The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 27, 2000
Your Option

Saying goodbye to good manners
By Taru Bahl

BASIC politesse, regardless of social stature, is an essential lubricant which oils the wheels of daily inter-personal contact. This contact may be in office, at a party, at home or in the street. Even the most cynical of us would admit that a sunny smile or a cheerful hello has the power to put one in a positive frame of mind. However, standards of good manners and pleasant behaviour have noticeably deteriorated.

There are increasing instances of road rage without provocation. It isn’t uncommon to see people who have just been introduced getting into heated arguments and marring the bonhomie of a gathering. A rash of cases of drunken driving, making obscene gestures, jumping red lights, overriding a pedestrian crossing, violating traffic rules, blowing one’s nose, spitting out paan juice and defacing public property are some of the things we do without a moment’s regret. Ironically, the same people maintain impeccable cleanliness in their own homes and feel offended if anyone dares to question their authority.

  In fact, gentleness is being replaced with harshness, tact and discretion with outspokenness that borders on insolence, polite conversation and an amiable countenance with a stony silence. Flaunting an attitude is suddenly in and literally translated it means, "the more unconventional I am, the better is my outer image. This is the way I am, if you don’t like me you are free to stay away." This attitude, which has scant regard for others’ sentiments, legitimises every unsociable conduct in the rule book.

Rudeness, it is said, is a weak man’s imitation of strength. Many successful people allow the trappings of glory to go to their head. They lose touch with reality thinking nothing before making thoughtless, indiscreet and hurting remarks. In spite of having ‘made it’ in financial and material terms, they don‘t ‘have it all’. In other words, their happiness quotient is low.

Socrates believed beauty to be a thing that "slips in and permeates our souls." Courtesy is one such beautiful ingredient. In a similar vein, George Eliot, seeing the amount of pain people inflicted on not just strangers but on their own loved ones, asked with anguish, "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other ?"

Politeness, gratitude, concern, graciousness and cooperation may not have the potency to resolve life’s tough problems or to unravel conflicting dilemmas, but they do permeate the heart with love and warm feelings. This could make the person feel worthwhile as feelings of loneliness and depression get erased. Even psychologists say that the rate of attempted suicides would be much lower if there was someone who could talk to the disturbed person and alleviate his distress. In more than 50 per cent of such cases, the suicidal feeling passes.

Today, with time being at a premium and families guarding their personal time fiercely, the worst casualty have basic courtesies. No one has the time to be just nice. Why accompany a friend for shopping when you can sit at home and watch a favourite sitcom? Or why make a grieving aunt feel better by making frequent trips to share her grief and loneliness when you make just one cursory visit?

With the disintegrating social order and the apathy of the system towards the individual and vice versa, there is an increasing need to redefine the basis of behavioural protocol. The Services are perhaps the only place where protocol is still strictly followed. Most civilians, in fact, look down upon the "subservient" manner in which the junior officers "Sir" the Commanding Officer and ‘Ma’am’ his wife.

Sociologists and psychologists have for long been talking about the far-reaching implications of the breakdown in social values and the non evolution of alternative systems. The yawning gap between personal norms of behaviour and set social etiquette is also increasing. Our domestic life, irrespective of social and cultural status, is governed by an elaborate code of behaviour. Modern lifestyles may have brought about greater transparency and more open and informal communication but there still are some basic unwritten laws. Some of these are: a younger brother giving respect to the elder one, a new bride trying to learn the family’s customs without superseding the elder sister-in-law, a son avoiding smoking in front of his father and touching the feet of elders.

For some strange, inexplicable reason we have been unable to transfer this courtesy code to the public sphere. Whether it is the courtroom, the railway booking counter or the clerk in the minister’s office, there is an undercurrent of non-cooperation, critical disdain and a lack of enthusiasm. This makes the other person feel immediately ill at ease.

These lack of norms for daily social intercourse can prove to be damaging to the moral and political fabric of society. This also undermines our ability to work cohesively in any field of national importance. These undefined standards of inter-personal behaviour in the home, workplace and street are major factors which lead to laxity of norms in institutions. They corrode people’s faith, which, in turn, contributes towards making the world that much more unpleasant.

We have often seen a direct linkage between success and brashness. It is like getting a license to be rude, self-willed and hurting. But true leaders at home, in school, in business and even in the army are invariably courteous. They are tough, but fair. The dictionary defines manners as deportment, conduct and civility. Manners include more than just what happens at the dining table or at an official farewell function. It is a complete mental make-up which accords the person across genuine respect. It acknowledges that while brute force bends, fair argument convinces. It believes in sincerely appreciating and praising. A courteous person thinks twice before making an unsavoury remark. And if he has to, it is inevitably he does so with great tact and gentleness.

A courteous person knows how to move from the authoritarian to the authoritative, from the dictatorial to the collaborative, from angry outbursts to a more sensitive approach.

In John Adair’s book, Effective Leadership, there is an ‘instant’ short course on leadership which goes like this : "I admit I made a mistake". The five most important words are "I am proud of you". The four most important words are, "What is your opinion?" The three most important words are "If you please", and the two most important words are "Thank you". Lastly, but most importantly, the single most important word is "we" and the least most important word is "I".

Leaders, who are winners, and who actually lead by example and inspire people to emulate them, are always gracious. They may be tough taskmasters but they never brag about themselves. They respect and appreciate their colleagues and opponents. They belong to that rare species which knows how to be successful and, more importantly, how to handle success. They realise that while winning is an event, being a winner is a spirit. A winning spirit is one which facilitates the individual’s spiritual journey. It takes him towards the capacity to recognise and utilise the gifts of grace which comes to the person who has assimilated the complete meaning of courtesy, gratitude, sincerity and compassion.