Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Revisiting Manners (DECENCY)

True story. Last night after a short run [212 KCal] I headed towards the internet station at Virgin Active. This was just a few minutes before the whole place was supposed to close. And once again, before I headed into the change-rooms perhaps one terminal was being used. Once out, they were all full.

This time I waited on the balcony section overlooking the pool. I noticed a mother standing over her little boy -perhaps 6 or 7 years old - at one of the terminals, presumably telling him to wrap it up. I waited a little longer, then feeling a bit awkward, approached the little guy: "Mind if I have a few minutes on the computer?"
He was half sitting on his chair, and now he turned: "What?"
I repeated the question. He still didn't seem to understand, but slid off his chair and went away.

I started making my way to Facebook . I'd last checked my messages about 2 weeks ago because exactly the same schpiel as now had repeated itself each time: the stations suddenly, unexpectedly filling up just before the final bell. So as I'm getting down, the boy's mother leans over the stations guard rail, eyes blazing:
It's stern enough to elicit a reponse from people on either side of me. All three of us point to the sign that says:
Adults have preference at Internet Stations...

She skulked away, while I commented to the young lady on my left: "Jeepers, it's banned at work, it's like impossible just to check your Facebook, because there's a rush to do it at gym too. thanks for backing me up..."
But I still felt aggravated. Why do we need signs to remind us of our manners? I felt aggravated, hurt, annoyed, insulted, burned - and all because this woman didn't know her manners.

If it's already not clear, let me explain. If you're visiting friends, and it's time to serve up the braai, adults generally get preference. They get preference in terms of where they sit, and in terms of the food they drink. They often get preference in terms of cutlery and crockery (plastic plates and cups) too. You don't serve small children wine, or the choice cuts of meat, and they don't sit at the head of a table. Not because children are unimportant, and not because we don't love them. The reason is in part practical home-based functionality, but also, importantly, to show our respect for adults.

In the same way if you're visiting your pals, or colleagues, and the kids want to watch Cow and Chicken, Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the adults will ask the kids to go and watch in another living room, or ask their children to go and play somewhere else; anyway, it boils down to the fact that adults don't get to play all day, and when they get together to watch something like say, the Rugby World Cup match, or Survivor, it's a special occasion. And special occasions require a bit of personal sacrifice. You might dress up, you might try to behave, and you might want to think about your manners (at least until the beer

In a public space like a gymnasium, where adults will try to get some exercise at the end of a long day before they go to sleep, yes they should be allowed to use the equipment and facilities that they pay membership fees to. This particularly includes access at 9:30pm (when small children ought to be in bed), or at any other time.

What concerns me is that some people need signs to remind them of their manners. I know we forget about our manners because advertising encourages an I WANT, ME-ME-ME mindset. As it happens, there is also a sign in the station area that goes something like this: Sis Man, we don't want you guys watching Porn on these computers. Once again, cursory reminders like these remind me that as a society, we have lost our way, and need signboards to remind us to think about other people.

Reminder: Stop Thinking of Yourself

As it happens, the gym also asks people to guard their belongings, because some people, when they do think of others, it's to take what they don't have for themselves. And then there are also reminders not to urinate in the pool. All these are done slightly tongue in cheek, because it's a top end gym, and naturally, somewhat embarassing that one has to stoop to these common sensical measures. But I don't doubt they are necessary. I'm just pointing out that it points to how disgusting, rather than how decent, society is becoming. Even at the 'top end'.

That's not really a debate, it's obvious. In South Africa, divorce rates, domestic violence, crime and corruption and all the rest are the order of the day. We top quite a few disgusting lists, and we're at the bottom of other lists rating things like quality of life and transparency.

You might think a mother arguing with a man who has just bumped her kid off an internet station is juvenile and petty. Actually, it's not. Because the subtle message she conveys to the child who will be a man some day (one hopes), without knowing it, is that some people can be respected and others not. Strangers are unimportant, and some adults are only to be respected in special cases. Since the three of us set the kid's mom straight, the child is already experiencing a conflict, a confusion about what good manners really are.

In short, manners are about respecting people. Whether we know these people or not. And whether these people particularly deserve our respect or not, it's good and proper to be respectful. It's what we'd like from others, and it's up to the individual to integrate how deeply important these ordinary virtues become. In the end, our capacity to respect others begins with how much we decide to respect ourselves.

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