Manners. It’s an old-fashioned word for a modern problem. Everywhere you look, from the House of Commons to Twitter, it seems that rudeness is acceptable. Moreover, being bad-mannered appears to have little consequence. Nevertheless, my personal view is that knowing how to get your message across politely is a beneficial skill.
Now when discussing manners, I don’t mean those depicted in a period drama. For example, in Jane Austen’s novels social etiquette is weaponised to keep people (especially women) in their place. As headteacher of an independent all girls’ school, I believe the complete opposite. At Godolphin we empower our students to realise their own potential and work hard to achieve their ambitions. Nobody should be limited by other people’s expectations.
Therefore, what do I mean by manners? Well in Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, the social anthropologist Kate Fox writes: “Every social situation is fraught with ambiguity, knee-deep in complication, hidden meanings, veiled power-struggles, passive-aggression and paranoid confusion.” With this definition in mind, manners help us to successfully navigate the complexities of social situations.
“If you’re rude to someone, they will likely be rude in return.”
In other words, etiquette is about adopting the right approach for the right moment. If you’re rude to someone, they will likely be rude in return. Likewise, if you’re polite to someone, they’re encouraged to be pleasant in their response. Good manners demonstrate that you recognise that other people are human, not machines, and that you care about how your behaviour impacts them.
In the age of social media, everybody wants a voice but this shouldn’t be at the cost of decency. It’s understandable why there is so much anger online, because many groups are being seen and heard properly for the first time. Nevertheless, until everybody treats everyone else respectfully, then we can’t hope to make the world better.
“Schools have a duty to help students understand that people think differently.”
People will always disagree and this is not inherently bad. Actually, constructive debate can lead to new discoveries and even social change. However, this only happens when people stop shouting insults and stirring hatred. Good manners acknowledge the right of a person to believe and share views that other people may find disagreeable.
Schools have a duty to help students understand that people think differently, appreciate cultural differences and learn to “play gracefully with ideas”. The benefit of creating a tolerant and accepting environment is that students feel they belong to one diverse community. In addition, students feel safe to discover themselves and pursue their interests. A school cannot claim to have a caring ethos, unless the culture partly depends upon manners.
However, like all other aspects of education, we need parents to actively support schools with manners. At home, every time a child is reminded to say “please” and “thank you,” they’re made aware of how a decent adult behaves. Not only does this create a template for their own behaviour, but it teaches them to recognise when others fall short of this standard.
“A school cannot claim to have a caring ethos, unless the culture partly depends upon manners.”
Sometimes teachers make mistakes, including myself (yes, that’s now in print). We’re often busy trying to accomplish dozens of tasks simultaneously. As a consequence, we might accidentally send blunt emails, and then are taken aback when the recipient replies curtly. We can easily forget that the email might be the only interaction that person has with you, and so understandably they notice any frustrations and presume they’re the cause.
This highlights the importance of adapting manners for the modern world. Technology has made it easier than ever for us to communicate, but we often focus more on the message and less on the tone. As I was often told as a child (usually after doing something wrong), it’s not so much what you say but how you say it. Having good manners reminds us to be mindful of other people’s feelings, and to anticipate how they’re likely to react to our message.
Manners are probably considered outdated by many people, but I don’t think this is the case. If you ask young people how they want to be treated, they will often reply “with respect”. How can you possibly show someone respect without good manners? Perhaps we need to find a new word that’s more relatable, but the value of manners remains.