It’s a new year. Time to solve the problems of the world – and there are one or two – before it’s too late. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and it’s dawned on me that the only way we’re going to make the world a better place without having to plough through all that due process and red tape and so-called democracy is to start being better ourselves. And I’m not about to lay some guilt trip about carbon footprints or food miles on you. Those things are common sense. I actually think it’s time we adopted Derek Batey’s famous sign-off from Mr & Mrs:
This is The Manners Manifesto. It’s time for a return to – or a formalisation of – good manners. Here’s how we do it:
- Smile. Not all the time. Not at everybody. They’ll lock you up. But smile at the person who sells you your ticket at the station. Smile at the person behind the counter at the newsagent, even if, like the man who sometimes serves me at mine, he’s a miserable, sour-faced sod. That’s no reason to spread the gloom. Look at yourself reflected in the train window, or the shopfront: your default face is one of tight-lipped, frown-headed anxiety. And with good reason. Now reconfigure it. Don’t show your teeth, this is England (or at least, it is where I’m standing) – but allow your lips to soften into a grin.
- Say please and thank you. I’d like a medium decaff soya latte, please. Even if you insist, for whatever arcane reason, on using the phrase, “Can I get?”, suffix it with the p-word. It feels good coming out of your mouth. Combined with a smile (see: 1), it actually takes the edge off the sheer ritualistic, mechanical joylessness of an everyday transaction. When a man or woman in a brightly-coloured kagoule offers you a free newspaper, the very existence of which makes your blood boil, remember that it’s not his or her fault – they’re just trying to earn an honest crust, like you – so smile and say, “No, thanks.” It takes a second. You don’t even have to stop walking. Likewise, if someone tries to give you a flyer, or a card, don’t take it as an affront. And if their technique is to hold their arm outstretched in front of you, which is oppressive form, why not say, “Excuse me” as you push past?
- Let that car in. Driving is a fucking nightmare, especially in the cities, and you want to get home, or to the shops. Of course you do. It’s only natural. But so does that person ahead of you, indicating that he/she wants to cross the lane that you’re in, to make a right turn. Why not flash them through? It’s one of those maddening high streets that starts at the traffic lights with two lanes then almost immediately bottlenecks into one because of a bus lane, or a parked lorry. Come on: one at a time. You can keep edging forward to keep them out, but they’ve got to come in at some point. Why not now? And if someone lets you in, give them a friendly wave in the rear-view mirror. If someone cuts you up, or crosses in front without indicating, or jumps a light at a box junction and blocks your path, for a change, why not pull back from mouthing the word “cunt” or “twat” at them, which won’t alleviate this temporary snarl-up; it will just make the atmosphere worse. Roll your eyes at them, or do an exaggerated tut, as if to say, “Cuh! The traffic, eh? We’re all in this together, and the sooner we get home, or to the shops, the better!” (To avoid being called a “cunt” or a “twat” yourself, don’t drive into box junctions on amber, and use your indicators.)
- Be friendly to strangers. We were brought up to be terrified of strangers, but we’re all strangers until someone introduces us, and only a very tiny percentage of the people you pass in the street will be paedophiles or murderers. Most will be just like you, except with a different coat on, or a different bone structure, or with a few more miles on the clock. So if someone asks you directions, don’t run away, or pretend that you’re in a hurry, try to help them. Make them feel less like a stranger. Sometimes, the stranger will be shy, and would rather stand around looking lost than risk the humiliation of asking someone directions. If you see this, intervene.
- Help old people off or on the bus. There’s an etiquette here, so let’s use our discretion. Not all old people consider themselves old, and might look frail and in need of a seat, or a leg-up, but if you barge in there, they get embarrassed. It’s a minefield, but better to be the first person on a bus or in a carriage to offer your seat to someone with grey hair than to sit there, not knowing, willing someone else to do it first. I have found that helping people off or on the bus or train gives you a lift (ironic!) for the rest of the day. And not just the elderly – people with pushchairs, or loads of bags, or the infirm. (Helping blind people without guide dogs is another tricky one, but again, try and judge the situation on its own merits. Blind people are not usually afraid to ask for help, in which case, give it, and don’t run away, thinking, ha ha, they can’t see me. I think we all know not to pat or fuss guide dogs, don’t we? They are irresistible and the most noble of all dogs, but we must resist the urge, as it puts them off their job.)
