Politeness was once a way of life. Now it's a sign of weakness
ROBERT THOMAS ALLENFebruary11975
Politeness was once a way of life. Now it's a sign of weakness
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
The other day I asked a clerk, “Do you carry all-wool socks?” and watched him slowly shake his head, while I waited in suspense, wondering whether he was go ing to say something —anything— even “good-bye.” It started me thinking of the days when people were polite: when clerks spoke in respectful whispers, sometimes with little churchly whistling sounds, suggesting a faint holiness about making a sale.
They gave low groans of sympathy if you said something didn’t fit, and knocked over boxes in their eagerness to find something that did.
They bent attentively toward women customers as if warped forward by all that feminine charm and kept up a running commentary on the weather, spinning bolts of buckram and reaching for boxes with long tongs, saying how dry it was underfoot but a bit cool for August but we could expect that with the fall coming on. They repeated everything a customer said, as if it was too fascinating to just say once. “And a pound of tea,” a customer would say.
“And a pound of tea,” the clerk would repeat with delight. All clerks did this. One grocer I re member used to repeat everything he himself said, running it all into one sentence. “These are lovely tomatoes I say these are lovely tomatoes,” he’d say. Attentive clerks used a special kind of grammar that came as close as possible to eliminating all rudeness from the English language, saying, for instance, “Would there be something else now?” — “would” being considered a shade more respectful than “will.”
People behind the counters really listened to what the customers said. If a woman passed on a bit of news, maybe that her husband fell off a ladder yesterday, the clerk stopped wrapping parcels, tucked in his chin with con-
Robert Thomas Allen is a free-lance writer and author. His latest book is How To Survive The Age Of Travel.
cern, and listened so intently his lips moved. His face registered shock, indignation and joy. If she said, for instance, she was going to Niagara Falls on Sunday, his eyebrows shot up with pleased surprise.
I used to deliver for a men’s wear store and it was nothing to be sent five miles in a drizzle to deliver a hat or a pair of spats. Between orbits I’d do chores like dusting fedoras, but on Saturday nights, when the store was busy, I sold simple things like neckties and garter-and-braces sets. If a customer showed interest in a tie, I crossed the floor, my knees jerking upward, out of synchronization from pedaling four miles against a wind. I knotted a tie over my finger, held it up and looked expectantly into the customer’s face. I can still do this with ties, and I can still put three geometrical creases in a homburg that would make it irresistible to anyone who still wore a homburg. I can remember the bustle of that brightly lit store, and the little rushes for tape measures and boxes, and snapping of fingers and peering over racks anxiously at customers who weren’t being waited on, the welcoming of customers at the door, the private conversations and little subdued bursts of jollity — “Oh, ho! That would never do, would it?” when a customer said if he didn’t get delivery by Thursday he wouldn’t have any pants to wear at his daughter’s wedding.
But it wasn’t just clerks and storekeepers who were polite. The bricklayers, plumbers and plasterers on my street had graceful little turns of speech you don’t hear today anywhere. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,” a man would say, or, if a woman he couldn’t place spoke to him, “I’m afraid you have the advantage of me, madam,” lifting his hat a foot in the air, perhaps with a flattering glint in his eye as if he’d like to have the advantage of her, a nuance worthy of the court of Czar Nicholas. When a man came up the street on his way home from work on his bicycle, he gave gracious nods and royal waves and reached up and gave the peak of his cap a tug at the women who were sitting out on the verandas shelling peas or hulling strawberries.
Being polite was a generally recognized way of life. You were polite unless there was some reason not to be. Rudeness was reserved for major acts of defiance by people prepared to pay for it. If an employee told off a customer, or his boss, he’d keep right on going out the shipping room door without waiting to be fired. You’d see him coming up the street beneath the rustling maple trees at some odd hour, like ten-thirty in the morning or two-forty-five in the afternoon when the street was silent and deserted except for a kid on a tricycle or maybe a couple of men selling brushes, offering to sweep women’s ceilings to demonstrate their products. He’d go out to the backyard and sit on his porch, rolling cigarettes, star ing at his dog — unrepentant, proud, free and unemployed.
But the fact is, in ordinary daily encounters, people used to be polite, and they aren’t anymore.
