One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older, is that what constitutes socially acceptable manners is changing. I’ve criticised parents for failing to set an example for their children, but what makes me think my way is right? How very arrogant of me.
I’m currently working in a place that has representatives of over a dozen countries, mostly European, but from all over the world, and I’ve noticed that each one has its own idea of what makes for socially acceptable manners. The Germans here very rarely say thank you, but they tend to give a firm nod of appreciation; the Norwegians will go out of their way to accommodate others before themselves; but what has me stumped, are the Americans.
Now I’ve worked with Americans before, and they’ve always been polite and courteous, but the group working here seem anything but. They are consistently living in their own world, oblivious to their surroundings. Often just stepping out into a busy walkway without looking; walking backwards on a main thoroughfare maintaining a conversation with someone in the distance. Of course they say excuse me when they inevitably bump into someone, but they needn’t have if they had just watched where they’re going. But the biggest thing that frustrates me is that in 5 months, I’ve genuinely not heard one American say please or thank you.
In the canteen it’s just “2 chicken breasts!” as they thrust their plate to the chef, but no thank you when they’re given. The number of times I’ve stopped to allow them to pass and they’ve not even acknowledged me. Even a very loud and very sarcastic “you’re welcome” just draws confused looks and for whats.
But maybe that’s the rub. Just because the way I was raised, and what was the social norm for my generation, doesn’t mean it is the same for the next generation nor for the various generations all over the world. There are plenty of things I do and say now, that my grandparents would have got caned for. Maybe I need to recognise that society is changing and I need to change with it. In 2004, 1 in 11 people in the UK were born outside of it; in 2015 it was 1 in 8. As we become more and more culturally diverse, attitudes, behaviours, and ideals will change. This is no bad thing, and while I may not like all of the changes, I need to accept them and adapt with them.
So the next time an American walks into me, or doesn’t say thank you, I just have to remember the words of Bob Dylan: the times, they are a changin’
Update: It wasn’t long after writing this post that one of the Americans I work with made fun of us British for being too polite. He couldn’t understand why we say please, thank you, and sorry after everything. He joked that we’d apologise for hurting the fist of someone who punched us. I find it fascinating how different the perception of what constitutes acceptable manners is in different cultures. The trick, I guess, is learning not to judge others by their standards, but to keep living our lives according to our own.