Manners – My Conclusions

I’ve been writing about manners each Monday for a while now. The process has helped me clarify my own thoughts on the subject and I think they boil down to these points:

1. Manners aren’t about rules and ettiquette. If your focus is on putting others at ease – helping them to feel welcome, accepted and comfortable you are probably doing alright in the manners department.

2. Most people aren’t intentionally rude. When you start to feel offended or angry, before responding,  take a moment to consider if you have misinterpreted the situation: is it possible that the other person is actually trying to be polite, but you both have different cultural expectations about what politeness looks like? Is it possible that the other person is ignorant of the fact their behaviour has offended you? Is it possible that the person’s behaviour is just fine, but you are reading some hidden agendas into it. In otherwords you are offended by what you imagine their intention is, rather than their actual intention?

3. When responding to bad manners, keep points one and two in mind. It may not be worth raising the issue at all with the other person, but if you do decide to raise it, you won’t make any progress if you don’t put them at ease. Try to not to use language that accuses or condems – this really won’t help, especially if they hadn’t intended to be rude. Instead try using “I feel” statements to explain how a behaviour affects you.  Humour works well too.

In most cases, its probably not worth raising the issue at all.

There is a famous story about Eleanor Roosevelt which sums things up well. When one of her guests was offered a finger bowl between courses, he mistook it for soup, picked up a spoon and started to sip it.  Instead of pointing out his error, Eleanor Roosevelt picked up her spoon and consumed the contents of her finger bowl as well. 

The rules of etiquette and good manners aren’t the point. Its the spirit which is important – that spirit of  accepting other people, caring for them and upholding their dignity. If we keep that in mind when we deal with other people we should be able to navigate the rockiest of relationships.

Now, if I could only remember to follow my own advice….


Manners Monday: Healing through Good Manners

When I thought I’d try blogging about manners, it wasn’t because I thought mine were any good. Quite the opposite – I often find myself unsure of the appropriate way to manage situations. It seems, however, that if you can find the well mannered way, it usually keeps you out of hot water and smooths over difficult situations.

Sadly, I’m in  a difficult situation right now, and no amount of good manners seems to be able to smooth it over. A colleague of mine has taken offense to some things I said and did, and hasn’t spoken one word to me for 2 work days now. If I include the weekend – its been 4 days – so this person is obviously pretty unhappy with me.

Its very upsetting. I tried to explain that I hadn’t intended to cause offense – I really hadn’t. I feel I have been grossly misconstrued and interpreted. When I attempted to put things right, it only made them worse. Instead I was bombarded with a tirade which listed all the other offenses I have inadvertently caused this person over the years without realising.

Because this person was so angry with me, and talking didn’t help, I wrote a letter of apology in which I again reiterated that the whole thing was totally unintentional. But still – not a single word.

I’m not sure how to handle the situation now. I feel really uncomfortable around that person. Its tempting to respond to the silent treatment with silent treatment of my own – but I don’t really like to play those sort of games. This is where good manners are helpful.

Manners are about putting others at ease. I figure that if, whenever I see this person, I act with genuine warmth and kindness, eventually things may get back to normal. If they don’t, at least I can hold my head up high and know that I have been above reproach.

I need to put my own feelings to one side and genuinely seek to help the other feel comfortable. Less focus on me means I might stop worrying so much about how badly I’m feeling at the moment. 

One thing I know – its impossible to change other people, and as much as I would like to change this person into someone who can be more accepting and forgiving , that’s beyond my ability. The fact that this person has read all sorts of hidden agendas into innocent words and actions of mine is also beyond my control.

All I can do is work on me.

Allowing Others the Freedom to decline.

My mother used to tell me that when inviting others to attend an event, it is important to allow them an opportunity to decline politely.

Back then our telephone was in the living room, so our conversations were public. Sometimes I would ring a friend to invite them over. If my first words to the friend were, “What are you doing on Saturday?” followed,if they were not busy, by, “Do you want to go out and see a movie?” my mother would later reprimand me. She would explain that asking if they were busy before inviting them was unfair – it would put them in a position where they had to accept even if they didn’t want to, because they would not have any legitimate excuse to decline. As a teenager, I thought my mother was being unnecessarily uptight, but now I’ve realised the truth in what she said.

The other week a friend asked me what I was doing on the weekend. I told her that I had no plans, and I was so grateful. I explained that I’d been so busy lately I was looking forward to a quiet weekend at home, catching up on housework, reading etc. She immediately replied, “Oh good, seeing as you’re free…” and followed up with an invitation to some event.

 I’d been telling the truth when said I was looking forward to a weekend catching up at home. I was craving that time and I had absolutely no desire to fill it with other activities. However, because she knew I had no commitments, I found myself in an awkward position. Either take the time that I needed for myself and risk offending my friend, or keep my friend happy while ignoring my own needs. Really, I would have preferred it if she had just invited me out without first establishing if I was “free” – it meant I had to be quite blunt when turning her down – I just really didn’t want to go out that weekend.

Last year another friend tried to rope me into a girls night out. As she described her plans, I started to cringe – it really wasn’t my sort of thing at all. I explained that and it made no difference. She kept trying to set a date – I kept being saying I was busy. Finally she requested that I bring my diary along and together we could work out all the dates I was available in the coming 3 months which corresponded with hers – we could plan the night from there. In the end, I had to tell her quite stridently that I really did not want to go on this evening and to please stop asking me.

It was an awful position to put someone in.  Her feelings were hurt and I felt uncomfortable, but she really brought it all on herself by being so pushy with the invitation.

