When I was a kid in Brighton, my mother was very insistent that I show good manners in all my dealings with her and with other people. For example, when we walked along the street together, I always had to take up position on the outside, nearest the kerb. I was never very sure as to the reason for this, though someone once told me it was because in Victorian times, when the city streets were muddy, the gentleman walked on the outside to shield the lady’s dress from mud splashes. This somehow didn’t seem very relevant in the clean streets of Brighton.
When we got off the bus, I always had to get down first and lend my arm to support my mother as she got off in her turn. Not that she was infirm; in fact, she was fit and active almost to the very end of her life. It was just something that a gentleman was supposed to do, like letting the lady go through the doorway first or remaining standing until she was seated.
Then there was that other important social grace: on the bus, or in the waiting room, if all seats were taken, I must always give up mine to lady or indeed to any adult. According to my mother, this was how a gentleman behaved.
These practices became second nature to me and for many years of my adult life, I would still spring to my feet on the bus or the tube if I saw a lady or an elderly person without a seat. As time passed, however, I did occasionally wonder how I would feel when, one day, some young person would get up to offer me a seat. Would I reject the offer as an insult or accept it gratefully?
I began to think that the situation would never arise because as time passed, good manners seemed to disappear from the face of the earth. Today there is nothing unusual in seeing schoolkids lounging in seats on the bus while a heavily pregnant woman or an elderly person leaning on a walking stick remains standing. This is not only a question of manners; it also indicates the inability to appreciate the difficulties of others and the lack of sufficient compassion to make a small gesture to help them. This is what appals me about the current generation: not so much the lack of good manners – since manners have always varied across communities – but this stony-faced lack of concern for others.
My opinion of today’s society changed somewhat when I had my first bout of back pain. This was sufficiently severe to cause me to hobble about with a walking stick. I was taken by surprise at people’s reactions. Hardly had I bought my walking stick when I dropped it in the street. As I stared helplessly down at it, an elderly lady dashed forward, bent and picked it up for me. She handed the stick to me with a smile and hurried on her way without waiting for any thanks.
Then there was the bus driver who waited patiently while I hobbled across a busy road to the bus and then climbed painfully aboard. He dismissed my apologies for keeping him waiting with a amiable word. (I also remember that several cars stopped to let me cross.)
During my bus travels, several people jumped up and offered me a seat without waiting to see whether I would find one without their help. Quite often these were young people, a fact that surprised me after my experiences as an observer, and made me think that things were perhaps not as bad as I had thought.
There is, of course, another side to the question. When as a child – and later as an adult – I gave up my seat to the elderly or the infirm, I did so because this had been drilled into me. If I was tired or wanted to go on reading my book and stayed seated, I would feel guilty and imagine everyone was looking at me and wondering why I didn’t get up (even though some of these supposed critics were younger and fitter than I!).
In other words, if we act out of courtesy, we are following some sort of code of conduct, like stopping the car at the red lights or removing our hats as we go into a church. We are not acting out of compassion or fellow feeling but because we feel we must behave in that way, whether we want to or not.
Perhaps if the old ideas of courtesy and manners die away, leaving us free to behave as we see fit, we can concentrate on being compassionate and helpful to those in need. Perhaps, then, if I give up my seat in the bus to an elderly person, I will be doing so because I see how difficult it is for him to remain standing in a jolting bus and how much better it will be for him to sit down. I will not be observing a code of behaviour but acting out of fellow-feeling. That, I think, would be better for both of us because I will be acting willingly and not grumpily doing “what I am supposed to do”.
Then again, you cannot have society without conventions and “manners”. We need to know what to expect of one another in our daily interactions or uncertainty and suspicion will be the inevitable result. Some minimal code of behaviour is essential or our world becomes unliveable.
Knowing where to draw the line is the difficult thing.