I’m not talking about formal manners (I was surprised the other day that books on etiquette are still being published, with some important changes: Amy Vanderbilt, for instance, has a section about keeping all guests who use four-letter words in one part of the room) or about those little conventions you still see being observed occasionally, when some gent does a paunchy little end-run around the rad of the car to open the door for his wife, looking as quaint as a revolving piano stool, or tries to hold a subway seat for a woman who is trying to reach it ahead of three steelworkers. I’m talking about what used to be called “common courtesy,” which has disappeared from the con duct of people you run into everywhere — bus drivers who take so long to answer you you’ve already been insulted by the time they do; streetcar operators who you wish hadn’t answered you (I heard a Toronto woman ask one if he was going along St. Clair and he just stared at a switch he was approaching and roared, “I’m going to try to lady!”); clerks like the woman in an A&P who told me where to find the Chivers marmalade, just the way she’d tell her husband where to find his socks: “Right in front of your eyes.” Rudeness is spreading into some of the last strongholds of courtesy — Air Canada, for instance, where you now often get snapped at (“You can’t go to the bathroom! Sit down!” I heard one stewardess tell a confused man on a Florida flight) ; the Bell Telephone Company, from which now occasionally come discourteous voices, flat, bored, verging on exasperation — like those of cab despatchers. The new rude people are even getting into banks. I watched a man shove two halves of a $10 bill across the counter, explaining that he’d torn it, and a tall girl just stood there with folded arms looking at it. “What am I supposed to do with that?” she said. Another woman who apparently thought money, and customers, were still important, came over and said in a kind of aside: “We glue it together,” and gave the customer a new one, and an apologetic smile.
Apparently rudeness has even reached the friendly Prairies, where a Calgary bus driver, hearing a woman complain about the service, abandoned 40 passengers in the middle of a traffic jam and went off to write poetry in Kamloops, later receiving congratulations on his wholesale rudeness from all over Canada; and it was given national impetus on CBC in a program called Up Canada. Maclean’s ran a rude review of the show, which ended “Up theirs,” with a picture of Larry Zolf making a gesture with his finger (the president of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives did this also to the Russians at a hockey game), which my mother, and probably even my father, wouldn’t have understood, or believed if somebody had explained it.
The new rudeness is not peculiar to Canada; it’s peculiar to the age. But it’s particularly tragic when it appears in Canadians who, before they found their identity, were known as polite people who said “pardon” and spoke quietly. I often used to hear Americans in Florida talk about how polite Canadians were. Whenever I did, I proudly pictured a dapper RCMP bending toward a visitor outside the Parliament Buildings giving directions or pointing to the inscription “The wholesome sea is at her gates, her gates both east and west.” Now I have the awful thought that he’s saying to a visiting Russian “Up yours.”
I hate to think of the impression Canadians are making abroad. I watched Percy Saltzman, whom I happen to know as a courteous, friendly man, looking into the camera shouting, “Go home, Yankee,” while his guest Joyce Davidson, a gentle girl, turfed out of Canada for nothing more than saying Canadians weren’t as excited about royal tours as they used to be, kept looking at her old TV teammate aghast. “Percy!” she gasped, as if wondering what had happened to her fellow countrymen since she left. On the last program of Under Attack I saw, a theology student greeted the American guest by saying something like “I propose to show that you are a bigoted corporate fascist flathead,” and the audience cheered. A Fort Erie, Ontario, resident told me that the treatment of Americans from Buffalo crossing the Peace Bridge to visit their friendly neighbors to the north has reached such a point that Americans now have derisive nicknames for the customs and immigration men, like Willy the Knife or Nelson Eddie. I’m a Canadian and intend to stay one, but motel and restaurant people don’t know this when I arrive back in Canada with American currency. They discount it with looks of smug triumph, and occasionally such remarks as “How do you like it?”
Only a few polite people fight back
When I asked one girl in the foreign exchange counter in Toronto International Airport why she charged me the rate of exchange when I changed American Express traveler’s cheques into American currency she snapped, “You’re in Canada now” in a tone that made me shiver and hear the sound of iron gates clanging behind me.
Occasionally polite people fight back, looking like aroused passenger pigeons. The other day I saw a shaky looking man studying his steak special, peering under a lot of onions trying to find the steak. The girl behind the counter noticed his puzzled expression and said “Waddaya expect for $1.89?” He sat at his table, staring straight ahead, as if his attention had been caught by a passing memory, then he called out without turning around: “A little respect and courtesy.” He was so startled at coming out with one snappy answer before he died, he burst out laughing and spilled his coffee.
I still see polite Canadians occasionally. Courteous people still exist on railways where conductors often bend benevolently over passengers when they speak; and in villages where you can hear a squeaking bicycle sprocket the whole length of the main street, and where the barber, cutting some farmer’s hair all off looks out the window and waves his scissors at a passing stranger.
But polite Canadians are a vanishing breed. Perhaps there’s nothing we can do about it. Maybe we should just resign ourselves to being insulted and hope that the wave of rudeness will disappear, as I was told it would by a man who was sweeping out a bus station in Toronto. He leaned on his broom and said it was because we were in Pisces and that Pisces people were all moody and disturbed, and we’d all feel better when we were in Aquarius, a cosmic event that, if he’s right, can’t come any too soon. >£>
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.