Creatures of habit

IN these days, which seem to be particularly fretful ones, we ought to take more than usual care of each other's susceptibilities. What with one maddening thing here and one frustrating thing there, our boiling point is considerably lower than it used to be, so we should try desperately hard not to be irritating. It is wise, therefore, to refrain from waiting any longer before we ask our friends and relatives to give us a list of our bad habits. For there is absolutely nothing more exacerbating than somebody else's bad habit.

When I first married, my husband used to wave one of his feet about when he was reading, and the slipper on it would gradually become detached and fall with a plonk onto the carpet. He would grope around for it with his toes, put it on again, and then repeat the whole process. Quite soon I realized that even if, like a good wife, I endured this habit for decades, there would indubitably come an evening when I would blow my top, thereby thoroughly alarming my poor man and hurting his feelings too. So I tenderly urged him to stop jiggling his foot at once and forever, and he obligingly did so. In return I very nearly stopped sniffing. Thus was our marriage saved.

I had an aunt once who was much given to brooding on the mutability of earthly greatness, and during these meditative spells she, like the ruminant cow, chewed things. In the space of a few months she could easily eat her way through three pairs of tortoise-shell spectacles and dozens of knitting needles, and then, she had to be provided with more fodder.

Then there was the woman whose excuse for leaving her husband was that for 25 years he had said, ``Thank you, that was very tasty,'' after every meal, regardless of its content.

One could expand, with many variations, on the subject of bad habits, but what is certain is that it is a good thing to be told about them while our minds are still flexible. After a time people not only cease to hear remarks about their idiosyncrasies, they don't care, either. If they wish to lever up their wigs with pencils to scratch the craniums beneath, if it pleases them to blow on their soup, they will do so, no matter how exasperating it is to their loved ones.

Loved ones can become very exasperated these days, so if we would be a soothing influence in their lives, a stout guard must be kept on our manners. Particularly since public manners have deteriorated to such a marked degree. For instance, I do not remember ever having been asked whether I would like to listen to music all day and every day, flooding as it does into all public places from various mechanical contrivances. This habit, a bad one in my view, is obviously here to stay; which I can see makes it all the more imperative for me to stop humming.

Of course, not all habits are bad. There are many good habits that should be vigorously rescued from the oblivion into which they are rapidly heading: such habits as holding doors open for ladies, or helping lame dogs over stiles (though this is really a foolish thing to do, as a lame dog would much prefer to limp under it). All those habits of good manners, such as passing the salt to your neighbor when it would be much more sensible to take a pinch on its way; even the much ridiculed habit of saying, ``Have a nice day,'' and indeed the habit of smiling whenever possible should be ardently fostered.

One of the strangest habits, as harmless as it is inane, is the way we all try to get out of a plane the minute it has come to a halt. Although we know that even if the doors were opened immediately, which is totally unlikely, and even should we be first down the gangplank, and first into the airport building, we shall have ages to wait for our luggage to bobble up onto that rolling carousel. We have proved this time and again, yet up we get, those of us near the windows crouched over in great discomfort and those near the aisles struggling to locate and then get into their coats: all of us in quite a hurry to reach the exit, though knowing we shall have to stay just where we are for anything up to 15 minutes.

How strange it is. We are all creatures of habit, in general doing the same thing at the same time and not finding it especially irksome; and yet someone yawning every night punctually at 9:30, or fingers ever fiddling with a handkerchief can stretch our tempers to breaking point.

So take care. In fact, stop that incessant chuckling this instant.

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