Whatever happened to ‘Thank you’?

Lubna Abdel-Aziz, Tuesday 26 Nov 2019


Why are we not raging as we watch the slow death of good manners in our society?

Simple courtesy, cordiality, civility, let alone chivalry or grace, where have they gone?

It is obvious that less and less people acknowledge any act of politeness or kindness? You hold the door for others to pass, you help lift a package, or give a tip to a valet, no exchange, no eye-contact, no nod, no smile, certainly no “thank you”. Has anyone lately given up a seat on a bus for a lady, a handicapped or an elderly person? Once upon a time it was almost a reflex action.

Our reference is by no means to etiquette or old-fashioned traditions of “high tea” or “ballrooms”. We have been accustomed to manners for centuries. Searching for answers is a mixed bag. Several books are devoted to “tech manners”. Imagine. No books to read, no conversation with parents or friends, no social graces. Parents are blamed for not instructing their children, but they themselves are guilty of the same behaviour.

Brits, famous for their civilised culture and genteel manners, are rapidly abandoning them, according to a recent survey by Sky Atlantic. “Ladies first” is on the way out — 47 per cent are happy to drop “please” and “thank you” and most shocking of all is 33 per cent believe being rude is beneficial — it gets you noticed.

What a weird, wired world we live in.

Is it progress to drop common courtesy? Life is too short; no time to waste, the screens are waiting. The big screens, the medium screens and the small screens have played a major role in eroding manners.

What is on the menu of TVs, smart phones, IPads and the like? Strange creatures pop up to kill, destroy and mutilate: aliens, dinosaurs, monsters, vampires, robots, terminators, and the walking dead, it is all so inhuman. Even the few human you find are either criminals, addicts or psychos using such foul language no ears should hear.

How can we be subjected to all this and not lose part of what makes us human?

Nietzsche dreamed of an “uberman”, a superman, a being above human. What we have now is closer to subhuman.

Some researchers blame it on the culture of the “Brave New World”. Yes, the US. Everything American the rest of the world wants. From blue jeans to hamburgers we borrow and we boast. It has become a vicious cycle of incivility, and where it will lead to, no one knows.

That was far from the idea of the early settlers of this new world who struggled and died in search of freedom, the freedom of worship not the freedom to abandon a modicum of respect for basic decency.

 However, if truth be said, long before the rapid growth of technology and social media and the like Americans created a great country and aided in the progress of our modern civilisation. We ride planes, trains and automobiles, we have been to the moon and Mars, we have become so sophisticated, so advanced, so busy, how can we have time to say thank you?

Despite all the arguments that America has contributed to the decline of respect, the fault lies with us. We choose to adopt what we please, for there are virtues we choose to ignore.

Americans themselves have preserved a fine tradition of giving thanks. They have exhibited respect for their forefathers and for their history. For centuries they have devoted one day a year to give thanks for their new-found home which they created from the wild into the greatest power on earth.

That deserves our respect. Why did we not choose that humble tradition of giving thanks for the blessings received that year? Canada borrowed the idea, but none other.

America’s famous Thanksgiving Day is held on the last Thursday in November. It is a happy day. Work and worry are put aside and love and warmth are shared with family and friends. Churches hold services and offer a meal to those who have no families, the poor, the lonely. Generous Americans invite strangers from faraway lands to share their day.

Kitchens are busy with several helpers, laughter and chit-chatting is endless, family members travel miles to be with their loved ones and enjoy the traditional feast. It may not be identical to the first Thanksgiving feast, but turkey and pumpkin remain the stars, as they did in 1641.

The first Thanksgiving took place 400 years ago in what the immigrants called New England. The first dreadful winter killed the crops and several women. It took three years to have a good harvest and great rejoicing: The governor declared a three-day feast to give thanks. The native inhabitants joined in and offered venison and plants. The men hunted a native fowl, they called turkey, and the pumpkin was boiled, but still delicious. They raced and played games and enjoyed their bounty. Everyone was thankful.

It took many decades before the first national Thanksgiving proclamation by George Washington in 1789. It took a one- woman crusade, Sarah Josephine Hale to set a day for it. Abraham Lincoln chose the last Thursday in November and Delano Roosevelt declared it a national holiday.

Why have we not adopted Thanksgiving instead of hip-hop?

Can we at least preserve the “thanks” in Thanksgiving?

“The human race has improved everything except the human race.”

 Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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