Trains, Planes and Automobiles…Manners... and the Dalai Lama…

The Dalai Lama in Melbourne (photo Justin McManus, The Age) 

It has been a fortnight in which bad manners have unfortunately had front and centre stage. These manners have not only been exemplified by our politicians, readying for the battle of a looming Federal Election, and some of the journalists who report on their campaign;  they have also dominated the headlines of the newspapers about the battle for appropriate behaviour on Western Australia’s public transport system.

And I use the word “battle” cautiously.  It seems as if so much of Australian society, from the top down, is in “battle” mode.  Common courtesy and considerate gestures seem to have no place in this “lucky country” Unlike most of the world, while Australia endures some economic turbulence, we have nothing of the scale of Europe, for example.

I have been interviewed a few times this week about manners in our society.   Tomorrow, following on from an interview I gave for the Sunday Tímes newspaper, Channel Nine Perth is interviewing me about the rude, racist and inappropriate social behaviour encountered by commuters on Perth’s public transport system.

People are quick to blame the youth of today for inappropriate public behaviour…the lack of respect for the elderly, the pregnant woman with her arms filled with parcels, the woman with a wriggling toddler who needs to sit. Posters on the trains remind commuters to give up one’s seat to those in need, but these manners appear rarely, it would seem,  in our society.  As I was quoted in the article: "Many lack respect but they are not born bad-mannered…they learn that behaviour”. 

I am in the fortunate position of being able to travel internationally a few times a year, through Asia and more particularly Europe.  Public transport is the principle mode of transport in most of these countries.  In Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, the trains are crowded, the platforms are always filled, but people are respectful of their fellow commuters…and their personal space.  Mobile telephone use is kept to a discrete, hand over the mouth, level; while eye contact is generally avoided, polite attention to those in nearby proximity is acknowledged.
And it is the same in Europe.  When travelling on the TGV and the Metro lines passengers are aware of the luggage and personal space requirements of their fellow passengers  There is very little loud discussion,  people seem naturally to speak in subdued voices while in crowded spaces.

The same cannot be said of the commuters on trains here in Perth.  Undertaking some research I encountered mothers loudly, and without consideration for the other passengers, admonishing their children;  young adults showing absolutely no regard for their fellow travellers with feet on the seats, bags strewn across the aisles;  and appalling language during each journey.

And so while the public are failing to display good manners on the trains, it seems  lack of consideration is  also evident in the air.  I recently took a flight to Paris from Singapore and used the bathroom before take-off, after a fellow male passenger,  who was not an Australian.  As it was to be a 12 hour flight, I was embarrassed but felt obliged to advise the attendant that the male passenger had been unable to use the facility appropriately and that she may have to attend to the deluge…enough said. Again, it would appear that there was a total lack of respect for fellow passengers...perhaps it is an international problem after all?
And now, you may ask, how do we combat this societal thoughtlessness and rudeness?
A contributor to The West Australian newspaper, Zoltan Kovacs, wrote last weekend that “The tendency today is to admire behaviour that is crass or outlandish…we are invited to celebrate mediocrity, at best”. He suggested “As a society, we seem to have lost respect for scholarship, for intellectual accomplishment and integrity.... Perhaps the behaviour of our politicans reflects this…"

Children are being taught a Code of  Behaviour...from manners to social skills...(Photo The West Australian newspaper)
I was asked yesterday to comment on a code of behaviour which has been implemented by a well kown High School which  included such “common sense” suggestions as saying please and thank you, as basics.  I suggested that it seemed a shame that a school required such elementary manners as a code of behaviour, but I was able to offer that so often these fundamental elements of appropriate social discourse are no longer taught in the home, in fact not even encountered.

With the changing face of the family,  often via dislocation and the imperative of two working parents,  in many cases the opportunity for families, in whatever guise, to sit and discuss aspects of their lives and working days has been reduced, either by time or inclination. The consequence has been that many children and young adults have  little, or no knowledge, of appropriate table manners of the more “old fashioned” variety involving cutlery and conversation.

This is not the fault of the young…or of their parents.  It is not a fault game, but rather a situation which should be addressed in a positive fashion.

When I was recently in France for an extended period I regularly saw young French boys and girls enthusiastically embracing the family Sunday lunch at a restaurant…without an electronic toy in sight. They clearly enjoyed the food, the multi faceted family occasion and the freedom which was accorded them as a result of appropriate behaviour.

I also read a wonderful article this past weekend in The Weekend Australian newspaper which reported on the recent visit of the Dalai Lama.  During his visit he addressed the Young Minds Conference and the article stated that ethnics is at the top of his agenda.
The journalist reported:  “We live in a secular world, the Dalai Lama says, and it will take secular principles – not religion – to promote compassion and ethical behaviour on a wider scale…As the world leans more and more towards materialism and external validation, secular ethics should be formally taught from kindergarten through to university, he says.”

So perhaps a general code of behaviour, for all levels of our society should be shaped…not by rules but by choice…manners, or merely mutual respect?