Mrs V Ross, Head of Woolcock House
For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them. (More, 1516/2010)
In the fourteenth century William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England, proclaimed ‘Manners maketh man’. Manners — politeness, etiquette and charity — are the basis of our society; they are what give us our humanity. Understanding and following the rules of social behaviour and demonstrating respect and consideration towards others enhances our relationships and helps our society ‘work’, but these values are under pressure.
We are much more time-poor, sleep-deprived, stressed and anxious than previous generations. This is both caused and exacerbated by the fact that communication and technology have transformed life in recent decades. We now have no time to be bothered by nuisance telemarketers, everything is abbreviated, and it is quicker to send a text than to have a face-to-face conversation. Has there been a collapse in civility? Is being rude becoming more acceptable? Now, at the end of semester — when teachers are scrambling to meet reporting deadlines and tired students are finishing their last pieces of assessment while longing for the upcoming break — is perhaps a good time to reflect on the importance of good manners, treating each other well, and teaching our children and students these social competencies from their infancy.
Manners and etiquette, of course, are not set in concrete. They evolve and adapt as society does. Men no longer kiss a woman’s hand when introduced or offer to lay their jacket over a puddle so that she might avoid dirtying her shoes. The basic principles of good manners, however, have never changed: respect, consideration and honesty. Emily Post, American authority on etiquette early in the last century, once said, ‘Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is the code of sportsmanship and of honour. It is ethics’ (qtd. in ‘Obituary: Emily Post’, 1960).
Research conducted this year by Australian social analysts McCrindle Research indicated that certain traditional manners are no longer as strictly observed as they used to be. Examples included offering a seat on public transport for the elderly, not swearing in public and saying ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’ (cited in Starke, 2013).
Professor Pier M. Forni of Johns Hopkins University and co-founder of the university’s Civility Initiative suggests that ‘we are both ruder and more civil than in times gone by … we are more accepting of people who look different and the disabled, and we have a higher ecological awareness’ (qtd. in Tugend, 2010). On the other hand, our notion of good manners is in decline and this ranges from an absence of deference to authority and age, to a failure to observe everyday courtesies such as greeting a colleague or allowing a fellow driver to merge into traffic (Tugend, 2010).
If our capacity for rudeness is increasing, what effect might this have on our society? Research conducted in the United States over the last decade has shown that many employees leave their workplaces each year because of continued incivility (Tugend, 2010). The study also found that employees were fifty per cent more likely to decrease their effort after experiencing ongoing rude behaviour (Tugend, 2010).
People have always had the capacity to be rude, but the impulsive and impersonal nature of digital communication has increased the potential for miscommunication, and has made it easier to be rude, to friends and strangers alike, with seeming impunity. Long-term friendships are lost due to controversial comments posted online, individuals are embarrassed because of unsanctioned videos and photographs that go viral, and bullies now have the tools to effortlessly and relentlessly harass their victims. Psychologist and professor Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains that ‘we are less inhibited online because we don’t have to see the reaction of the person we’re addressing… it’s harder to see and focus on what we have in common [so] we tend to dehumanize each other’ (qtd. in Bernstein, 2012). There is a feeling that we can say hurtful things about others anonymously online and one consequence of this is the disturbing statistic that half of all young people aged between 14 and 24 have experienced digitally abusive behaviour (Steyer, 2012, pp. 29-30).
Psychologists refer to face-to-face communication as ‘warm’ communication as opposed to ‘cold’ communication such as email and texts (Conyers, 2012). Seemingly, our connections with others are not as deep as they once might have been. People walking around wearing earphones listening to music, children watching videos or playing games on their parents’ iPhones while out at a restaurant for a family meal, teenagers standing around in a group at a party checking their Facebook pages or texting friends who couldn’t come — these are not images of humans connecting.
Children learn the difficult task of interpreting emotions by watching the faces of other people and listening to them closely. It’s hard work and unlikely to happen if everyone is peering at the screens of their smartphones. When we media multitask, we’re not really paying attention to the people around us and we get into the habit of not paying attention and therefore miss other important aspects of communication. (Stober, 2012)
Social media will continue to be the favoured communication form among young people, but this shift may begin to affect their ability to properly communicate in person with their peers (Fowlkes, 2012). To be considerate and respectful of each other, we need to spend time in face-to-face conversations. Indeed, Stanford research conducted with girls aged between 8 and 12 years has shown that girls with higher levels of face-to-face communication showed much better social and emotional development, and were more likely to experience social success and feelings of normalcy (Stober, 2012).
This is not a ‘young people nowadays’ rant; it has probably always been the case that the younger generation has questioned the values of their elders. Dr Helen Wright, headmistress and a leading commentator on education, urges parents to discuss and explore their values with their children (2013). She acknowledges the challenges of having complex, meaningful discussions about values in a world where digital communication seems to promote superficiality and the media usually paints pictures that are black and white, right or wrong. Human lives are complex and our children need their parents’ guidance more than ever before in the superficial world in which they are growing up (Wright, 2013).
