Comforting Words: Pet Peeve: Good Manners

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Pet Peeve: Good Manners

I have this pet peeve that has gotten me into, let us say, some uncomfortable moments particularly since moving to Canada.

The irony of the situation, however, is that before coming to live here whenever conversations would turn to people and cultures of the world it was not unusual to hear the observation that Canadians are so polite. Imagine my shock to find this not to be the whole truth, especially in the part of the country where I reside.

Many a jokes there have been about this Canadian politeness, including the one about the placard-bearing citizens who during President Bush’s 2004 visit could be seen with signs that read, "Please leave."

Joel Fleming posted an article on his blog in which he asks the question, one that I have heard many times in the last three years and particularly during the election campaign, "What does it mean to be Canadian?" Joel writes that in his experience "politeness (again, usually in comparison to the southern barbarian hordes)," is among the characteristics of being Canadian.

Why am I raising this issue today you might ask? Do I not believe that Canadians are polite?

Honestly, turning on the computer this morning I had no idea for a topic and as I went through my regular routine of reading emails and checking the results of the Comforting Words survey (which incidentally will be closing soon), I noticed "Today's Quote," to the right of the screen. It was one from Voltaire (1694 - 1778) and it read, "To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered."

Reading this was no coincidence as the issue of "manners" - having and displaying them - has been up front and center to me in recent times.

I grew up in a country and society that was colonized for the longest time by the purveyors of manners - the British and as much as one may try to rinse the residue of colonialism from the psyche some things, particularly those that make life and relationships pleasant and enriching, will always remain.

One of my mother's favourite golden rule was "manners will take you through the world," and although her constant repetition of this would immensely annoy me as a teenager, I have come to appreciate the hidden treasure in her words. I have had the opportunity to travel to quite a number of countries across Eastern and Western Europe, the Caribbean and throughout the United States; and as a tourist the most precious item in my luggage was good manners.

Several times during my travels and even now in Canada, I found myself in scrapes, lost or have had property stolen and on every occasion it was the grace of God and the manners that my mother told me would take me through the world that saved me from what could have been very, very unpleasant situations.

The "manners" that I am referring to go well beyond being polite - a characteristic that I have in fact experienced in many Canadians.

Politeness, to me, is an aspect of displaying 'manners', but is not the sum total. According to the dictionary, the word "polite" also means "glossy, polished, refined," and what is even more interesting is that "polite" in all its glossiness is also related to "politics."

"Manners", on the other hand is more directly concerned with "the way in which anything is done; method; habit; custom," and it is also about character.

I would not wish for anyone to read this post and think that I am saying that all Canadians may be polite (glossy, polished, refined) but lacking in 'good' manners (method, habit, custom or even character). Neither am I saying that people living on islands with a British colonial past have better manners.

What I am grappling with is to understand my experiences in relation to the universal image of Canadians - why and where is the gap?

Over the past three years, I have had contact with many polite Canadians, however, the good (or well) mannered ones have been far fewer in number. It is the deep and underlying characteristic and texture of contacts that drive me into full agreement with Emily Post who said:

"Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use."

It is easy to speculate and even to become paranoid about this perceived gap, however, if 'understanding' is truly my desire, I know that is not a viable option. My search or desire is not for what has been described as "elaborate courtesy," rather it is for a genuine sense of being 'seen', welcomed and celebrated.

This country prides itself as such as place, one that is welcoming and celebratory, one that is multicultural and, in its international endeavours, Canada seeks to be a "peacekeeper." However, may I suggest that if Canada is to be authentic to these aspirations and/or designations, its citizens will need to go beyond the gloss and polish of the words?

Like everything else, true manners begins at home; it begins in the heart and as quoted above, it is an “awareness of the feelings of others” not simply a display of seemingly polite gestures and uttering the correct phrases.

As I continue my quest for understanding it is certain that the true feelings of the people I meet will reveal themselves. My prayer is that, in the words of Solomon ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol, author of The Choice of Pearls, I will pass "the test of [my own] good manners" by being "patient with bad ones."

Will you?

Blessings,

Claudette

Cartoon courtesy of Yahoo Images

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