‘Are manners dead?’ asked a 2012 Wellington newspaper article, quoting the opinions of concerned observers who felt that standards had declined. 1 It cited various instances of modern-day bad manners, such as not assisting elderly people with heavy bags, not holding the doors for other people, sending curt emails and tooting at drivers who accidentally stall their cars.
‘In my young days’
The tendency of the older generation to deplore the manners of the young was something that was noted by a writer to the Christchurch Press in 1904: ‘In my young days (for alas! I am now a grandmother), the same old parrot cry was raised by the then old people towards us young ones, “Things were not so in my young days. Such doings would not have been tolerated when we were children”.’2
An age issue?
Some people clearly saw it as a problem mainly among the young, blaming changing child-rearing practices. According to them, not only were parents less inclined to insist on standards of behaviour, they had less time to teach manners to their children. Former Wellington College headmaster Harvey Rees-Thomas commented ‘Society has changed. It doesn’t know what it believes, and young people drift.’ 3 Chef Annabelle White blamed the demise in family dining for the diminishing appreciation of table manners, conversation and related social skills.
Others disagreed. One woman claimed that those most guilty of speaking on cell phones while being served in shops, for instance, were ‘self important middle aged men and yummy mummies after school drop off’.4
Not dead but different
Another viewpoint is that manners have simply become different – certain behaviours, for instance some of the more arcane aspects of table manners, have become obsolete, but new behaviours relating to practices such as cultural interactions or digital communication have become required. A more casual approach to social situations and a less authoritarian approach to child rearing may have influenced but not eradicated manners. Children are still expected by their parents to conform to certain standards, but are less likely to be made to do certain things if they don’t want to, and are sometimes allowed to participate in adult conversations, which would have once been unthinkable.
Continuing relevance of manners
Many people accept that behaviours based on consideration towards others are still relevant. One reason is that they ease social interactions. Another is that they can avoid unpleasantness, misunderstanding and sometimes even open conflict in certain situations, for example at work or on the roads. Yet another is that they can help people to get ahead professionally.
New etiquette has emerged in the digital age. There are codes governing use of social media. Protocols about writing and sending emails and cell-phone text messages have been developed to avert the possibility of recipients taking offence from briefer, less-personal forms of communication. There is growing acceptance that it is rude to use mobile devices such as cell phones when interacting with other people.
Many people want to learn correct behaviours. Etiquette books and articles are still published in the 2000s, and the internet has various websites devoted to the correct etiquette for certain situations. For those who want personalised instruction, there are a few etiquette specialists who teach classes in manners. The often quoted maxim ‘manners don’t go out of fashion’ is borne out by the continuing interest in the subject.