There was once a notion of respecting and learning from one’s elders. Now there seems to be a growing perception among youth that their elders have little to offer, simply because they may not know what Snapchat, Instagram or a ‘selfie’ is. Marketing and the mass media foster and reinforce these perceptions, regrettably widening the generation gap (Cupit, 2013). Parents may not have their children’s technological savvy, but they do have a wealth of wisdom to impart that can only come from life’s experiences. The good news is that recent research undertaken by the University of Canberra’s educational institute has revealed that teenagers, perhaps despite all appearances, still love spending time with and talking to their parents (Macdonald, 2013). So it would seem that the opportunity is there to be taken!
In his recently released book, The Good Life (2013), social researcher and author Hugh Mackay laments the way the meaning of the proverb ‘charity begins at home’ has come to be misinterpreted in today’s society. In its most common usage, it is taken to mean that we should first look after our own (family, immediate circle) before worrying about the needs of others — an interpretation Mackay describes as convenient and self-serving. Its original intention was to remind us that children must first learn the lessons of charity — kindness, respect for others, compassion, generosity — in the home. Mackay implores us all to teach our children, right from the beginning, to take the rights, needs and wellbeing of others into account. He warns that, if this doesn’t happen at home, that it may never happen at all (Mackay, 2013, pp. 137-138). Forni asserts that:
When a mother corrects her son for chewing with his mouth open, and tells him people don’t like looking at half-chewed food, she has given him a rule of table manners, but also a fundamental notion of all ethical principles — actions have consequences for others. Good manners are the training wheels of altruism. (qtd. in Tugend, 2010)
One of the key areas of focus in the Year 9 Ethics programme this term has been to encourage the girls to build their capacity for empathy, to put themselves into someone else’s shoes. During the empathy training sessions students have been urged to take the time to tune into others, to interpret how they might be feeling, and to respond in appropriate, helpful ways. These skills, we hope, will empower them to foster positive, respectful relationships and consider the plights of others.
The Brisbane Girls Grammar School community places a great deal of importance on role-modelling and teaching good manners. There is an expectation that the girls will stand aside in hallways to let others pass, that they will be friendly and welcoming when visitors come to the School, and that they will thank their teachers at the end of each class. In the same way, we expect Grammar girls to conduct themselves in a respectful manner in the wider community by offering up seats on public transport, remembering their pleases and thank-yous, and generally acting as good ambassadors for the School. This notion of ‘the wider community’ also extends to their online lives. In their Ethics programmes at each Year level, the girls are taught to consider how they are portraying themselves online and the importance of leaving a digital footprint they can be proud of.
Our world may have changed through technological innovation and its accompanying propensity for informality, but consideration for others will never lose its relevance. Teachers and parents must adapt to these changes and work together to develop our young people’s social skills through positive role-modelling and meaningful conversations so that they may confidently navigate their way through life, building solid, respectful relationships with others.
Bernstein, E. (2011, October 1).Why we are so rude online. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 29, 2013, from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444592404578030351784405148.html
Conyers, S. (2012, June 25). Social etiquette? No, you’re just rude – But is the way we view bad manners changing? Quest Newspapers. Retrieved March 27, 2013, from http://www.couriermail.com.au/questnews/social-etiquette-no-youre-just-rude-but-is-the-way-we-view-bad-manners-changing/story-fn8ygho7-1226405772103
Cupit, G. (2013, April 17). Healthy media consumption – Practical strategies. Presentation at Generation Next: The Mental Health & Wellbeing of Young People seminar, Southbank Institute of Technology, Brisbane.
Fowlkes, J. (2012, October 11). Opinion: Why social media is destroying our social skills. USA TODAY College. Retrieved May 20, 2013, from http://www.usatodayeducate.com/staging/index.php/opinion/opinion-why-social-media-is-destroying-our-social-skills
Macdonald, E. (2013, June 11). Status updated: Teens crave chat with parents. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/status-updated-teens-crave-chat-with-parents-20130610-2o070.html
Mackay, H. (2013). The good life. Sydney: Pan Macmillan.
More, T. (2010). Utopia (G. M. Logan, Trans.) (3rd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. (Original work published 1516)
Obituary: Emily Post is dead here at 86; Writer was arbiter of etiquette. (1960). The New York Times on the Web Learning Network. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1003.html
Starke, P. (2013, March 24). Time poor Australians abandoning good manners. News Limited Network. Retrieved March 27, 2013, from http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/relationships/time-poor-australians-abandoning-good-manners/story-fnet09p2-1226604026976
Steyer, J. P. (2012). Talking back to Facebook: A common sense guide to raising kids in the digital age. New York: Scribner.
Stober, D. (2012, January 25). Multitasking may harm the social and emotional development of tweenage girls, but face-to-face talks could save the day, say Stanford researchers. Stanford News Service. Retrieved May 20, 2013, from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/january/tweenage-girls-multitasking-012512.html
Tugend, A. (2010, November 19). Incivility can have costs beyond hurt feelings. The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/20/your-money/20shortcuts.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Wright, H. (2013, May 31). Why it is important to talk about values in parenting. Retrieved June 3, 2013, from http://www.drhelenwright.com/blog/?p=1032