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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Do manners matter?

I was having an early dinner the other night at a fairly upscale restaurant. At the next table were two young mothers, one of whom had two children, aged maybe six and four, and accompanied by a maid. They had all finished their dinner and the mothers were having a good gossip session, leaving the kids to the ministrations of the maid. The youngsters were obviously bored and started fighting, while the maid was having a hard time pacifying time. Their mother, busy talking to her friend, was either oblivious to the noise they were creating or chose not to do anything about them disrupting the nice ambience around them with piercing shrieks and shouts.

I always maintain that good manners are taught, they don't come naturally. I can't rave enough about the Japanese, how they keep their mobile phones on silent mode when in the bus or train, don't talk on the phone or speak loudly to each other. Their children are the same, and even Japanese teens are well behaved on public transportation or in fast food restaurants. They can only have been trained by parents and teachers.

Manners are not just about knowing which fork to use or how to butter a roll. Nor do I think that  the more educated, sophisticated or wealthy have better manners. I've seen the really rich being despicably rude to their staff. And I've also seen really tough looking teens on the train who gave up their seats to the aged.

In the past, civilized folk developed behaviors that showed kindness, respect and fairness to others. Children learnt how to behave properly along with reading, writing and math. Unfortunately today, everyone is in a hurry and parents are stressed. In the rush to cram in studies, extra curricular activities , sports and whatnot, manners may be left out or forgotten. Members of the family don't sit down together for a meal, or worse, are each glued to their respective mobile devices.

Children learn by example. They are aware when a parent cuts into a queue at the supermarket without a word of apology. When the grown-ups leave their table at a fast-food restaurant clean rather than messy. When Dad curses at another driver on the road, or tosses rubbish out of the car. When parents yell at each other. It's amazing how easily tiny tots pick up on these seemingly innocuous modes of bad behavior.

Those who know me know that I am a huge fan of tennis superstar Rafael Nadal. While there may be other players more in form, more talented or powerful, there is no one out on the courts who is better behaved. He is unfailingly polite not only to his opponents and officials but also to lowly ball boys. Reading his autobiography, I was struck by how his uncle/coach instilled in him lifelong lessons in showing respect and kindness. Once they went to the restaurant in their hotel they were staying at and found out that the establishment required diners to wear a jacket and long pants. Rafa was in shorts and the restaurant manager would have made an exception to the rule because of his status, but Uncle Toni made Rafa go and change into more suitable attire.

Whether I'm at the bank, in a store or service, my experience is always made more pleasant by a smiling face and a quick hello. What I get more and more often nowadays is a blank stare and surly answers to my questions. While staff training definitely plays a role in how these young people behave, I can't help but wonder what kind of families they grew up in. Most Asian communities having a saying that when a person is being rude, he or she is "badly brought up", which is an even worse insult than being merely rude, because it implies that their parents did a bad job.

I do like it when people say please and thank you, whether it's heartfelt or even when it's just chirped thoughtlessly. Because it means that respect is given and kindness displayed. In these days of tweets and selfies, when people care so much about what other people think of them, don't you think that manners matter?
The Ugly Malaysians

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