Whatever happened to good manners?

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 16 Aug 2022


Are we to say good-bye to “please” and “thank you” forever? We seem to be hearing them less and less.

Do you miss the good manners of “back then”, when gentlemen opened car doors for ladies; when the young gave their bus seats to seniors; when it was natural to help the elderly cross the street or help lift heavy bags for a stranger?

It is true that manners and customs change with the times. What is normal for one generation, may look silly and useless for the next. However, are there not certain basic human instincts of respect and kindness towards our fellow humans that we should always preserve?

Psychologist Catherine Findley says “It’s the civility in our behaviour that identifies our character.”

Where is that civility now?

Columnist Michele Gordon refers to a research in The Wall Street Journal that “people are being defined as ‘ruder’, possibly because our lives are more stressed and pressured.” Always on the go, there is little time to spare for courtesy or civility, though they cost nothing.

Another problem may be that people have different expectations of behaviour. Younger people have distinct and atypical ideas about manners that often seem bizarre to older people. We need to be attuned to uncommon views, shocking as they may be. It is our problem that we expect the same from them manners from them when their world is so different.

Manners change. Rudeness always stays the same.

The British Psychological Society released a report in 2016, indicating that people might just perceive rudeness differently nowadays. The truth is that with every generation there are complaints about manners going downhill.

The sudden switch of genteel manners of the 19th and early 20th century is somewhat shocking, since manners usually take a long while to change as drastically as they have in this century. Does the fault lie with us?

Some 74 per cent of Americans believe “we have become more rude and less critical of behaviour we used to scorn.” As revealed in a 2018 survey, patients like to be called by their first names by their physicians, it shows familiarity and ease, but how do their doctors feel? “Hey there Phil, my…”

Rank, age, and position must be recognised at all times.

What is allowed on television today would have been unheard of 50 years ago. Is it TV that is changing manners or is it merely imitating life?

John Kasson, a cultural historian believes that “manners manifest the political, economic and social realities of their time.” Do we look up to our leaders and icons stars and follow them?

Kasson believes that the women’s movement brought many rapid changes, followed by the cell phone, Internet, social media and all communication devices.

Modern technology developed so fast it has outrun etiquette, manners and any code to adhere to, so it is a hodgepodge of bad behaviour and a mélange of unfamiliar words, habits and manners introduced in our society.

Rules and etiquette of manners have been part of the human race for more than 4,500 years. Manners are rules that govern social behaviour and goodwill. They vary from culture to culture, but in essence, they follow the adage: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Etiquette, often confused with manners, refers to a code of behavior, a structure within which manners can flourish. It requires effort and dedication. Manners are simply polite behaviour, in a more general sense.

Because of rampant bad behaviour in the streets, schools and home, more people are clamouring for better manners. We need to save our civilisation, before we slide back into primitive cavemen of the Stone Age.

How to eat, how to dress, how to address, how to behave in a cultured manner, how to nurture compassion and politeness are the basic elements of any given civilisation.

Why are we running around with torn jeans and flip-flops as if they were the essence of glamour because Americans are doing it?

It is good to borrow the best that other cultures can offer to boost our own, not the worst manners of behaviour, language and habits.

Abandon the cursing you hear often enough on TV. Does your family not tell you that it is foul and unacceptable?

We are truly discussing the decline of the family unit which need not necessarily be conflicted with manners or basic human decency. We do not wish to blame parents but we are beginning to realise how most of our behaviour stems from that dinner table. Most social life occurs there, throughout the ages.

Etiquette: Who could afford this arsenal of silverware except the very rich? What if you leave a couple of forks or knives untouched? No longer are those rigid codes structured to distinguish the rich from the poor — an exercise of early discrimination and dominance.

It was at the family table that we learnt not to chew with our mouths opened, not to use our smartphone, how to wipe our mouths regularly, use our cutlery properly, engage in an interesting conversation with family members, show them how much we care.

Manners remain largely unchanged, or should be.

Etiquette may be considered sophisticated and worldly, but the kindness, politeness, and sensitivity towards others are lasting good manners that become part of you and serve you well in all social circles.

Perhaps then, “please” and “thank you” will be heard more often.


“It is almost the definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicted pain.”

 John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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