Do the right thing

I was in a conversation yesterday with a couple of women at work regarding the decline in good manners pretty much across the board. We spoke specifically about the conduct on board public transport, how people hog seats or play their music loudly, and how rare it is for someone to give up their seat to someone elderly, infirm or pregnant. I shared a story about something I witnessed a couple of months ago – a pregnant woman getting onto a crowded train and everyone ignoring until a good Samaritan – himself standing – walked across to two middle-aged men and tapped them on the shoulder, effectively shaming one into giving up his seat for the woman. I felt like cheering at the time, but was shocked that two such respectable looking men on the Sandringham line train wouldn’t act of their own accord – but then, so few do.

Then, as it happens, there was today. As I get on at the second stop for the train at Hampton I always get a seat. The train is usually pretty full within a few stops and from Gardenvale on people are standing, if not before.

Today, at Gardenvale, a pregnant woman got on. I watched thinking and hoping that one of the men nearer to her would get up and offer their seat. I was sitting by the window, wedged in, with probably a half a dozen men ahead in a better position to give up their seat. When that didn’t happen I signalled to her as I stood up, climbing past those in between so she could take my seat by the window. It was the work of the moment, but I wondered what the other men around me thought.

I know for myself that I couldn’t not act like that. I would stew on it, would feel ashamed and my gut in knots if I didn’t do the right thing. Does shame not like that exist anymore? What standards do we live by, if any?

I accept that I belong to a generation when such behaviour meant more. It was instilled in me from a child to be polite and well mannered. I have some reputation for being direct, even blunt, but if you were to poll strangers and shop assistants and servers across the world then the feedback would be that I am respectful and courteous. I always say please and give thanks. I open doors for others and let them go ahead of me. Unless invited otherwise, I’ll address my elders by Mr or Mrs. I am gracious because I know no different, and because it is a fine thing to be.

It’s a matter of great regret that such standards of behaviour no longer seem to be valued, and seemingly too many children now grow up without being taught this. I sound like a damn old fogey I know, but fundamentally this is about respect for others. Everyone deserves that, regardless of rank or position, until such a time as they lose it.

I hate kids are like that, but sometimes think they’ll grow out of it. There’s a lot happening when you’re a teenager, and a lot of it is expressing yourself as an individual and occasionally in rebellion. It’s no excuse but I understand it.

What I really don’t understand are those – such as the men today, and the men a couple of months ago – who by all appearances are respectable, and who should know better. I reckon they do know better, it’s just that instinct has now seemingly atrophied in them. Given the general decline in standards, I think they’ve taken that as an invitation to ignore their better instincts. If everyone is being ill-mannered, why can’t I be? That’s a profoundly disappointing attitude, but an attitude that accounts for a lot in society today – a society much more selfish and self-involved, a society much less generous and tolerant in nature. And this is why it’s important to hold out against that, to be an example of nobler instinct. Give it up and that will be the end of it.

I wonder what this says about our sense of self and identity? I live by the standards I’ve set myself and to go against any of them would be a betrayal of self. This is behaviour firmly rooted in my identity. That’s portable and immutable, unlike the shifting and capricious standards of society. When you take your lead from the mores of the day, rather than your self-identity, then behaviour will always be rooted in shifting sands. This comes back to education, to the ability to think and reason for yourself, to stand for your own beliefs and to have a strong sense of self. Why would you want to be any other way? But then, perhaps the opportunity isn’t known…

This story ends on a brighter note. After getting off the train I caught a tram up Elizabeth street. I was standing when a heavily pregnant woman got on a stop after me. Straight away a man stood up to offer his seat, just as it should be.

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