Do manners matter? As part of my introduction at new parents’ meetings, I say that our Schools’ ethos is based on a culture of courtesy, consideration and good manners at all times and in all places, and also express my hope that the boys and girls who are about to join the Senior Schools will uphold that tradition. Why should that matter? After all, what constitutes good manners is not without contention.
In the modern age, would it be appropriate for a young man to hold open a door for a woman? This was something regarded as the height of good manners in my youth, but now indicative, perhaps, of all sorts of presuppositions about gender roles. Indeed, the whole concept of ‘courtly love’ - in some ways the precursor of modern manners - again rests entirely on the idea of powerful men showing due deference to weaker women. Fortunately, there is an easy way out of the dilemma: holding a door open for anyone - regardless of their gender - is simply good manners. Likewise, the simplest examples of good manners - saying please and thank you - is an appropriate recognition of a service done for you or of an imposition placed on someone else. Whilst the alleged British obsession with queuing has become something of a cliché, the queue does prevent any temptation to push one’s own interests at the expense of others.
All of these examples illustrate the basic principle of respecting the needs and wishes of those around us rather than making our own needs the centre of everything we do. Given the privileged position which membership of the Dame Allan’s community affords us all - staff and pupils - it is perhaps particularly appropriate that we behave in a manner which shows that we respect and are grateful for that privilege.
But, important though manners are, they do not in themselves make us better people. Ultimately, they are an outward show: a person might display exquisite manners, but still behave in a reprehensible manner. The ‘cad’ may be less of an archetype in the modern world - cast adrift, perhaps, in the films and literature of the last century - but the idea that one can be well-mannered in pursuit of less than laudable aims still holds true. When speaking at our recent leavers’ assembly, I suggested that Allanians might be measured by two qualities as they live their lives after school, namely respect and trustworthiness. Good manners display respect for others - at least at a superficial level - but they must be allied to a basic honesty and trustworthiness if they are to mean anything deeper. A well-mannered person whom one cannot trust is far from what I would see as the ideal Allanian.
I suggest that, allied to trustworthiness and honesty, manners really do matter. By showing that we can look beyond ourselves and be respectful to others, their presence in our students does indicate that we are helping to produce the kind of young people who will be of value in the wider world of adult life.