Once upon a time it was unthinkable for anyone not to say ‘sorry’ for any inconvenience caused, howsoever minor, or a thank you for any favour. Social interaction was punctuated by graciousness and charm and to say 'please' came easily. Cut to the present, all courtesies and graces have gone with the wind and what has replaced these is crass and loud behaviour that is taken as a sign of confidence and 'honesty.' 'Take me or leave me' is the attitude and be it the in-your-face rudeness or a refusal to even acknowledge favours politely, leave alone expressing gratitude, has seemingly become socially acceptable. Why and when did this changeover from polite social behaviour to pushy crassness occur?
Liberalisation, and the consequent going 'global,' fostered a result-oriented approach to life. It was a transition from humility to self-recommendation. As a student of history, Keshav Kumar puts it, "Social conduct is bound to suffer when meeting targets, (professional or social) becomes an end in itself." Corporatisation took its toll on the niceties that defined social mores. Modesty was no longer a virtue but a sign of weakness and if you were polite it meant you were a pushover. You were the best and the world better know it even if you yourself had to proclaim it loud and clear. Assertiveness gave way to aggression (often needless) as the children of the 1990s navigated their way through choppy waters of liberalisation. The means mattered no longer. It was the end that was important and no one bothered how you reached there as long as you ‘arrived’ successfully. The American way of life was here to stay with its attendant brashness and premium on success.
The lack of consideration for others, of which good manners are only a symbol, is also reflected by the "me-first culture". In this approach, the ‘other’ does not deserve care or consideration. This is the consequence of fewer role models and also the flux in society where there is a breakdown not only of the extended joint family but also of the nuclear family. There is also more emotional turbulence than ever before as roles are being redefined.
Besides, the transition wrought about by changing norms and lack of parental guidance, it is as Monika Singh, a Chandigarh-based clinical psychologist says, "The changing social structure and lifestyles that are responsible for the lack of good manners. It is also the belief that polite people are weak and stupid and being manipulative is being smart."
What sort of etiquette can one expect from those who have their eyes glued to a screen and ears blocked by headphones, ask those who bemoan the loss of graciousness from social life. They are of the view that self-absorbed youth have scant time or regard for niceties. They will talk animatedly to those not present, ignoring all norms of personal interface. Why blame the kids, it is not as if their parents are behaving any better.
Mobile etiquette requires using the instrument sparingly and in a discreet manner. It is not supposed to hamper social conversation and family interface and it can definitely not be a substitute for meeting the person personally. Ms S Kalha, an educationist, who retired as Principal of the Government College for Women, Chandigarh, feels that bad behaviour is a direct result of the cult of materialism that defines modern-day life. She bemoans:"This fosters an attitude that allows individuals to take everything for granted. All that lent beauty to existence has been edged out. Rudeness to parents and grandparents and even to servants is neither questioned nor admonished."
We might have aped liberally from the West but it is not always the best and it is this improper and flawed process of assimilation that is to blame. Kudrat Kahlon, who makes documentaries for international channels, is of the view that a nation known for its reverence is going through a strange identity crisis in the face of globalisation. "We are embracing ‘etiquette’ from the West but selectively. We are adopting individualism but not dignity of labour. We are going in for commercialisation but without business ethics," she rues the fact.
There are others who feel why should we exalt good manners which are more of an artifice. For someone like Tushar Sharma, a business executive with a multinational company, the emphasis on manners is misplaced and "a relic of the Raj". Perhaps the changing codes are more indicative of the fact that we have lesser baggage and are more comfortable in our skins than the preceding generations ever were. We are neither rigid in the use of language nor respect hierarchies as did our parents.
For a society in flux, the traditional caste system, at least in the urban areas has been watered down with the trappings of wealth, status and clout (acquired any which way) have replaced basic courtesy.
If one were to look at it historically, the stress on manners can be traced to the French and English Baroque. These were an expression of behaviour that was practised within the court so there was a class difference at play. What was acceptable behaviour acquired an aspirational value for the lower classes. As an academic puts it, "With the change of social order too much of politeness either as a norm or as an acquired trait became redundant or even parodic." Perhaps it is the process of democratisation which contributes to the erosion of courtesies and what can be termed "the old-world charm."
Genteel behaviour and respect for people and property presuppose a degree of affluence and even leisure. Looking at the rat race and the strapped-for-time individuals more at ease with expletives, swear words and road rage as they push and shove literally, verbally or metaphorically, it is not difficult to imagine how graces have vanished from life and living. They could not have survived in such a set up.
According to Reet Singh, Director (HR) gP Sourcing,, the lack of good manners observed in society in general is no doubt a reflection of the situation found within the home. Without parental example and training in the area of manners, it is likely the children will sadly lack in displaying these. She rues, "The same can be said of the lack of morals we find in many of today's youth. A large number have grown up with little or no respect for authority, for property, for family or even for themselves."
However, more than just a facetious expression of etiquette wherein you pull out chairs, open doors and bow or say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’, it is the ability to put people at ease, irrespective of social inequalities, that defines good social conduct. In a story by Anton Chekhov, a landlord invites a lowly peasant for dinner. The latter slurps over the soup and allows it to dribble over his shirt. As the master storyteller writes, the lack of manners was not the 'uncouth' manner in which the peasant was drinking the soup but the manner in which the so-called noblemen were staring at him. The underlying mantra is to accept people as they are and put them at ease to make life even in the fast lane more bearable, if not beautiful. How does one do it? That is another story.