When I was in my teens and twenties, I despised manners. Why would you say words to other people without really feeling them?. Why would you go through routines, using fixed words, instead of expressing the spontaneous emotion of the moment?
In this, as in so much else, I was influenced by the degraded Romanticism which pervades our culture, in which emotion is raised above reason, and the individual will must be at the centre of everything.
It didn’t do me any good, of course. I missed out on many cheerful words and many ceremonies which would have enriched my life. I graduated from university three times without once attending a graduation ceremony. I was often crippled by a lack of spontaneous words to utter, and would even avoid my friends at times when I felt uninspired. I remember crossing the road to avoid people I liked well, just because I couldn’t think of anything original or interesting to say to them.
Thank goodness, the burden of originality and spontaneity has been lifted. I’m sure it’s something to do with having been married for almost two decades. I’m not the slightest bit concerned that the words ‘I love you’ are unoriginal or lacking in the spark of divine genius, and I enjoy being married more and more as the years go on and the words become more and more well-worn.
But lately, I’ve made yet another discovery about just how wrong and how miserable were the Romantically-inclined beliefs of my youth. I’ve started working at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, where the headmaster, Barry Smith, has been training all of the staff in manners. You might think we, as grown ups, didn’t need such training, but I can tell you that in my own case, it’s done me the world of good, because it has created a community in which there is a simple expectation: every time you walk past someone, you greet them. You never ignore them. You never keep your head down. You look towards them and bid them ‘good morning sir / miss’, or if there are many of them, ‘good morning ladies and gentlemen’.
Whether or not you’re feeling cheerful, you can be cheerful in this simple way, and it makes every day happier and brighter. It also means that pupils know that staff are around and paying attention to them. Staff presence is high because they are audible. Staff can be heard greeting pupils cheerfully as you go around the school. No one is sulky or withdrawn, because that’s just rude. Teenagers do not retreat into themselves, as I often did when I was that age.
It’s a simple and beautiful thing, and it’s something everyone can do. It doesn’t depend upon the individual, but upon a communal expectation, and it becomes a habit after you’ve been doing it for a few days. Like all of the best things in life, it’s just normal, and it doesn’t gain me the slightest bit of glory. What a glorious relief for everyone!