- Buy the Big Issue and give some change to the homeless. I have put this one because I never, ever buy the Big Issue. I smile and say no thanks to Big Issue sellers, which is better than looking at the floor, or regarding them with contempt for slowing down your walk to the bus stop with their untidy appearance, but they’d rather you didn’t do any that and did still buy a Big Issue. It’s easy to let cynicism get you off the hook, as you assure yourself that anyone who begs on the street is probably only going to spend it on strong drink or heroin – indeed, homeless charities and London Underground advise against giving change to beggars – but sometimes you have to take the situation as you see it, and trust your instinct. They’re not all millionaires. And they’re not all junkies. There are no hard and fast rules. I was approached on the beach at Bournemouth by a beggar who claimed he had lost the return half of his train ticket in the sand. He was obviously a liar. I still gave him some. As I say, no hard and fast rules. (I am so shallow I will give money to any homeless person with a dog. Sue me.)
- Be polite to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yes, I do object to people knocking on my door after dark, as I always think of the old lady I used to live next door to in Streatham, who would have been terrified of a knock after dark, even if it was from an accredited British Gas salesman hawking for her electricity business. I think it’s OK to pretend you’re not at home if the doorbell goes after dark. You’re doing it on behalf of the old people. But if you do answer the door and it’s a young lad with a case full of inferior cleaning products, or two smartly dressed men asking if you ever think about Jesus Christ (or at least getting to that key question after luring you into small talk about non-religious matters), just politely tell them that you are not interested or that you are busy and smile as you close the door. No matter how annoyed you are for being distubed, at least you can go back to the telly – they have to keep knocking at all the other doors, which must be shit. I am even polite to canvassing Labour politicians.
- Never swear at people on the other end of helplines. They are just doing their job. If they cannot help you, ask to speak to their supervisor. During my telecommunication problems last summer, I reached the point of no return and calmly informed the Scottish gentleman on the other end of the line that I was about to swear, but not at him, only through frustration, and that he should not take it personally. Then I swore. (“This is fucking ridiculous,” were my words.) I’m not proud, but I think this preface helped. Keep them in the loop. Stay calm, and if possible, stay PG certificate. There’s enough tension in the world of customer service without blaming it on someone with a job on the other end of a phone. It’s not his/her fault, it’s the system’s.
- Never, ever drop litter. This may seem to be outside the remit of manners, but it’s not. It’s about respecting the space we share. It’s an extension of smiling and being nice. I’ve seen grown adults eat the last crisp in a packet and literally let the packet drop from their hand to the pavement below, without even a look back. Putting a Starbucks cup neatly on the pavement is no better than chucking it, overarm. Put it in a bin. If the nearest bin is full, take it to the next one. That cellophane bit around the cigarette packet? Just because it’s see-through doesn’t mean it isn’t there when you drop it to the floor. I once saw a man get into an argument in Brixton because he, the owner or tenant of an office whose door opened out onto the pavement, was tearing off a poster that had been recently flyposted to his door, and letting the pieces flutter to the pavement. A nearby council street sweeper, with cart, remonstrated with him that he was making a mess that he’d have to pick up, but the poster man felt that he had the moral high ground because his door had been vandalised in the first place. How much better if he’d put the pieces in the cleaner’s cart. How much higher his moral ground would have been then.
- Leaving bags of stuff outside charity shops when they’re closed? Come on! The signs are clear enough. Just because you’re a superhero for giving an old jigsaw and some jumpers to charity it doesn’t mean you can just dump bin bags by night with a clear conscience. Yes, the old ladies who work in there are volunteers, but does that mean they can think of nothing nicer at the start of a working day than sorting through your rain-sodden rubbish before they can even get in the door? On the same ticket, if you’re recycling cans or bottles, don’t just tuck the empty plastic bag down the side of the bin because fuck it, if they want you to save the planet, they can chuck your sticky bag away as well.
- Talk to people at the check-out. You don’t have to say much. God, even something inane like, “Busy in here, today, isn’t it?” or “Not as busy as usual in here, today, is it?” might put us on the road to peace in the Middle East. Carrying on grumping around and spreading those grump vibes certainly isn’t going to help.
- Don’t swear when there are kids about. I do, occasionally, if I’m in a family-friendly eaterie, and it’s not nice. Reel those swear words in.
These are not impossible dreams, are they? It’s all about a state of mind. It’s remembering that you share the planet, which is a lot easier if you first remember that you share Waitrose and the high street and the train carriage and the motorway. The conversation I had with the man in the coffee shop this morning simply wouldn’t bear transcription it was so dull, but those few extra words made those few seconds just that little bit more human and bearable.
Is anyone with me on this? Or have I been on holiday for too long?