Manners in Public
Where to begin?: “good morning,” “thank you,” pushing, and shoving—among
Dreadful, dreadful—let’s rave on like Archie Bunker, such fun! It’s frightful out on the streets. Surely a new Ice Age of bad manners is coming? There are the litterbugs, the pushers and shovers, the bellowers, the swearers—and that’s just a start.
What about this dreadful episode? The other day, Matt Lawson, forty- three, assistant financial director of a company that publishes trade magazines (Dumper Truck Today is a big seller), held the door open for a nice, middle-aged, vaguely spinsterish woman as she was coming out of a department store in Peterborough, a delightful dormitory town for London, and, would you believe it, she stalked straight through the door as if there was nobody there?
Matt says this happens all the time, not just in Peterborough but also in London, where he works. “It would be nice if they said thank you,” he says, “but what can you do? That’s how people are.”
In the genteel cathedral city of Worcester, a similar thing happened. Some ladies failed to thank someone who had waited for them to come up a narrow stairs. In Manchester and London, standing in line for the bus has been abandoned in favor of a dog-eat-dog approach.
Mrs. Gibbs, eighty-five, lives in Winchester; her husband, a solicitor, long dead. “I don’t want to seem old-fashioned,” she begins, “but I’m sorry to say, people are in such a hurry. All these mothers with one child in a stroller, several more rampaging about. They’ve got no time to take any notice of anybody. People hold doors open for me, that kind of thing. They can see I’m an old woman. But the other day I thanked someone and he grunted in this peculiar way as if to say, ‘That’s enough of that. I’ve done you a favor, now clear off!’ Not terribly charming.”
And what about this? One of those van-type vehicles in which celebrities are conveyed was once seen parked outside a tailor’s in Spitalfields, a very desirable newly yuppified district of London. A rumor, unconfirmed to this day, went round that David Beckham was being fitted for a suit. The van was assumed to be unoccupied except by the driver, but imagine the excitement when the back door slid open and a jeweled hand, clutching a Coke can and associated sandwich wrappings, emerged into view, sank graciously toward the gutter, and there deposited the can. Could this have been the hand of Posh, glamorously littering the streets?
What shall we do with them? Horsewhipping? Boot camp? National Service?
Well, it may not be the end of the world, but let’s admit it, we’ve all got something, some discourtesy that occurs in public, which we find absolutely infuriating.
It’s no good resigning yourself, like Matt, or apologizing, like Mrs. Gibbs. You’ve got to do something, especially if you’re one of the millions who complain about antisocial behavior. You can’t expect the police to attend every time someone drops some litter or raises their voice.
The good old British “keep your head down and don’t make a fuss” approach has had its day. Not that it ever really was that. Nothing may have been said, but the accompanying withering looks were full strength and top-notch in quality. Actors would have given anything to achieve such silent power. But nobody today is going to take any notice of a look, however withering.
•If you hold a door open for someone or wait to let them pass and they don’t thank you, say loudly, “Thank you so much.” In extreme cases, you can pursue them and say, “I’m so sorry. Did you forget to thank?” Don’t be put off by an abusive response. If enough people start doing this, the message will get through.
•If you’re the person not thanking, you probably don’t mean any harm. You’re just not awake.
•Always say “Good morning,” “Hello,” or “Hi” to shop assistants, receptionists, and so forth. The French do this without thinking about it. In some places, you’ll be met with astonishment or bewilderment. Don’t be discouraged. It’s the right thing to do.
•If there’s no line for the bus, just a mosh pit, it would be nice to think that enough people would band together to do something about it. But they probably won’t. Nevertheless, there are other ways of making a fuss. Write to the local paper, complain to the city council, the bus company. Don’t listen to people who sneer at the British and their eternal lines, or queues. Queues are fair and just. They’re worth fighting for.
•In a crowd, few follow the example of the late Bubbles Rothermere, who would beat the back of anyone in the way with her tiny fists. But many have a policy of massively increasing speed and whacking everybody else out of the way. This isn’t very nice but is less easy to resist. They’ve usually disappeared by the time you realize what has happened. Protest charmingly—“I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize I was in the way”—if you get the chance. Or just don’t get out of the way. Stand your ground and see what happens.
