When I was in college I remember vividly going into the bookstore one afternoon with a woman friend. I moved ahead of her to open and hold the door. At the same time an old gentleman – probably a visiting alumnus – was coming out of the store the other way. He said, rather loudly, ‘When I went here we let ladies go first!’ I bit my tongue, I am happy to say, but perhaps uncharitably thought to myself, ‘And if I had let her go first you would have said, “When I went here we held the door for ladies!”’ It seems a natural social tendency for older people to suspect that the morals and manners of the younger generation are degenerating, probably irretrievably and progressively. If nothing else, this suspicion provides us as we age with an inexhaustible topic of conversation; a topic, moreover, which has the very agreeable consequence of reflecting well, at least indirectly, upon ourselves. ‘When I was that age….’
Such age-based stereotypes were overthrown for me last week by the appallingly bad language I could not help but overhear at a table next to me in a restaurant. At the table were…. Take a guess. College students? No. Three men of about retirement age, well-dressed, prosperous-looking, relaxed. They were talking politics. Only one of them was really misbehaving, but his language was of surpassing crassness and vulgarity and managed to be offensive pretty much equally on sexual, religious, scatological, and racial grounds. His friends seemed to think nothing of it. I happened to agree with their political sentiments, which made it all worse. If I were politically undecided, the juvenile vulgarity of expression they gave their views would have soured me on the views themselves.
I am not particularly squeamish, I hope. I don’t much mind if people want to talk that way amongst themselves. In a private setting I can either put up with it, ask them to stop, or go away. But what are we to do in the middle of lunch in a public place? And quite apart from several adults, a child of about four years of age was within earshot. Does it not occur to people that public manners perhaps call for a little self-restraint?
In this case I can’t say, ‘When I was that age….’ because I haven’t gotten there yet. I certainly hope I don’t age that way. What a pleasure it is to meet students in this town who are courteous, well-mannered, and respectful. There are many of them. You may not realize that if you only encounter them on the roads – you’d think they were all from Boston in that case. But elsewhere and otherwise I meet quite a few very polite young people. And the children in the parish are even better.
Manners and courtesy are the oil that make social interaction smooth and easy. The most crowded societies, if they are well-ordered, tend to develop the most elaborate manners. ‘Courteous’ comes from the word ‘court’ – the court or courtyard or enclosure where the retainers and followers of a prince wait upon his wishes. The word ‘cohort’ is also related. The courteous man meets the expectations both of the cohort of his fellows and of the superior authority over them all. He fits in smoothly with high and low. The man without courtesy thinks that he has no superior and does not care about his colleagues or equals and would not surprise us if he were abusive towards his inferiors and his pets. Courtesy is not exactly the same as Christianity, but a Christian may not be indifferent to others in the manner of a discourteous lout.
A person who indulges in vulgar and obscene language in a public restaurant shows that he cares about no one and nothing but himself. He is not fit for society. I am on the lookout for Mr. Garbage Mouth. I won’t be sitting next to his table again.
[An old parish newsletter piece]