Deborah Lindsay Williams talks about manners, common courtesies and how they provide an index on society's attitude to power and powerlessness
Are common courtesies in terminal retreat in society?
During the school holidays earlier this month, we had a viral outbreak of the rudeness flu at our house. Each child took turns pushing the boundaries of conversational disrespect in his own way, and then being absolutely shocked when the other one misbehaved, as if such behaviour were beyond comprehension. I’m not sure which was more aggravating: the rudeness or the attempts to curry favour by becoming (temporarily) “the polite one”.
We had several different strains of insolence-itis: There was the eyeroll-and-sigh syndrome, in which nothing actually gets said, thus slightly insulating the eye-roller from the ire of the eye-rollee. We also had backtalk fever, the symptoms of which are statements like “no I didn’t, you did”, or “you don’t know anything”, or my personal red flag, the succinct and disdainful “duh”, frequently coupled with the eyeroll-and-sigh manoeuvre.
Unfortunately, I remember all too well my own eyerolling days, when my mother knew nothing and I knew everything. I also remember that my smarty-pants attitude stayed, for the most part, within the confines of our family. I would never have dreamed of behaving towards other grown-ups the way I did towards my parents. (OK, I dreamed about it, but I rarely did it.) My children point out that they would never talk to someone else the way they talk to me, or to one another. That fact comforts and depresses me, simultaneously. Is it too much to hope that they’d manage to be respectful of both family and strangers?
A long time ago, as a senior in college, I had a summer job at a convenience store down the road from school. One morning a group of students came into the shop and while I don’t remember what they bought, I do remember the disdain in their voices as they ordered me around. You can imagine their surprise when I was introduced later, at a college event, as the recipient of an academic prize: how could I be a student at our rather elite college and someone who worked in a convenience store?
Last month I saw another version of this same attitude, when an attendant in a nail salon asked a woman’s children to please leave the reception area (where they were jumping on the couches) and go sit with their mother, who was getting her tootsies pampered in another room. The oldest of the children, a little boy about six, refused to budge each time the attendant asked and then said “you can’t tell us what to do.” I looked up from my magazine and said, “I can tell you what to do,” with my best aggravated-mommy stare. The boy tried to outstare me, but I used to be a high-school teacher, which is a bit like surviving a war zone: the boy and his sisters slunk off to the other room.
That little boy, and the girls in the shop all those years ago, are but two examples of behaviour we’ve all seen everywhere: rudeness towards those who are perceived as being inferior simply because of how they look or where they work. When children behave this way, their behaviour becomes a kind of mirror that reflects the fissures running through society.
In recent months, The National has run a number of articles about legislative efforts to improve the situation of low-wage workers in the UAE. Certainly passing and strengthening labour laws are important steps but unfortunately, laws alone won’t change behaviour. If that were the case, then no one in the United States would smoke and no driver in Abu Dhabi would break the speed limit. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: which comes first, changing the behaviour or changing the law? You could argue it either way, but I suspect that children who grow up thinking they can be rude to anyone different from themselves won’t end up paying much attention to fair labour laws when they become adults.
My eye-rolling, duh-saying children would call me a curmudgeon, and perhaps that’s true, but I’ve decided that manners – extending basic courtesies to one another – offer an index to society’s attitudes about power and powerlessness. That’s why if I had to choose, I’d rather my children be rude to me than to a shop assistant. A shop worker can’t fight back, but I can, and my children bend to my will pretty quickly if their screen time is threatened. So the next time someone says “mind your manners,” pay attention: the fate of society, in some small way, depends on your “please” and “thank you”.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi