Sixty years ago most adults and most organizations were insistent on teaching good manners to those coming after them. The teaching was direct and indirect. It was direct in the sense that parents and teachers instructed their charges on how to behave and corrected them if they did not. The teaching was complemented by pamphlets and books on general behaviour and on etiquette for particular situations, like parties, celebrations, dinner at a restaurant, and so on. It was indirect because one’s social environment would shame those transgressing the long established modes of behaviour. But rules or manners of behaviour (we are talking about good manners) were not pointless or inhibiting. To the contrary.
Good manners are fundamental to a free and equal society. They show consideration and respect of our fellow citizen, and oil the transactions between us, both in informal and formal occasions. They are part of the order that guarantees social and political freedom. Edmund Burke said the following about the influence of manners – settled modes of behaviour – good or bad.
Manners are more important than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or sooth, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize of refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.
First Letter on a Regicide Peace, 1796.
The other equally important aspect of good manners is the self-respect and dignity they maintain in the individual. To carry out those signs and gestures that convey kindness, respect, and consideration to those around us enhances our self-respect and gives us a dignity that is not dependent on the good opinion of others. Good manners lead to a refinement of attitude and behaviour that guard us against the degrading, coarse, vulgar behaviour that is an insult to others and a restriction of their freedom.
Those of us that were brought up when good manners mattered look on the degrading behaviour on occasions like the Melbourne Cup with dismay and sadness for what Australian society has lost. Perhaps all is not lost. Ann Usher of a more recent generation wrote a timely and appropriate piece in the Daily Telegraph. She opened with the headline:
Ladies, you are an utter disgrace
To the young women who mounted rubbish bins, vomited into paper bags, urinated in bushes and crash-tackled their friends at Flemington yesterday, I have just one thing to say: Ladies, you are an utter disgrace.
Where is your sense of dignity?
How could you consider it appropriate in any way, to behave as some of you did?
Your classless antics don’t just reflect poorly on you. They impact every single Australian woman — and how we are perceived in the eyes of the world. Read on