Is Britain still home of mannerly charm? Don't be daft!

When Mark Duckworth started working at grocery stores in the late 1980s, customers still uttered pleasantries like "good morning," "please," and "thank you."

Sixteen years later, shoppers use a rather different lexicon. There are muttered insults, impatient outbursts, and all manner of curses not fit for print. Some even resort to physical abuse, like spitting, shoving, or punching.

"I was getting abuse every day," says Mr. Duckworth, who left his job due to a knee injury inflicted by a would-be shoplifter. Customers are "getting ruder and ruder," he adds. "The level of respect in society has just gone."

Duckworth is not alone. From doctors to train drivers, teachers to call-center staff, millions of British workers face rising levels of anger, impatience, and discourtesy from the public they serve.

Whatever happened to the mannerly isle full of polite souls who ask about each other's health over a cup of tea? Some observers say Britain has grown vulgar only in recent years. Others say things were never so genteel.

"There has been a gradual coarsening of our society," says Dr. Colin Gill, a psychologist at Leeds University. "Having said that, elements of society have always been incredibly coarse in this country, and it's just becoming more obvious now because the media actually tend to celebrate it."

Evidence of what they media have started calling "rude Britain" is everywhere, from surly service to road rage, noisy neighbors to cellphone selfishness.

A sales clerk in Britain is physically or verbally abused every minute, union officials charge. In schools, thousands of teachers are rebuked, threatened, or assaulted by parents every year.

On Saturday nights, town centers are often a no-go area of brawling youths. At a soccer match last weekend, two stars were sent off for fighting - and they were on the same team.

On public transport, signs warn of punishment for anyone who physically assaults staff. Remarkably, casualty wards in hospitals carry the same signs, a clear indication that even the sick and wounded are losing their temper these days.

The trend is even taking on political connotations in the run-up to the May 5 general election, called Tuesday by Prime Minister Tony Blair. The government has tried to crack down on offensive behavior with a new on-the-spot order called an Asbo (antisocial behavior order). Opposition Conservatives have hit back, saying the government isn't doing enough and that they would be tougher on louts and boors.

The media has joined the debate with disapproving noises about "yob culture," though Dr. Gill argues that they may be part of the problem, given the tabloid tendency to champion the vulgar. With uncouth soccer stars and reality-TV contestants as role models, society has recalibrated its moral compass.

"The heroes of the modern generation have generally not embraced the traditional virtues," he notes.

But there are more fundamental reasons for "rude Britain" than that - reasons that have also led to a coarsening in other Western countries in recent years. Dr. Gill points to the death of moral absolutism as a major factor. "We have replaced 'thou shalt' and 'thou shalt not' with 'it's really up to you,' " he says.

Simon Fanshawe, whose book on etiquette and manners, "The Done Thing," is to be published this summer, agrees, noting that the deference and class-based model that used to enforce good behavior in Britain is a thing of the past.

"Manners used to be enforced through fear and deference to the Maker, the monarch, and the men," he says. "Now there is no longer a consensus that any of those three are an acceptable authority."

Instead, a culture of personal and economic freedom has grown up out of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the free-market revolution of the 1980s.

"Manners are a bargain between personal freedom and collective good," says Fanshawe. "We discovered personal freedom, and if an individual is always going for what he wants it will not always be what anyone else wants."

Ian Gregory, who founded the Campaign for Courtesy, says the problem stems partly from the impatient quest for the "good life," which is presented by the media as attainable to everyone but which is actually enjoyed by very few. The result is frustration at failure to live up to unreasonable expectations.

"Nobody puts up with anything now," he says. "They push and shove to get their good life and people get hurt. We have become extremely acquisitive in a way our forebears never were."

Yet Fanshawe, Gregory, and others warn against excessive nostalgia. Graffiti, soccer hooliganism, and street brawling all date back decades, if not generations.

Indeed, some point out that Britain has a long history of brusque and occasional brutish behavior.

"In Victorian days, people could be raising their hat with one hand and picking your pocket with the other - there was a lot of hypocrisy about it," says Gregory.

A century earlier, the symbol of the archetypal Englishman was John Bull, a character portrayed as irascible, strong-minded, querulous, and not particularly neighborly. In cartoons he was soon depicted as a bulldog, hardly the most affable of creatures.

In the 17th century, historians note, there were two civil wars and one king decapitated. And Shakespeare's England was full of contrarian characters quick to rebuke their fellows with brutal put-downs.

Instead of looking misty-eyed to the past, Fanshawe urges a new code of conduct based on mutual respect, not on the fear and deference that prevailed in the past.

"The excitement is to be in a position where we can make new rules," he says.

Dr. Gill says this will be difficult. "There is virtually no moral code that is generally agreed and accepted across society," he says. "If we attempt to do so rationally, we immediately end up having arguments about why a particular view is the right one."

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