Would you like a seat?

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.

Flittner in Moorgate, barbers for gentlemen
Flittner in Moorgate, barbers for gentlemen

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.

Copyright © 2010 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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3 Responses to Would you like a seat?

  1. BFG says:

    I and my siblings were likewise brought up to always be well-mannered and it’s not something I ever saw as something to be done reluctantly. Maybe I got indoctrinated at just the right time 🙂

    I noticed the lack of courtesy exhibited by younger folks some 20-odd years ago, but it didn’t affect me directly at that time (I was still in my 30s).

    Now, in my late 50s and with white what’s-left-of-my-hair, I’m on the receiving end of the courtesy here in the US. I have to say that the majority of Californians put we Brits to shame when it comes to politeness. I still can’t get used to being called “Sir”.

    Here’s my take on it: if I can leave someone feeling just that tad better after having interacted with me, whether face-to-face or indirectly (phone, email, whatever), then I feel a bit of a boost myself, which IMHO makes it all good, whether it’s done out of a sense of duty or not.

    That works for me; it might not for others.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I agree that being taught to act in a specific way does not necessarily mean that you perform the learned actions reluctantly. This is especially true when people learn young, because children are generally keen to show adult behaviours. I think too that when you learn a code of behaviour you also learn – in the best cases – the philosophy behind it and that learning good manners can make us more thoughtful of others’ needs.

      The only part of the US I have seen is the inside of Chicago airport and I therefore have no real experience of American manners. We do tend to find Americans rather too “in your face” and loud but, then, they probably find us reticent and slow to make friends.

      I remember in an episode of Star Trek someone remarking on the relationship between Spok and Captain Kirk. She said of Spok something like “He says ‘captain’ even when he doesn’t say it”. I take this to mean that even without giving Kirk his formal title, Spok treated him with respect. One lesson I draw from this is that you can treat a man with respect and good manners without calling him “sir” and, equally, you can address him as “sir” and treat him with disrespect. I consider the American (over-)use of “sir” to be a quaint local habit, and not by itself an indication of a courteous disposition.

  2. aej2 says:

    Interesting discussion. Manners and “polite” behavio[u]r are under attack for two reasons, IMO. 1) Parents/Grandparents are mostly absent from children’s lives these days, so there are no opportunities to teach this lost art; and 2) there are those who feel just as you worried — that they will offend by making the gesture. For instance, many women in the U.S. will now get offended if a man holds a door open for them. “I don’t need you to take care of me, I can open the door myself,” they seem to say. So, do you or don’t you? This confusion makes it more difficult to follow a polite upbringing.

    The comment about Americans being “loud” and “in your face” is such a stereotype, again IMO. Sure, some from Texas, maybe. And maybe some from New York. But you can find loud and obnoxious people in all walks of life. There are plenty of quiet, respectful Americans. I’ve also heard it said that Americans are all fat, too. Again, there are hefty folks everywhere, not just in the U.S. I’m not sure if these stereotypes are caused by American TV shows that air in the U.K.? Or if only fat, loud, obnoxious Americans can afford to travel there, but it’s definitely not representative of the entire United States.

    The stereotypes we hear about our brothers and sisters across the pond are that they are snobby and have bad teeth. Give me a break. I think cultural sensitivity should be taught in schools, just like manners should be taught. We may all be different, but that doesn’t make anyone “better” than anyone else. I’m not saying you’re making this claim, of course, but many people do feel that if someone’s different than they are, they are automatically inferior. They’re missing out on many potentially rewarding friendships by allowing that type of thinking to cloud their minds.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to yelling and screaming at everyone around me while I finish up a big bowl of ice cream with hot fudge and a large pizza, all by myself. /sarcasm.


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