The Mad Momma had an interesting post on children and good manners some time ago. It made me reflect on my own attitude to manners. Being a parent often forces you to take a stand on stuff you could be neutral on as an adult.

I have never been very good at everyday courtesies. Maybe because as a kid I was extremely self conscious, few things came naturally to me, I over analyse everything. So I was the kind that would cross the street if I saw someone approaching who I’d have to wish ‘good morning’ or rehearsing frantically in my mind the exact moment I would utter that good morning, often resulting in me fumbling through it. Weird, I know.

I also questioned many of the courtesies imposed on me by my parents, such as going around a room at a party greeting every adult with a kiss on each cheek. Yech! I particularly hated having to say goodbye to people when leaving a party; often everyone was preoccupied in their own conversations and you had to really speak up to be heard, not something that came naturally to me.

As an adult, I’m bad with my please and thank yous. Don’t blame my parents for this; they enforced it but I think I outgrew it. I don’t know when I just dropped those words. I began to feel self-conscious about them too. I began to feel that they sounded trite. I would use them only in special cases of extreme gratitude; otherwise I would use my tone of voice to convey ‘please’ and skip ‘thank you’ unless I felt there was something to be really thankful for. Like I wouldn’t necessarily say thank you if someone passed the butter. However, lately I have realised I may be falling too much onto the brusque side and so I’m making a conscious effort to say more please and thank you. If for nothing else, as corporate speak.

On the flip side, I don’t notice the absence of these courtesies in other people. In fact, I am happier off without them. I find the propensity to wish every stranger you encounter on the street the time of day in Western countries a bit bizarre. In the US, I noticed shop assistants say ‘have a nice day’ to each customer; the mechanical way they say it completely creeped me out. In Hong Kong, they are compelled to say ‘bye bye’ in a singsong voice when you leave a shop; I find this extremely silly and feel sorry for the shop girls.

On the whole, Hong Kong falls into the strictly practical side of customer service. In the average restaurants, waiters don’t come up beaming with pleasantries; they just come, take your order and bring your food. Sometimes they smile. The same is with the small shops, where you might buy your snacks for the day or whatever. It’s nice if they smile, but I don’t really care if they don’t. And I sometimes don’t notice if they do.

The difference is if you are a regular. If you are a regular, then you’ll get a smile, they’ll remember your order, if it’s not too busy a time, they’ll try to make conversation with you even you don’t speak the same language. I like this because it’s genuine. It’s based on a relationship. I can do without the casual courtesy.

Where I insist on so-called good manners is when it has a practical imperative. Like giving up a seat to an elderly person, disabled people, pregnant women, anyone carrying a small child. I don’t believe in men holding doors open for women (I won’t object if they do), but I do believe in people not just letting go of a door once they’ve walked through it but holding it for a bit so that the person behind them doesn’t get slammed. I believe in holding the elevator for someone who’s rushing for it. I believe in helping people cross the street if they need help. Basically, I believe in keeping my eyes open as far as possible to whether other people need help and offering that help if they do, even if it makes me self-conscious.

So how far will I school Benji in good manners? I suppose please and thankyous – I’ll have to school myself first – not because I believe in them myself but because they are part of the language of society, kind of like pronouncing things correctly. And I’ll prod him to greet people who are right there in front of him and who address him, but not necessarily everyone in the room. Mostly, I hope I can teach him to be kind, compassionate, sensitive to the needs of others and with that rule of the thumb, other things will fall in line.

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