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Are good manners dead?

Group of friends at a restaurant occupied with cell phones
Photo: © Erik Reis / 123RF Stock Photo

The answers ranged from an earnest ‘‘no” through uncertainty to a blunt avowal that if good manners were not dead, they were on their deathbed. As expected, much of the responses depended upon the age demographic.

A couple of mornings ago I heard this story that pretty much had me whooping in delight and cheering for my own age demographic, which is unequivocally Senior Citizen. A much respected doctor practising as a GP (remember those?) in Wadala, was coping as usual with a packed clinic where those who were waiting were given numbers that were called out by the receptionist. You pretty much tend to jump to it when you hear your number called!

Then there was a hiatus. A number was called, then called again. It was a very young man, a late teen, who was the “numberee” and he was on his cell-phone. After the number was called yet again, he stood up but indicated that he would like to continue his conversation for a bit. At which point, the doctor came out of his room, saw what was happening, exploded at the culprit’s casual approach — and threw him out.

The thing is, the boy did not seem unduly upset and went off still talking, the cell phone practically an extension of his hand. In the world he inhabited, where the mobile is the god who rules his life, his decisions, his attitudes and relationships, everything was fine.

I think that if there is a single element that has contributed to the paradoxical uniting of the world while at the same time causing it to dissociate into its billions of separate parts, each part representing the individual, it is the cell phone. Never before have we been so connected, never before have we been so alone. And never before has there been a greater need to understand, interpret and analyze what this trend is doing to all of us, especially youngsters.

For if there is one fall-out of this worldwide trend, it has been on the manners of hosts of people linked all over the globe by technology. As Caroline Allen puts it in the Irish Examiner, “In this era of over-sharing — naked selfies, binge drinking, sex tapes, social media stalking and trolling and expletive-strewn conversations — being a lady or a gentleman seems outdated.”

Yet it is good manners that set us apart in this competitive world. And almost everyone who has attained public success seems to display good manners as a matter of course. Mark Zuckerberg was an unsocialized individual who didn’t even know how to talk to girls before the success of Facebook! Salman Khan, notorious for uninhibited behavior in his life away from the glare of publicity, is the soul of courtesy otherwise. Amitabh Bachchan is always a perfect gentleman with a family background that would bear up to any scrutiny, and we love him for his polish and his charm.

The twerking Miley Cyrus on the other hand or the troubled Justine Bieber would have trouble relating to ordinary individuals in ordinary settings, and while much is still expected of them in terms of entertainment, good manners are not! Neither at table nor on stage, where it is expected and socially acceptable for these public figures to behave badly.

Everyone complains about the way the younger generation seem to have abandoned any pretence of good manners. Parents complain, teachers complain, employers complain, authority figures complain. It’s a plague they say, not realizing that the plague is not technology but the impact on billions of psyches actually and naturally hotwired to the collective and not the individual. In giving in to technology’s siren song, we are actually going against the grain and this is exacting a terrible price. The loss of good manners is a small part of it.

Manner itself is an accepted construct of collective living. Douglas Harper in the Online Etymology Dictionary traces the meaning of the word from AD 1300 as “customary practice, a way of conducting oneself toward others”. Manner has always been important as a way of distinguishing groups of people from each other, converting into custom along the way, which in turn leads to what is socially acceptable in a particular milieu.

Which means that in its outward manifestations, good manners, or what is socially acceptable, could change over a period of time and this perception is what comes through when you talk to people of the younger persuasion.

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Dean at St Pauls Institute of Communication Education, Mumbai >> More articles

Carol Andrade is a journalist and a former Chief Editor of The Afternoon daily. She is the Dean of St Pauls Institute of Communication Education, Mumbai.

Carol Andrade

Carol Andrade is a journalist and a former Chief Editor of The Afternoon daily. She is the Dean of St Pauls Institute of Communication Education, Mumbai.