My point is, I think my mother was right. If we care about our friends we should give them room to decline gracefully rather than forcing them into a situation where they are almost manipulated into going along just to avoid causing offence. Rather than asking about availability prior to an invitation, I think we should just invite people out – if they have the time, and want to come along, they’ll accept. If they are busy, or seem a little vague about dates, try leaving it at that instead of insisting on getting out the diaries and locking them in. If they want to go, they’ll let us know,

To Err is Human…

When I started writing about manners I decided to have a look at some blogs and forums on the topic – and you know what? There are a lot of angry people out there.

When someone shows a lack of courtesy we feel affronted or outraged. If someone walks slowly on the street in front of us, or blocks the path on the escalator it infuriates us. In Sydney, if you let someone into the lane in front of you in traffic, they are supposed to wave. If they forget to do this, it turns Sydney drivers into tailgating, horn honking, swearing and gesturing furies.

All of this outrage and fury doesn’t change anything. Bad manners continue to affront us on a daily basis and as we react, we compound the problem by adding our own negative energy to it.

I’m wondering now, if it might be better if we just calmed down a little. Is our need or desire to move quickly through a crowd more important than another’s need or desire to take a leisurely pace? And if we are forced to walk or drive slowly for a time, does it matter? Do we really need to feel so irritated?

The thing is, we tend to be most irritated when the person in our way is a stranger. If we realise we know the person, suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad. Perhaps its because we no longer look at them as simply an obstacle and start to see them as a thinking, feeling, complex human being.

I used to be really bothered by a neighbour of mine who continues to turn his television volume up to a level that drowns out my own. I was almost at the point of going around to his place and demanding he turn it down, when another neighbour organised a barbecue and invited us all to it. I met the man with the loud tv. He is a very pleasant and gentle natured person. Somehow since then, I never feel annoyed when he turns his television up. I just laugh and think, there’s Marcus with his loud tv again. He’s no longer an irritation – I see him as a human being now – and perhaps that is the key.

I’m trying to take a more forgiving approach to others now, because I’ve realised that becoming angry doesn’t change anything. I gain nothing through anger and irritation. When I take a forgiving approach people seem more human, the world seems kinder and my walk through it is lighter.

Perhaps it might change the world a little as well – if one by one we become less angry and more understanding, the world has to become a better place.

How one person can change a community

I’ve been living in this apartment complex for nearly 10 years now. Residents have come and gone but the complex would remain essentially the same. People would keep to themselves – if you saw a neighbour coming or going you might wave, but aside from that it has been a very private place. We keep to ourselves and respect others privacy. Its impersonal, but its how I’ve always liked it.

All of that is changing. People have become visible. On Saturday, in our normally quiet courtyard, the lads downstairs set up a table tennis table and played games. Up on the top floor, a young couple spent most of the afternoon blowing bubbles over the courtyard and watching them float around. My neighbour Claudette and I meet each Saturday and go for an hours walk around the neighbourhood. When I run into Tim and Sarah, who live downstairs, we are always pleased to see eachother and have a good long chat.

Meredith (upstairs) and I have started helping eachother out with things, like collecting the mail or newspapers if the other is going away.

One neighbour, whom I have never spoken to before as he lives in a different part of the complex, saw me carrying in the bags of shopping from the supermarket and held the door open for me. A simple courtesy I know, but in the past we were all so scared of intruding on people’s private worlds that courtesys didn’t always occur. How can they when you are trying to avoid eye contact with your neighbour?

It started to change last year when Claudette and another neighbour organised a barbecue in the courtyard for the residents. Then she asked Michael and I over for dinner.

I was nervous about the changes. I didn’t know what obligations this might bring, or where the boundaries were. It was easy enough to smile and wave at a neighbour – but I was worried about engaging in conversation – I didn’t want to waste their time if they were busy, or intrude into their private world. But now things seem to be settling into a new pattern – its easy and comfortable again.

After ten years of living here, we’ve started to become a community – and its a happy one.

Isn’t it amazing how one or two people can make a difference. If Claudette hadn’t moved here and decided she wanted to get to know her neighbours we would be still be living our isolated lives in our separate apartments.  What we have now is so much better.

Hidden Meanings and Personal Baggage

Have you ever tried to do the right thing by another person only to find out later that somehow it all backfired and that person was offended by your actions? Its an awful feeling to have your good intentions misunderstood and to wind up offending the very people you were trying to support.

Last Monday I wrote about the cultural differences in manners that can lead to this sort of misunderstanding. What one culture views as polite another may view as rude.

But culture isn’t the only  factor that can lead to misunderstanding. Perhaps a more significant factor is the internal dialogue that runs through each of our heads. We are full of assumptions, expectations, hopes, insecurities and baggage. We look at the world through a filter shaped by our experiences and beliefs, and in my experience, it is this more than anything that leads to strife.

You could never give my grandmother a compliment. If you told her you liked her dress she would be offended – because it implied that all the dresses she hadn’t been complimented on were not nice. She used to say,  “never make a personal comment” and tried to teach us that compliments were rude.

The other day one of my neighbours was upset after a conversation with a couple sitting on the steps to our building. She thought they looked  lost and wanted to know if they needed any help. They answered her very defensively – which offended her. We speculated later that it may have been because they thought she was being one of those very territorial, busy-body residents -there’s one in every building. Perhaps they believed when she said,”Are you looking for someone, do you need any help?”  she really meant “What is your business here, why are you on our property?”

I guess what I’m trying to say is:  before we get all offended or angry because we think others have been rude to us, it might be a good idea to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Rather than looking for hidden meanings, perhaps we should try to take things on face value more. The hidden meanings that we react to may well be a product of our own insecurities rather than anything intended by the other party.