Friday, 14 August 2009


When I was swimming today, I noticed signs in the changing rooms about lane etiquette. Basically, they informed swimmers how to behave around others: stick to the left; swim at the same speed as others in your lane and change lane if they are faster/slower than you (there are slow, medium, fast, and aqua-jogging lanes, all of which are clearly labelled); allow others to overtake you if they are faster; only overtake between the flags; leave the ends of the lanes free for people who are turning.

I would have thought this was obvious, but apparently not – hence the signs. A UK website dedicated to work etiquette has a page about
what and what not to do in a lift. Advice ranges from pressing the hold button when you see people rushing to catch the lift, to acceptable topics for conversation. Honestly, there are people who need to be told these things.

My favourite bit is the piece of advice that admonishes against using a mobile phone in a lift. It simply says, ‘It’s bad manners’. When I was a child, that was enough of a deterrent for anything. Being impolite was tantamount to eating tripe or listening to Val Doonican – something to be avoided at all costs.

On the occasions where I got a bit excitable and started to converse rather more loudly than was strictly necessary, my mother would say, ‘I’m sure the whole bus/park/world doesn’t wish to know about the minutiae of your day’ and I would blush, understandably chastised and be quiet until I had something interesting to say. Some might say they’re still waiting… You just didn’t want to ‘draw attention to yourself’ as this was considered a Bad Thing.

Recently I was at the theatre and a group of young lads were in the seats behind me. They were obviously in Wellington for some sporting tournament or other (either that or they revelled in wearing matching tracksuits) and they been dragged along to the theatre to keep them out of mischief. It soon became apparent that they had no idea how to behave in a theatre – I suspect this was a first for them.

They texted on their mobile phones, they asked each other what was going on and at one point they became directly involved – one of the actors was illustrating the dank depressing feel of the bach by trying to light a fire with damp matches when one lad offered him a lighter. To be fair, a couple of them seemed to be engaged as they made (loud) comments such as, ‘Oh wow, he’s really upset!’ and ‘She’s going to be really annoyed about this.’ But they had no comprehension that they were disrupting everyone else’s enjoyment.

I’m not alone in this experience. Linley Boniface wrote about a traumatic cinema visit with ‘people who believe their conversation is far more insightful, entertaining and hilarious than what’s happening up on the screen.’ Doing, or not doing all of these things are common courtesy and common sense, attributes which perhaps we are loosing in society.
Instances of complete oblivion to others are rising, not only in the pool or the theatre but also, and perhaps more dangerously, on the road. What is worse than ignorance of others is wilful disregard. When did we decide that our needs were so much more important than everybody else’s?

I blame two things – the i-pod and L’oreal. When plugged into a machine full of tunes you have illegally downloaded from the internet, thereby killing the potential of recording artists to actually make a living (but why should you care – you’ve got it for free!), you become unaware of everyone and everything else around you, existing only in your personal bubble. Words like communication, community, commonality, cease to mean anything to you. Because you are so special.

Or, in the words of an insidious marketing campaign that promotes vanity and makes money out of hiding what people really look like behind layers of make-up, ‘Because you’re worth it.’ Are you, really? When did we become so narcissistic? Was it when schools were no longer allowed to fail children who didn’t pass their exams? Was it when we started giving certificates to everyone who showed up and extra points for spelling things correctly? Was it when we started making reality television out of spoiled brats? Bob Brockie mentions some suggestions in a recent opinion piece.

As a human it would be nice to think you are entitled to clean water, fresh air, sufficient food, shelter, clothing, free education (up to 16 and then for those with aptitude) and a health service. As for the right to mouth off and assert your individuality at everyone else’s expense – I don’t think so. Some may call it etiquette – that’s clearly a tricky French word that people don’t understand. Let’s make things simple; it’s basic manners.

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