Alex Phillips: As society rapidly evolves in unprecedented directions manners are becoming weapons of abuse

We need to talk about manners

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Good manners cost nothing, goes the old adage.

Well, if that’s so, perhaps the contrary is true? Bad manners cost something. But what?

It may seem a light topic, but the inherent importance of social mores, cultural norms and idiomatic customs are the very stuff of community, cooperation and integration. They are a collective’s shared identity and system of rules. They are the unwritten instructions of being part of the pack. Those that break or bend them could face ostracism through being feared subversive or have their actions read as aggression. Queue jumping or bumping into someone without apology probably instigate more fisticuffs than most other acts of impolitic behaviour. Etiquette found wanting can bust big business deals, unceremoniously end first dates, lead neighbours to war, render rabid road rage, justify expulsion from public venues, fan the flames of family feud and erode multicultural cohesion. Anybody who has spent extensive periods in exotic climes will doubtless have an adage or two about not being au fait with local lore, with sometimes less than comedic consequences.

Yet courtesy, manners and etiquette are often relative, rarely immutable and ever evolving. Gone are the days when Ten Commandments put the world to right. With myriad creeds, sects and religions, many maxims today clash and collide.

Technology has also revolutionised our interactions, and with it, expected patterns of comportment. What ARE the established protocols of a mass Zoom meeting? Who decides? Social media apps update regularly to address novel expectations of perceived correct behaviour. WhatsApp brought out the feature to opt out from blue ticks marking a message as read, allowing the user to bypass having to navigate ill established unwritten rules on how long is appropriate before a response should be given. Sliding into DMs on Instagram, the three date rule becoming an archaic trope of the 90s and going Dutch in an egalitarian age recalibrate historically different societal expectations of men and women. Even pandemic politesse on whether to mask or not to mask shows that manners are a living, dynamic currency used around the world to shore up societal cohesion and maintain order. Without them, mankind is reduced to a primitive and pugnacious beast.

These customary ticks, observed as herd mentality and pack behaviour in the animal kingdom, are utterly crucial to our rubbing along nicely as a social species, and yet are chronically under-analysed despite forming universal expectations of shared modes of communication that are imperative to understand, without being told.

As all generations regard the world through new perspectives, as society permits a broader gamut of sexualities, creeds and cultures confined within the same garrisons, it is important to human harmony that somehow, we do find commonality over conflict.

When you come to think of it, manners are the magic dust of harmony in any troupe, tribe or team, the essential sugar needed to make interactions palatable, not poisonous. Yet as society rapidly evolves in unprecedented directions, they are becoming weapons and objects of abuse. What is behaving in the proper way? It would help if we all sang from the same hymn sheet.

Today, we really need to talk about manners.