‘Manners maketh the man’…this pithy dictum was impressed upon us by the nuns at the convent school we studied in, whenever they wanted to emphasise the importance of proper etiquette and good behaviour. To be quite honest, this attempt at making us all ‘miss goody two shoes’ wasn’t always popular, and in our own little ways we would at times rebel against this ‘manners-oppression’. But all that mischief was of a different time, a different generation. There was a line of decency which one never crossed. Somehow along with the ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and other such polite gestures, they also managed to instill in you a respectful acknowledgement of the rights of others, a sense of fair play and of doing the decent thing.
Today, in our cities as you increasingly encounter offensive behaviour, a rude indifference towards the elderly, a push and shove attitude in markets and public utilities, as you overhear loud conversations peppered with the choicest of expletives even among school-kids, you wonder if ‘good behaviour’ has become a relic of the past. And i don’t mean just those superficial mannerisms we all set such store by. There are plenty of examples around of confidence tricksters who use their charming ‘gentlemanliness’ to dupe others just as there are people who may seem uncouth in their behaviour but have a kind, generous heart under all that rough exterior. Manners cannot be a cloak for selfishness, insincerity and unkindness. Good behaviour has to be governed by good ethics…a simple enough principle that says treat others the way you expect others to treat you. The problem today is most people follow only one part of that rule…’just do unto me as i want’. Perhaps it’s the stressful lifestyles we lead that is the cause, or perhaps it is the outcome of the constant struggle to survive in an extremely competitive environment or even the excessive consumerism we are exposed to…the fact is that we are becoming increasingly self-centred and this gets reflected in our interaction with others as ‘bad behaviour’. And then there is also the fact that disagreeable conduct is more likely to get you media-fame than your decency ever will! A student had once given me another insight when she shared her teenage-misgivings over how others tend to view ‘decent, gentle behaviour’. According to her, very often others think of it as a sign of ‘weakness’ and consider her to be a ‘doormat’, and so she was struggling with the dilemma of how to be well-mannered with the right amount of aggression!!
Perhaps that middle path is where some solution lies. They say basic human values, values that form the basis of ‘man’s evolution from savagery to civilisation’ never change, their outward manifestation may do so. Underlying ethics of good behaviour remain constant in all cultures. So the motto which William Wykeham gave to the two English public schools way back in the 14th Century still holds true. ‘Manners’~ in the wider sense of decency and compassion towards others~ still makes us humans and prevent society from falling into a heap of savagery.