The case for civilised behaviour in a barbarous world

THE earth is having hot flushes, terrorists are using fertiliser to blow up trains, and petrol now comes with carat ratings. In times like these, agonising about which fork to use with fish seems like the height of indulgence.

Yet good manners — saying “no, please, after you” at the dinner party of global citizenship — could be the key to our salvation.

Looked at through the manners matrix, wealthy nations such as Australia are like those big boofy blokes on buses. We sit with our elbows splayed and our grain-fed shanks akimbo, oblivious to the smaller commuters mashed into the vinyl beside us.

An old gent with a walking frame totters aboard and we turn away. A pregnant woman struggles with a yowling toddler and we let her stand.

On the way out we chuck a Chiko Roll packet over our shoulder and Gordon Ramsay the driver because he was too slow opening the doors. When it comes to sharing an increasingly crowded space and increasingly scarce resources, we really can be a grunting and graceless swine.

Critics of contemporary culture’s civility shortage point the finger at parents, schools and (just for a change) the media. But the most conspicuous culprit is the meritocracy. Success in modern business involves pushing in, speaking over others and coming first at all costs.

Manners are used only to manipulate and to bullshit, to convince consumers their call is important and they really do want fries with that.

Politics is also overrun with vulgarians. Just look at the sneering, interjection and debasement of debate during question time in Canberra. If a child behaved this way in kindy she’d be sent to the naughty corner to have a good, hard think about what she’d done, not given a mandate.

The trouble with prescribing manners as a panacea is that too often their power is used for evil rather than good.

Consider the case of Miss M, a ravenous Australian guest at a posh Sussex country house who didn’t want to ask for food because she thought it would be considered rude.

Eventually, faint with hunger, the then Neighbours star plucked a grape from a bowl on display in the dining room. Her hostess raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow, produced a tiny pair of grape scissors and sniffed: “Do cut yourself a branch.”

Miss M felt mortified, which was exactly what her tormentor had intended.

Using overly formal etiquette to make underly formal people feel inferior defeats the purpose of good manners, which is to put one’s companions at ease.

It is an example of anti-manners, and the guilty parties are often members of the tiara class (who then have the hide to hoity toity at the uncouthness of the great unwashed).

Equally pointless and self-defeating are rigid style guides that insist on X pleasantry for Y soiree, conveniently ignoring that civility is entirely contingent on context.

Making a menage of lesbian revolutionaries feel at home may mean cutting back on the chair-pulling and door-opening. And good form at a bogan barbecue will definitely require shouting “f..ken oath” a few times, or at least not getting the vapours when everyone else shouts such things.

Lucinda Holdforth, a former speechwriter for Kim Beazley is the author of the excellent Why Manners Matter: The Case for Civilised Behaviour in a Barbarous World.

To overcome the boring, bossy and dated nature of the average etiquette manual, she has devised a concise, eight-point template for modern manners that looks suspiciously like a code of ethics.

It includes keep your word, wait your turn, look after the weak and obey the laws and regulations, unless you are mounting a campaign of civil disobedience.

Her case is that good manners are not meaningless airs and graces but the key to good citizenship, and possibly even the survival of the species.

It’s an extravagant claim but one that deserves serious consideration. After all, while the world will probably survive the demise of dedicated flounder forks, it may not be so lucky if each of its guests continues to behave as if they are the only one at the table.

- originally published in The Australian on 29-05-2008.

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