•If you see someone dropping litter, pick it up and hand it back to them. “I think you dropped this.” It sometimes works. If they turn nasty, say, “It’s quite all right. I’ll throw it away for you.” Then make a run for it.
In public places there are two sorts: ones who are unaccompanied, ones who aren’t. Neither are quite as they should be. “I was in the newsagents only last week,” says Mrs. Gibbs. “Two little boys, both under ten, rushed in making an awful noise, barged in front of me, and shouted at the shopkeeper, ‘Give us some chewing gum.’ I wasn’t going to stand there doing nothing, I can tell you. I said, ‘Stop that racket, wait in the queue, if you wouldn’t mind, and when it’s your turn you might try “please” and “thank you.” ’ The shopkeeper and the one other customer in the shop were horrified. ‘You ought to watch out,’ they said, ‘they might have had a gun.’ I couldn’t believe it. What nonsense! Three adults in the shop and two little boys, and the only person who wasn’t afraid of them was an old woman of eighty-five!”
At the airport, setting out with a party of ten for a villa holiday in Majorca, Zoe Miller, twenty-five, just starting out in PR and a graduate of the University of Kent (one of those subjects that are hard to explain), was fed up with “all these parents who seemed to think the departure lounge was just a big playpen for their children. One of the fathers was making the most noise, pretending to be a roller coaster or something.” Zoe is rather against children in general, which Mrs. Gibbs isn’t. But perhaps Zoe has a point. It probably wasn’t just thoughtlessness, either. Many parents now like to make a conspicuous parade of their parenting, and what better opportunity than the departure lounge?
Did she do anything about it? She is shocked. “Oh, no. That wouldn’t be right, would it? I’m not a busybody. It’s just my personal opinion that they’re annoying.”
Zoe’s not thinking straight. She’s being too nice. It isn’t “just my personal opinion.” She’s got a fair point. A public space is a public space. It isn’t for one special interest group to take over.
•If unaccompanied children are behaving inconsiderately in public— making a lot of noise, dropping litter, cutting lines—intervene if it is safe to do so and you are likely to get somewhere, in other words if there is a majority of adults present.
•Speak firmly but politely.
•Most children, even “well-brought-up” ones, will take advantage if they sense that adults are afraid of them.
•Most “antisocial behavior” is perpetrated by children and teenagers. If adults won’t step in to put a stop to minor outbreaks, it isn’t very surprising that some young people will graduate to more advanced forms.
•Parents of small children: It may be difficult to keep your offspring amused, especially if waiting in a public place, but try to show consideration for others. Once, at a rather serious concert, I sat in front of a child who had been supplied with a rattly teddy to keep her occupied for the duration.
•You’re more likely to get people’s backs up if your underlying attitude seems to be that your child has a right to rampage about. If you are apologetic and make some attempt to restrain, you will get a more indulgent response.
•If you are exasperated by unfettered children (for instance, strange child actually crawling over you in a café; mother looking on, waiting for you to coo admiration), you’re going to have to say something. Don’t be relativist; don’t think, “Who am I to tell others what to do?” Stand up for what you believe in!
Get a move on: atms and checkouts
“Why don’t people know how to use a cashpoint machine?” Zoe asks, referring in her strange British way to an ATM. In the queue, she becomes impatient. But she is not quite herself near an ATM anyway—so many anxieties about lack of funds. She’d rather snatch the smallest sum she thinks she can get away with and run. Which is why, in the supermarket, she is often holding up the queue paying $6.78 on her debit card and annoying people like Matt, always in a hurry because of family commitments. If you probe deeper into Matt’s soul, you’ll find that he does sometimes wonder why so many people stand for twenty minutes in a line at the checkout and still haven’t got their money ready.
