Manners, we are told, are deplorably lacking in the young. Perhaps it has always been, or always thought to have been, the case. One imagines that William of Wykeham, one-time Bishop of Winchester, and twice Chancellor of England, might have thought so. After all, not only did he establish two prestigious seats of learning – New College, Oxford, in 1379, and Winchester College in 1382 – but he bestowed upon them his motto, “manners makyth man”. The two institutions were clearly meant to turn out both scholars and gentlemen.
To be fair to their detractors, young people do seem unable to hold a conversation without constantly checking their phones. “We wouldn’t have behaved like that in our day,” older people insist. Hmm. As the technology didn’t exist then, that’s something we shall never know.
However, according to that great scientific body of empirical research that is my personal experience, young people seem to have far better manners than their seniors. I have never been grabbed by young people and told I am going the wrong way, even though they have no idea where I’m actually intending to go. I have never heard young people tutting and swearing at me for having the nerve to ask if I might be permitted to pass them. No young person has shouted to me through a car window, informing me that I’m a “stupid, blind c**t”, because my cane has come into contact with their vehicle”. I’ve never witnessed young people impatiently snapping their fingers at waiters and waitresses to demand that they hurry up and get a glass of water which was ordered twenty seconds before. The middle-aged and elderly are, unfortunately, rather frequently guilty of these things.
Of course there are rude, obnoxious youngsters. And of course, there are older people for whom bad manners are anathema. But good manners seem to deteriorate with age.
Why should this be? One possible reason is that it’s a reaction to the pandemic. People have, as a result of the various lock-downs, forgotten how to behave around their fellows. I’m not convinced by this, though. Partly because the pandemic has become an easy scapegoat for anything people find disagreeable, and partly because I think it was happening before then. As I said, this great piece of research is entirely based on my own experiences and observations. Well, that methodology was good enough for Freud, so who am I to admit to its deficiencies?
I think that older people have acquired what they deplore in the young – a sense of entitlement. The old believe that the young hold the view that life’s glittering prizes are theirs as of right. And perhaps there is some truth in that perception. Although, to be fair to the young, this sense was nurtured by older people, until it became ingrained. Then it became something to sneer at.
But the old, in their turn, believe that they are entitled to automatic respect at all times, regardless of their own behaviour. This attitude is, of course, nonsense. Were we not all taught that respect should be earned? Longevity, therefore, isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the only criterion for respect.
So, what is the answer? Should we prove our social superiority by resolute politeness to those who are rude to us? Turn the other cheek to cheek, if you will. Or should we fight fire with fire, and give an ill-mannered response to a lack of manners? The latter is certainly tempting. But if the middle-aged and the old wish the young to display better manners, they should lead by example.
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