I’m planning my next trip to Paris and really looking forward to it (anyone even vaguely connected to me will recognise this as a masterful piece of understatement). Though I’m passionate about Paris I’m always slightly non-plussed by examples of sheer bad manners by our Gallic neighbours. I hasten to add that there are many examples of good manners too – but it set me thinking how far we’ve come on our little island in terms of service delivery and general courtesy.
Here’s a couple of examples: arriving at a ticket office to collect tickets bought online, the assistant completely ignored us and continued her conversation with her two colleagues – to whom, apparently, we had also been rendered completely invisible. This gave us time to consider if we’d a) stepped into a parallel universe, or b) Tuesday was not ‘our day’ (I’m tempted to buy the T-shirt). Eventually, when all Gallic conversation was concluded we were given a terse ‘Oui’? served, then out of the ticket office again in a nanosecond, pondering the sheer rudeness of it.
Another trying situation is the curious habit of standing in the middle of the pavement, blocking it to all comers (the more people who can be assembled for this the better), watching your approach then resolutely refusing to move, forcing you to adopt the last minute sashaying swerve into the road (not my preferred option) or to somehow squeeze through, presuming that once more we’ve suddenly been rendered invisible. Worse still is the steamroller approach of our Gallic cousins in refusing to deviate from their chosen course on the pavement – if you’re struggling with luggage, or trying to take a photo, tant pis! Ensure your armour-plating is in place, or adopt the Sashaying Swerve Technique above.
It has to be said though that there were countless examples of excellent service in shops, hotels and cafes, being greeting in most places with a cheery ‘Bonjour!’ Most memorable was the shop owner who went to endless trouble to find appropriate wrapping for a poster bought for 5€, so that it wouldn’t get squashed in our luggage.
All of which leads me to ponder on our own small island’s general standards of manners. Much has been written about the migration from America of ‘Have a Nice Day!’ but surely a sentiment expressed (even if routinely) is better than no sentiment at all? It seems that we really have learnt at last to dispense with being surly and unhelpful. The first shop I went into following my return from my last trip was a delight. ‘Good Morning!’ the cheery young assistant beamed at me. Now that’s more like it. My favourite new piece of customer care is ‘Thank you for waiting’. Those of a less than charitable disposition would say that there’s no choice but to wait, but surely there’s an acknowledgement here that you’ve had to wait and a thanks for your patience?
It seems that here on our side of the Channel we’re getting much better at the whole courtesy thing, even when not involved in service delivery. I’m talking in general terms here and purposely not getting involved in specific debate such as the use of mobile phones, which, it must be said, sadly don’t seem to belong in this category. I’m thinking of those seemingly-minor-don’t-take-a-moment-but-can-make-all-the-difference-courtesies. From stepping aside on the pavement, to holding open doors and being capable of uttering ‘excuse me’, ‘sorry’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Don’t these small courtesies that we extend to each other make for a brighter day and oil the cogs of our daily interactions? And can’t they, in their own small way, be the first steps towards tolerance and consideration?
This article was published in The Sussex Newspaper on April 4th 2012.