Are good manners a thing of the past?

Are good manners a thing of the past?
  • Written by
  • Abby Beswick

A friend of mine recently organised a birthday party. Eight couples were invited and all but one replied saying they could make it (we were away so unfortunately couldn’t go). They bought food and drinks, cleaned the house, put up decorations and she bought a new dress for the occasion. The night arrived and the texts started rolling in: someone had double booked so couldn’t make it, another felt unwell, someone’s babysitter had cancelled, one couple texted to say they had decided to do something else, and others didn’t even text at all. In the end one couple turned up. Never again, my devastated friend told me.

Sound familiar? Sadly, most of us have had the unpleasant experience of being on the receiving end of bad manners. Whether it’s that friend who always cancels at the last minute, people who pull out their phone in the middle of a conversation, parents who show up to a playdate with a sick child or a lack of table manners in our own household: we can all relate to the irritation of poor etiquette. So what has happened to our manners, and do good manners matter?

The evolution of manners

There’s no doubt manners have changed over time. Traditional manners such as holding a door open for a woman, keeping your elbows off the table and letting elders go first, may seem outdated for many people. As our lifestyles have changed, so too manners. The digital age has had a significant impact on the rules of etiquette, as we continue to negotiate what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Yet manners in some form, have remained part of society for generations, as they offer us a kind of framework for understanding social expectations. Ultimately, good manners simply make life more enjoyable for us and those around us.

What do the experts say?

Ask any etiquette expert (yes, they exist) whether manners are still relevant and the answer is a resounding yes. Teaching children good manners goes far beyond politeness – it shows respect and consideration of others, teaches kindness, humbleness and courtesy and gives children confidence. We all want to raise a child who exhibits these traits but in the hustle and bustle of family life, it can be hard to find the time to teach manners, or to know where to begin.

Margaret van Wezel and her husband Shaun started The Etiquette Academy of New Zealand a year ago for exactly this reason. Their aim is to help children discover their value and release their potential, according to their Facebook page. ‘We believe that impeccable manners and etiquette is key to building confidence and helping each child become the best version of themselves.’

Based in Christchurch, the Academy offers online and in-person workshops that help young people discover who they are and engage with others, says Margaret van Wezel. “It’s not a set of rules, it’s more social and communication skills we use to connect with people in different situations.”

Workshops cover etiquette fundamentals such as, how to introduce yourself, how to borrow something, how to engage with a new mother and baby, table manners, and birthday party etiquette. They also offer school leaver workshops that include, interview skills, as well as email, phone and social media etiquette.

Teaching children 

At Hasting’s Lindisfarne College, manners play a central role in the school’s values and culture. While not formally taught, good manners are role-modelled and spoken about regularly at chapel and assemblies so students understand the expectations around how they should behave and treat others, says deputy rector, Campbell Howlett.

Manners remain an important focus as they are actions that represent the college’s values of courage, humility, respect, integrity, service and kindness, says Howlett. “Manners are integral in being a good man as they set the foundation for positive relationships with other people. Manners are simple things that we can do that make a huge difference to others and show that we value other people.”

There are a range of manners expected from students including, standing up when an adult walks into the room, opening doors for others and allowing adults through first, and waiting for an adult to finish their conversation before asking a question rather than interrupting. The school has a sit-down meal together each day, where table manners are also important, such as using utensils correctly, thanking the people who have cooked the meal and those doing the clean-up.

Etiquette around the use of technology remains a constant challenge, admits Howlett. Students are reliant on devices as a source of information and socialisation, so staff try to educate students around how to use them appropriately.

Generally, students embrace the school’s standards and expectations placed on manners and parents are very supportive, says Howlett.

Why manners matter 

While manners were largely defined by class and gender in previous generations, today good manners are more about how we connect with others, says van Wezel. And therefore, they remain “very important”. “Making someone feel loved and respected and comfortable in your presence allows them to be themselves.”

While some might lament a loss of manners in modern society, van Wezel sees it differently. Manners haven’t got lost, they’ve simply evolved, she says. “Our social settings have changed and the mediums we use to interact have changed.” Most significantly, technology is evolving at such a rapid pace, the etiquette around it is still a work in progress. Ultimately, we all want the same thing – to connect meaningfully with others. When you put down the device, show you’re present and engage with the person in front of you, you experience the true value of good manners.

How etiquette lessons helped my daughter

Etiquette classes have given Samantha Olsen’s daughter, Bella, a newfound sense of confidence.

The Hamilton family emigrated to New Zealand from South Africa three years ago and Olsen noticed Bella, 10, was finding it difficult to settle into her new life. When she heard about the Etiquette Academy she thought it could be a great way to boost Bella’s confidence while brushing up on her manners.

Bella had private lessons with Margaret over several weeks, which covered: table manners, greeting people, making friends, positive body language, party etiquette and being a good sport. The workshops concluded with a professional photo shoot.

The experience has had a hugely positive impact on her daughter, says Olsen. “Bella loved it. I think she felt like she was important. It was her confidence I noticed, and at the table.”

Manners were always important growing up, and this is something Olsen wants to instil in her own family. “My dad always said ‘manners maketh the man’. I always treat people how I want to be treated – that’s a very important rule to live by.”

As a teacher, Olsen expects good manners from her students and tries to remind them why they’re essential life skills. “With good manners it’s about respecting yourself and others and by doing that you attract people to you.”

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