My eldest son was unimpressed when, as a small boy, I insisted that he gave up his seat on the bus. He argued strongly about how unfair it was that children were viewed as second class citizens and how adults should be well able to stand on their strong legs.
Safety wasn’t such a priority then and standing in the central aisle of a bus was commonplace. It was also a time when it was almost automatic that a child would offer a seat to a woman or an elderly person, more a matter of expectation than choice.
In school, children stood up when a visitor walked in and were well tutored in how to behave in every situation. Since I was a child, times have changed and some of the formal approach to manners is a thing of the past. However, I think there is still a place for the little social pleasantries that make life easier for those around us and that oil the wheels of social interaction.
St Francis de Sales is known as the saint of courtesy and the gentle word. The kindly Bishop of Geneva was a man who practised great delicacy and tact in his dealings with others. Known for his friendliness and cheerful outlook, St Francis made a point of never ignoring those who others viewed as ill-tempered or boring.
He chatted and acted graciously towards everyone, understanding that good manners and civility go hand-in-hand with being Christian and practising the virtue of charity.
His quiet and gentlemanly way seems far removed from our present time with its emphasis on being ‘loud and proud’ and the centre of attention. I think parents can contribute to this by focusing too much on building self-esteem and confidence and playing down qualities like humility and a sense of service. In school and at play, bigger and better seems to be what we’re aiming for and the child who is self-assured and extraverted is often held up as the ideal.
The quiet, shy child who’s kind-hearted and amicable might not stand out in the crowd but they possess what C.S. Lewis called “the poetry of conduct” which always aims to put others at their ease.
I grew up in a pretty lively household where you soon learnt that, if you wanted to get a word in edgeways, you’d have to hone your debating skills and talk louder.
Every family has its own unique way of communicating but, whatever your family style, there should be a common thread of love and support for each family member. The same applies in our schools, colleges and workplaces. There’s a lot of talk in recent times about political correctness and how the constant habit of taking offence is stymieing conversations and changing customs and traditions.
I’m worried about the other extreme where rudeness, vulgarity and nastiness have become the order of the day particularly on social media. Parents, who are normally very concerned about their children learning some basic good manners, have to address these new trends and offer some guidelines.
I always tell my children never to say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want to be on the record for the foreseeable future. Something that sounds smart or funny when you’re 14 or 15 years old may not look quite as good in the eyes of a prospective employer.
As Christians who are trying to live according to the golden rule of ‘treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself’ cruel jibes and name calling online are not reflecting our faith and beliefs. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is quoted as saying: “Let no one come to you without leaving better and happier”.
This is the key aim when striving to be well mannered. It’s not really that important if you mix up your fish knife with your steak knife or if you put your elbows on the table, but true charity demands that we do care about people’s feelings.
I remember my mother telling me all about an aunt of mine who went to what was termed ‘a finishing school’ in Switzerland. I thought it seemed very old fashioned and stuffy, but I’m now seeing some of the positive aspects. In these days of focusing on empowering children and self-development, why are good manners still so important?
Possessing good social graces automatically helps to create a more pleasant atmosphere around you. In a world that often seems unconcerned with the spiritual, our children will have little hope of evangelising if their manner is brusque and aggressive.
St Francis de Sales knew that, in the words of the Disney song “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”.
A person with a pleasing manner is attractive and creates a good impression. They’re viewed as more approachable and trustworthy and make friends more easily. One sympathetic and genuine conversation with a companion who listens to what we say is worth a hundred diatribes.
A compassionate child who is learning to consider the needs of others is well on the way to becoming the sort of adult who, like Jesus in the Gospel, stops to talk to the stranger and the confused. The little seeds sown in showing mutual love and respect may be the first steps on a journey of conversion that would never happen in a hostile or uncaring environment.