Manners Makyth Man and Woman by Angela Caldin

It was William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, who took as his motto “Manners makyth Man” as long ago as the fourteenth century.  His chosen maxim was fairly revolutionary at the time as it implied that good manners, including adherence to norms of politeness and good conduct are what distinguish someone and make them a rounded, attractive and successful individual.  The words meant that an individual is defined, not by birth, money, or property, but by how he or she behaves towards other people. The maxim seems to have worked for William, because although he was born into a peasant family, after a long and varied career, he ended up as one of the richest men in England.

I wondered what William would have made of the results of a survey conducted two or three years ago, which found that forty per cent of those polled thought that ‘thank you’ sounds too formal and would rather express their gratitude with terms like ‘cheers’, ‘cool’, or ‘nice one’. In New Zealand of course, we have the ubiquitous ‘ta’, which in my youth in Manchester was considered to be a very unrefined  way of acknowledging a favour, even worse if someone chose to expand it to ‘ta muchly’. Other preferred alternatives mentioned in the survey are ‘awesome’ and ‘wicked’ and rather surprisingly ‘much appreciated’. Surely a monosyllabic ‘thanks’ would be simpler than this mouthful of six syllables. Even more out of the ordinary, some people, it seems, prefer to resort to other languages to communicate that they are grateful and say ‘merci’, ‘danke’, or ‘gracias’.

William might have pondered on why people have such difficulty nowadays with those simple words ‘thank you’ or ‘thanks’ which articulate so precisely what we want to say and why they prefer to  employ such apparently casual alternatives. It’s fair to say that at least they are using an alternative and not letting kindness or helpfulness or service go unnoticed. I’ve been thinking about this a good deal in the last few days while trying to encourage my young granddaughters aged 5 and 3 to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ occasionally. Their natural way, in common with most young children I have met, is to say ‘I want x, y or z’ and to accept what they are given without acknowledgment.  It was hard going, even with the promise of a visit to the two dollar shop to inspire them. But I have begun to notice the odd ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ creeping in from time to time, so I’m sure that with the persistence of their parents, they’ll get there sooner rather than later.

It’s true that in other countries, manners take different forms. I was surprised when I first visited Spain to notice how little the Spanish use ‘por favor’ and ‘gracias’ in everyday situations. They’re just not considered necessary and I remember how our Spanish friends used to tease us for being too polite by half for using them all the time. In other countries, other rules apply. For example at the table, things we judge to be rude are considered good behaviour: if you’re eating noodles in Japan, it’s fine to slurp them and some say it makes them taste better; in China it’s good to burp after a meal because it means you enjoyed the food; in India, if you clean your plate, your host will think the meal didn’t satisfy you so you should leave a little food to show that you’re well-fed.

But we have to live in the framework of the manners of the country we live in. Emily Post, the well-known American writer on manners and etiquette, gives an interesting definition of what constitutes good manners: ‘Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.’ Her point is that good manners are more about attitude to others than empty etiquette. Courtesy, kindness and respect for others are the key values. I would only take issue with Emily on the matter of the fork, and suggest that respect for others should include finding out about customs in other countries before we visit them and risk causing offence by applying our own standards rather than those of the country we’re visiting.

Where do good manners come from? As we all know, they have to be taught as well as absorbed from the example of all those around us. It is parents who mainly have that huge responsibility, but it’s up to all of us to stick to a code of good manners so that it remains the norm, because children copy what they hear and see around them.  It’s not a quick fix either, it’s a daily commitment over many years, gently persisting, encouraging and reminding. But once inculcated, good manners lead to a genuine awareness of the other person and a lessening of the natural selfish impulse that motivates us all on some level. They contribute to a true sense of gratitude and the courtesy which goes with it. They make life more pleasant: a warm greeting instead of a blank stare, a goodnight with real feeling, appreciation for the meal provided, a little note to thank for a favour done; all these things oil the wheels of life and make others feel appreciated. I wonder if it’s even possible that those with good manners are liked more by others; wouldn’t you rather have polite children round to your place than those who have no manners? And in the workplace, isn’t it more pleasurable doing business with courteous colleagues rather than those whose cut throat attitude makes your nerve ends jangle?

It’s been said by some that good manners are a sign of weakness and that being polite implies a kind of passivity that is a flaw, not a strength. Rudeness is perceived as a kind of assertiveness, as a way of getting on in the world and promoting one’s own concerns, particularly in the workplace. This view seems to me to boil down to selfishness which will always detract from the aspiration to be a rounded person who respects the feelings of others while at the same time pursuing their own concerns. Good manners do not rule out ambition and aspiration. Empathy and awareness of others are likely to lead to better relationships, successful careers and increased self-confidence.

That all brings me back to the alternatives to ‘thank you’ identified in the survey mentioned above and to conclude that they all bring with them the same genuine sentiment as the conventional two words. People, especially young people, have always invented new ways of saying things and these new forms enrich the language rather than detract from it. So next time someone says to me ‘cool’, ‘cheers’ or ‘awesome’, I’ll be glad, because in their own way they’re showing gratitude, respect and courtesy. And I think William of Wykeham would agree.

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