•Try to achieve technical mastery of the ATM. If there is a line, don’t go on and on trying to make it give you money when you know quite well your account is empty. If you have a complicated transaction, apologize to anybody you are keeping waiting.
•Perhaps one day, in supermarkets, there will be a queue for people who have got their money or their cards ready.
•To speed things up, hand over your card as soon as all your goods have been scanned. Don’t wait until you have finished packing them.
•Don’t keep everybody waiting while you spend hours devising some gargantuan Dewey decimal system for packing your purchases.
Munch as you go and what’s that smell?
“Don’t get me wrong,” says Mrs. Gibbs. “I wouldn’t want to go back to the old days, when you got a withering look for sucking on a throat lozenge in Woolworth’s. But this eating on the street does seem to have got out of hand. People are working their way through whole hot dinners.”
Perhaps she exaggerates just a little. But Zoe, young and carefree, is frequently to be seen on her lunch hour waving a plastic fork in one hand and holding a tinfoil tray full of carrot salad in the other— with not a few bits of carrot trailing on the pavement behind her. Others wield enormous doorstep sandwiches and rolls whose contents are a challenge to control.
Then, on the trains and buses you see people tucking into fish-and- chip dinners, curry suppers, sweet-and-sour pork, spareribs. London Transport thought there was enough of a problem in 2004 to launch an anti-smelly-food poster campaign featuring an Italian-looking man hung about with salamis and bits of Parma ham. This caused grave offense. The Italian ambassador was obliged to point out that these foods are not smelly.
Be that as it may, eating on the hoof isn’t very good for you and shows the minimum of respect for food. But that’s not the point. The old-fashioned idea that it just wasn’t dainty to eat in public might have been absurd, but:
•The sight of people gnawing on huge filled rolls or trying awkwardly to eat chop suey from a tinfoil tray while walking along is rarely attractive.
•If you are struggling to eat this kind of food on the street, you are very likely to be in the way.
•In enclosed spaces, some people will think that what you’re eating smells horrible.
•Good walking food can be chocolate, ice cream, lollipops, modestly filled sandwiches.
•If you want a picnic, why not find somewhere to sit down and have it properly?
May i have your seat?
Some years ago, as an experiment for a TV program, researchers trawled a railway carriage asking if they could have people’s seats. In the majority of cases, the answer was yes, sometimes even though there were empty seats all around. This was supposed to prove the innate tendency of human beings to obey orders. “I wish I’d known when I was younger,” says Mrs. Gibbs. “It’s all right now that I’m unmistakably ancient, but when I was in my late sixties and we lived in London, I’d be desperate for a seat sometimes, struggling back from John Lewis [this is a very worthy British store, rather like Bed, Bath and Beyond] with ten new pillows.” But she didn’t like to ask—in fact, she wanted to be offered—so she didn’t get one. The same thing happens to others, most notably pregnant women. In this case, would-be givers-up of seats dread making a mistake—offering a seat to someone who’s just a bit stout. London Transport has identified this as a serious problem and plans to issue pregnant women badges reading, “Baby on Board”—but not everybody is so keen on this idea. On the TV news, they tried out the badges and found they worked beautifully.
By and large, people who might give up their seats seem to be paralyzed with embarrassment.
There is also the vexed question of seated children. The thinking today is that they are to remain enthroned at all costs. Is this right? “It’s annoying when some little tot’s got a seat and I have to stand,” says Zoe. But can she be relied on, being generally antichild?
•Some older people may not look it, but they may still need your seat (if carrying a lot of shopping, generally appearing at the end of their tether, and so on). Give it to them.
•Don’t let anxiety that they will feel insulted (“Do I look that old?”) hold you back.
•If you think a woman might be pregnant, give her your seat. If you’ve made a mistake, it won’t matter. After all, she’ll never know why you gave up your seat, and if she’s got any sense, she’ll be glad to get one even if slightly insulted.
•If you need a seat badly and nobody is offering, ask. Of course, it would be nicer to be offered, but at least, if the results of that experiment are anything to go by, you’re quite certain of success.
•On the whole, we should give up our seats more often.