If you don't say please I'll scream;Comment;Opinion

8th October 1999 at 01:00
I WAS accused last week of being a girning old frump. No, don't leap to my defence. There's nothing glamorous about the object of my moanings - in fact, I sounded wearingly cliched.

But here goes. Nothing was right in my world because of children's manners. We are not talking Debrett's Book of Etiquette. Nothing exotic like whether a morning suit is a cunning term for pyjamas or which kilt jacket should be worn for afternoon tea. There's not even a whiff of high-faluting behaviours here - just a basic please and thank you and maybe the occasional holding of the door.

I'm whingeing for Scotland today because this problem is in my face. Last Christmas I handed out a glass of juice and a sticky seasonal delicacy to a class of young teenagers. It wasn't a contrived experiment but I did observe that only a third of the class said "thank you".

I went home and checked it out with my own kids. And actually, I was relieved to hear that they were scandalised, horrified and anything else you care to throw in. But almost a year later the shadows continue to lengthen over my brooding and I'm still chewing at the problem.

Before anyone suggests that I'm displaying even a sliver of middle-class snobbery, some of the most sullenly grunting teenage specimens come from "good homes". Designer trainers and a boat in the drive do not guarantee that the recipients of such luxuries will articulate even the most basic of appreciative sounds.

Blame the parents then? I'm afraid so. If your offspring haven't acquired basic manners then it's your fault.

Because the fact is that anyone without manners is socially incontinent. Only yesterday in a busy car park, with 20-minute queues, I allowed a driver - he had a particularly pleading face - to nip in ahead of me. Our eyes locked briefly and I looked in vain for gratitude.

Nothing, not a wave, not a nod. A man who would not see 60 again without a whisker of decorum. I don't mind confessing I wanted to get out and read the Riot Act but common sense prevailed. Insolence is insolence whether it's found in teenagers or pensioners.

Such rudeness runs through the whole of society like a San Andreas fault. You work with people to whom you have to bow and scrape in order to keep them sweet. You brace yourself for encounters with them, cherry-picking your best social skills in order to survive your dealings with them.

Some of them will be colleagues in school with honours degrees in all kinds of subjects but not in manners. There are too many of the proverbial "bulls in china shops" and I can only conclude that their mummies and daddies weren't big on manners either. Not exactly shining examples for the pupils.

Leading by example has to be the thing. From a young age my parents taught us that it was acceptable to interrupt a conversation by prefacing the interruption with "Excuse me". Imagine my father's chagrin when he rewarded my three-year-old sister's polite interruption with his full attention to see her point at the electricity meter man and say: "There's the man who goes upstairs with mummy."

The piquancy was heightened by the identity of my father's companions - three black-suited Free Presbyterian ministers. I have wandered from the confines of the classroom, but isn't that the nature of the problem, school being a microcosm of society and all that?

The following extract from the Talmud summarises the need for us to function together and, part of that is demonstrating politeness: "In a boat at sea one of the men began to bore a hole in the bottom of the boat. On being reasoned with, he answered, 'I am only boring under my own seat'. 'Yes,' said his companions, 'but when the sea rushes in we shall all be drowned with you'."

Verily, I wish that we could all spruce up our manners but I suspect that I will continue to ask: "What's the magic word, then?" No, don't answer that.

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