Policing manners

“No one subject is of more importance to people than a knowledge of the rules, usages and ceremonies of good society. To acquire a thorough knowledge of these matters and to put that knowledge into practice with perfect ease and self-complacency is what people call good breeding. To display an ignorance of them is to subject the offender to the opprobrium of being ill-bred.”
John H. Young, Our Deportment, 1882.

I’m quite clearly an anachronism. I feel offended at the smallest breach of protocol or manner where others feel none, shaking my fist, invisibly of course, at people on the sidewalk who walk obliviously, more subtlety people in conversation who talk obliviously. It might be that I’m thin-skinned, kept in-doors or in cotton-wool too long as a child. Or it might be that others are thick-hearted, hardened to feelings and fineries too subtle to be perceived.

We’ve come a long way in recent years, and, too easily caught up in pounding tables, berating empty air over the ills of the now, one forgets that much of what was once commonplace now has no place. Racism, sexism, name your ’ism, all are absolutely excluded from polite conversation, more or less marginalised from marginal conversation as well. Our grandfathers may not have got along, but we their grandchildren work along side each other, and in doing so, more than likely get on.

On the surface, polite face of it we have levelled the playing field, opened the team sheet to all who want to play, but equal opportunities do not niceties equal, and in shaving manners of their beard and moustache, jettisoning ugly and prickly anachronisms at door like hat and cane, we’ve lost the art of consideration and of grace. To my thin-skinned way of thinking—perhaps over-thinking—we’re just not so nice about being nice.

Rosanne J. Thomas, founder of etiquette training company Protocol Advisors, and dubbed “Miss Manners on Wall Street,” pins the modern decline in manners firmly on the 1960s donkey, and while our long-haired, long-trousered parents are to blame, it’s not just because of their fondness for twenty minute guitar solos:

“Prior to that, families ate together at the dinner table. Manners were reinforced all the time—conversation, listening skills, dining skills, basic considerations, and even electronic manners in that you didn’t take telephone calls during the meal. But then people began not to eat together as much, and that’s when the basics were no longer taught.”

Manners may be dead in this modern age, but Japan at least is refusing to put a fork—or chop-stick—in their deceased carcass, forming a “manners police” to re-heat the fast cooling standards of public etiquette.

In a country where courtesy was once second nature—the learning of a multitude of mores literally a life-long apprenticeship; their breach a possible loss of life consequence—the elderly and pregnant are increasingly being left to stand on trains; a failure of manners perhaps commonplace elsewhere, but in Japan unimaginable until recently.

“It is impossible to mark the even and peaceable tenor of Japanese life, the politeness, industry, respect for superiors, and general air of cheerfulness and content, that pervades all classes, without admiration of the wise regulations which preserve such order amongst them as a people. Quarrels and blows are almost unknown in families; the husband is gentle, the wife exemplary and affectionate, and the children singularly obedient and reverent to their parents: yet ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ is a precept totally disregarded. The children are never beaten, nor do the parents allow themselves to lose their tempers in rebuking them, however great the provocation may be—one remarkable result of the complete self-abnegation inculcated by their social system.”
J. M. W. Silver, Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs, 1867

When I was school-aged—a time depressingly distant and fast becoming more so—giving up your seat for your elders was mandatory on public transport, but, occasional cranky pensioner aside, it was a practise of another age, seldom actually enforced.

Japan however expects respect and awareness of any age, in this very age, and to this end the Yokohama “Smile-Manner-Squadron” has been charged with bringing back the standards of “old Japan”—politely encouraging the young to give up their seats to those more needy on the city’s overcrowded trains.

While squadron members, the majority past their sixtieth birthday, have no legal powers, Yokohama hopes their high visibility—bright green uniforms de rigueur—will encourage a rising politeness. If not, the big stick of public shaming will be wielded, humiliation in hypersensitive Japan the recourse if seats are not voluntarily raised.

Should politeness provoke a reaction less than polite, older team members will be accompanied by a younger bodyguard, the Smile-Manner-Squadron operating in pairs and paying about US$15 a day. And unlimited train rides.

Why don’t Japanese young people give their seats to the aged? Nobuhiko Obayashi, 70 year-old author of “Why don’t young people give their seats to the aged?” has already asked the question, and answered it too—just like in the West parents are to blame, responsible for a generation in his words “too afraid to talk to one another.”

Not afraid to talk to another, Obayashi opined “Young people do not feel the need of having manners in their hearts,” and expressed a wish that the Smile-Manner-Squadron “will give people who are too shy a chance to communicate.”

And presumably once more claim a seat.

“The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.”
Oscar Wilde

Japanese Tradition: Shazai—Apology


  • alf
    Posted at 09:34h, 28 May

    Hey J

    I really enjoyed that video although I was a little worried where it was heading, given nothing says, “Ooops, my bad,” like seppuku.

    Speaking of cultural mores:

    Welcome to the Olympics

    alfs last blog post..Don’t forget!

  • Jaitra Gillespie
    Posted at 09:42h, 28 May

    Nice to see our most prolific commenter again Alf 🙂

    If you consider that the trains in Japan run on time to the second, that means that those people-pushers in the video are included in the schedule!

    Jaitra Gillespies last blog post..Policing manners

  • Sharani
    Posted at 15:39h, 10 June

    Hi John,
    I wonder where it stands in the world of manners that I’m half-remembering that I recently read an interesting magazine article in the States that talks about the growing popularity of children taking classes in etiquette. It mostly talked about table manners and the downfall of manners in children due to the family rarely eating together at the table for meals. Shame on me for not remembering where I read it! Which bow do you think I should do?

    Sharanis last blog post..New England May Forecast – Cygnets, Ducklings, Goslings with 50 Percent Chance of Rainbows

  • Jaitra Gillespie
    Posted at 15:41h, 10 June

    Au contrare, Sharani! It is I who owe you a bow for leaving a very nice comment on my blog.

    Jaitra Gillespies last blog post..Howard Jones: Best-selling Buddhist Pop Star

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