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Cheeky, rude, offensive - and grown up

From a childhood perspective, adult concerns with politeness and courtesy seem at best fussy and unnecessary, at worst an aspect of what Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye calls the "phoney" world of grown-ups, a form of self-serving hypocrisy. Thus many youngsters delight in flouting the conventions of social behaviour, whether in the form of mild cheek, downright rudeness or not-so-dumb insolence.

Schools traditionally have been expected to promote good manners, though it is interesting that the term "respect" has replaced politeness and courtesy in the lexicon of policy documents. How far can they be expected to succeed in the culture of our times?

I was prompted to reflect on this question as a result of three comments that came my way. The first was from a woman working at the checkout of the food department of the nation's favourite store. She said that her usual greetings of "good morning" or "good afternoon" were often ignored and that some customers continued to hold mobile phone conversations throughout their shopping transactions. It was as if she did not exist.

The second comment was made by a couple who had just been on a foreign holiday. They had enjoyed the experience but it had been somewhat spoiled for them by the intrusive presence on a number of occasions of another traveller - a retired headteacher of some renown - who had dominated all conversations, preventing others from making a contribution. This they considered a form of rudeness.

These instances might be regarded as minor irritations, unworthy of serious attention, but they clearly mattered to those on the receiving end. My third example raises the stakes a bit higher. A workman carrying out necessary repairs to services in an affluent area had to use noisy machinery, but was careful not to start too early in the morning. As soon as he did, two women in adjoining houses came out and subjected him to a sustained verbal attack, using foul language that might have caused offence on a building site. With commendable restraint, he did not respond, only to be rewarded by a reference to "that deaf bastard" in the next round of abuse.

My point is that, against this kind of background, schools and teachers face an uphill struggle in trying to get youngsters to show sensitivity towards the effects of their words and actions on others. Despite legislation designed to prevent various forms of discrimination and abusive behaviour, there has been a general coarsening of social conduct, encouraged by sections of the media which publicise and reward the excesses of celebrities.

Making a case for the value of small daily civilities that show consideration towards others - a kind word, a friendly smile, a bit of cheerful banter - is not easy when such actions might be construed as evidence of weakness, a failure to engage with the harsh realities of the modern world which, it is said, require determination, competitiveness and aggression.

However, it is important not to overstate the case. While rudeness - whether by adults or young people - can be unpleasant and upsetting, in the overall scale of human vices it does not rank near the top. Moreover, there are certain dangers in trying to set excessive standards of politeness. The relentless pursuit of a climate of "niceness" can discourage proper scrutiny of uncomfortable issues for fear of causing offence.

My colleagues, past and present, might be quick to point out that excessive niceness is not something I could be accused of. I have, on occasion, been described as "acerbic".

Moi? Hard to believe, I know.

Walter Humes is research professor of education at Paisley University.

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