Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Minding your manners in a modern world


If modern life is a battlefield, then everyday etiquettes are the mines hidden across it, many laid where you least expect them. So why, asks Greg Dixon, do people not tread more carefully?

Whatever happened to people showing considerate behaviour? Photo / Thinkstock
Whatever happened to people showing considerate behaviour? Photo / Thinkstock

When I discovered the Facebook page called "I Secretly Want To Punch Slow Walking People In The Back Of The Head", I felt I'd finally found my tribe.

And what a whacking great tribe it is, too. The last time I checked there were 22,029 people who, just like me, had made the not-so-secret declaration that they wanted to wallop dawdlers, stragglers, idlers and sluggards in the back of the scone because, well because they should get the hell out of the way.

Though of course we never would, wallop them, I mean. However, knowing that I was not alone in fantasising about giving slow walkers a clip was almost, though not quite, a consolation for having to weave my way around these blankety-blank people every single day of my life. But why should I have to dodge and sidestep around people who aimlessly wander our streets like feckless zombies? Should it not be the slow walker who makes sure he or she is not obstructing people walking at a normal pace? Of course it should be.

But we no longer live in an age where that central social courtesy - consideration of others - is done as a matter of course.

Where once manners, or at the very least the payment of lip service to manners, helped lubricate the clunking cogs of civil society, we have descended into a netherworld of plebs and trogs who believe they've got the "right" (real or imagined) to do whatever they damn well want, but fail to comprehend that their rights are always balanced with a responsibility to others.

Which is probably why some bugger, with no care for the rest of us, keeps stinking out the work cafeteria with something awful they've heated in the microwave. Or another who - and there is no pleasant way to relate this - doesn't wash his hands after using the urinal.

But these are just a few unpleasantries in a whole wide world gone mad.

The cellphone is an infernal machine. It makes calls, it sends text messages and apparently it allows its user to disdain common courtesy in favour of impoliteness.
People shout into them at restaurants so that fellow diners might be kept up to date with how a complete stranger's kids are doing at school. They yell into them on buses so that their fellow travellers might know how plastered another group of complete strangers were last night. They stand in backyards bellowing into them so that neighbours in the next street know that, yes, this complete stranger is going to a barbecue in Waihi at the weekend.

People will put a cellphone on the table in front of them and will, with no compunction, answer it while you are addressing them. They endlessly and absent-mindedly fiddle with them while you are addressing them. They will desert their cellphone and let it ring and ring and ring. Only it doesn't ring, it plays some godawful tune over and over again.

Of course, making noise - actually not noise, more a pointless but unbelievable racket - is one of the chief ways the socially retarded identify themselves to the rest of us: the loud stereo or television played at all times of the day and night, the leaf-blower on a Sunday morning, the excessive car exhaust noise.

Partly this is to do with the arrogance New Zealanders have about their home being their castle. It seems to be a common view that one can do whatever one wants on one's property. This is true to a point - the point being the boundary line. One neighbour's "right" to make as much racket as they like ends at the boundaries where their next door neighbours' right to a bit of piece and quiet begins. However, taking a walk down any street at any time of day will tell you that every street has at least one person who just doesn't get it.

This is major, but there are many more minor breaches of common sense courtesy and etiquette that we are all forced to deal with everyday. A small straw poll of colleagues yielded complaints of people chewing gum loudly on buses, not standing aside when paying cash on a bus to let card-users aboard, people who position themselves wrongly at street crossings so that they cut people off, people serving at tills who neither say "please" when they ask for the money nor "thank you" when they receive it, people who don't stand to the side of escalators to let others pass, people (men mainly) who stick their elbows into others' seat space on planes, trains and buses, people who toot their car horns repeatedly as they drive off, people who block your exit or entry into a lift, people who make no effort to move around others while walking on a busy footpath, cyclists blocking the exit on harbour ferries ...

The list has no end. But does the problem, I wondered? I decided to consultant an expert.

Her name was Emily Post. And, though she is now long dead, her famous book Etiquette is still in print and includes the sage observation that "one true test of good etiquette comes when grace and poise are challenged by inconsiderate behaviour ..."

Post, of course, was born in another century, the 19th. She died in 1960, so she had no idea that the inconsiderate behaviour one might now have to put up with includes people whose earpods bleed godawful music or people texting during a movie.

However, Post's extended family, who continue to update and publish her masterwork, have, in the new edition, addressed both these common modern complaints. They say you shouldn't do such things.

And that is the inherent trouble with such a guide. It might be very good on table manners, on who does what at a wedding and what to say in a letter of condolence, but it is preaching to the converted. Only those who have an interest in the subject (presumably to the value of $55, the cost of the book) will actually come into contact with Post and her family's sage observations and wise advice on, say, whether it is rude to use your BlackBerry during a business meeting (it is).

So it is undoubtedly a forlorn expectation that those who have difficulty, say, remembering to thank the bus driver as they get off at their stop are likely to mend there ways any time soon.

So what is Post's advice for dealing with inconsiderate behaviour? She is of the view that it is not your job or mine to correct a stranger's behaviour.

Besides, she says, we shouldn't take such behaviour personally and that it is often best to laugh it off.

Well that's easy for her to say. Me, I think I'll start a Facebook page.

* The 18th edition of Emily Post's Etiquette ($54.99, HarperCollins) is in stores now.

- NZ Herald

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Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Canvas deputy editor Greg Dixon has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for the New Zealand Herald and North & South and Metro magazines. He has been deputy editor of Canvas since 2008 and has won awards for his writing and editing, but would have preferred a pay rise.

Read more by Greg Dixon

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