work in the media for that one) and "cool" (no one over the age of 25 should be allowed to get away with this). Eight in 10 of the people polled believe they are polite, which would concur with my anecdotal findings.

It is very rare that one encounters rudeness in our daily life (outside of our homes, I mean), and this compares well with some countries (I can't think why, but France comes to mind). So it doesn't matter if you get a "fab" instead of "thanks": it's the thought that counts.

Only for the thank you note do the formal proprieties have to be observed. A text – no matter how many kisses you put on the end – just doesn't do the job. A hand-written note is the only way to express gratitude if you want the recipient to think you, like, really mean it.

The electronic ping of a text message – which still, let it be said, brings a frisson of excitement – is nothing compared to the joy of actually opening an envelope that doesn't contain a demand for payment. And, with that, I have just one thing more to say to you: ta!


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