The test of good manners is to be able to put up pleasantly with bad ones. — Wendell Wilkie
I’m worried about the increasing disappearance — and possible pending extinction — of two critical English language expressions.
Those expressions are (a) Please and (b) Thank you.
Used to be common as song sparrows, those expressions. “Could you pass the potatoes, please?” “Yes, here you are.” “Thank you.”
I can still cast out as many Pleases as I want, but I seldom hook a thank you. Instead I reel in “No worries,” “Sure,” “Cheers,” “No problem,” You betcha,” “Right,” and occasionally “Have a good one.”
Such expressions are hardly hostile, but they’re also not quite as heartfelt or sincere as a simple thank you. There’s an ironic aura of ‘no big deal’ about them. They don’t represent a connection between two people; it’s more like a disconnection.
Lisa Gache, a consultant in Los Angeles has noticed too. She says what used to be common courtesy in civil discourse is on the way out and being replaced by all things casual. “Casual conversation, casual dress and casual behaviour have hijacked practically all areas of life,” she says, “and I do not think it is doing anyone a service.”
Wade Davis, the Canadian anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author and photographer travels the world but when he’s in North America, he says, it’s never hard to tell whether he’s north or south of the border. Just go in the nearest supermarket. In Canada, he says, you usually have eye contact with the cashier and a brief conversation, while in the U.S. the transaction is totally impersonal. You could be dealing with a robot. Davis says it’s a class thing. In Canada, the chances are very good that the cashier’s kids and your kids go to the same school, play on the same soccer team, and live in the same neighbourhood.
Whereas in an American store you’re often dealing with a bused-in, part-time worker from a poorer neighbourhood, working for minimum wage and living in a whole different society. Why would she or he be friendly? Aside from a few bags of groceries on the checkout counter you two have almost nothing in common.
I notice a growing remoteness with the people I deal with in public here in Canada. My partner, who has a way of crystallizing my various melodramas, laughed when I mentioned the Public Chill.
“What do you expect — you’re a geezer,” she said. “That makes you invisible to anyone under 25.”
A retired scientist I know concurs.
“We’ve noticed that the lack of acknowledgement and general politeness isn’t confined to strangers,” he writes. “Neighbours, friends and even spouses of our children seem to have a hard time giving thanks of any kind.”
Maybe it is just a generational thing. If so, there are signs that some adults are getting a little tired of being treated like doormats.
Tom Jordan of North Carolina, for instance, who discovered that his 15-year-old daughter Hannah was cursing her parents out on Facebook, telling the world they treated her ‘like a damn slave’ because they expected her to do chores around the house.
Dad took the laptop out in the yard, set up a webcam, shot the laptop nine times with a gun and posted the video to YouTube for “all those kids who thought it was cool how rebellious you were.”
Now that’s an extreme (and extremely American) reaction to bad manners.
I prefer the approach taken by the famous actress Ethel Barrymore who once invited a young actress to a dinner party. Not only did the guest not appear, she didn’t bother to let Barrymore know in advance, or to account for her absence afterward.
Several days later the two women met unexpectedly.
“I think I was invited to your house for dinner last week,” the young actress said lamely.
“Oh, yes,” replied Barrymore brightly. “Did you come?”
— Arthur Black is a humour columnist and author. He lives on Saltspring Island.