The School Doctor: Manners – Lessons from Camilla

The School Doctor discusses manners and lessons from the Duchess of Cornwall.

 

I have never been one to take the advice of those who owe their positions to accident of birth: hereditary peers, princes, heads of some proprietary schools. I am even more suspicious of the advice proffered by those who owe their positions to being related to, married to, or in a relationship with, those who owe their positions to accident of birth. So as lovely a person as she may be (I don’t know, I have no evidence either way; I don’t much care) I will take with a pinch of salt the recent advice offered by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. In the same way that I took little notice of Pippa Middleton’s book about entertaining (offer some crisps), I shall ignore much of Camilla’s advice about manners.

This is not just because of who she is, but because some of her advice is highly suspect. Camilla says that she was brought up by parents who a) insisted on inviting tedious neighbours round for dinner and then b) insisted that their children never allowed the conversation to go dead. So Camilla and her siblings grew up to fill in silences by asking questions to which they did not want the answer, to people in which they had no interest. This has prepared her well for her current life, she says, which involves a lot of smalltalk with people in whom she has to pretend to be interested. This apparently constitutes ‘good manners’, aside from the fact that the scenario is so artificial and the behaviour volunteered entirely fake. I am not suggesting that these dinner parties should have been suffered in grave silence, but why not suggest to her parents that they a) invite people they like and/or are interested in and b) find some interesting common ground that leads to worthwhile conversations that makes the other person feel worthwhile? In Camilla’s setup, the questions are pointless, the replies aren’t listened to, and the whole charade is an example of social-climbing hot air.

This is because Camilla, in this example, does not appear to realise that manners are based on decency, not learnt social convention. We are polite to one another, not just because that oils the wheels of social interaction, or fills in the time before we can get back to people we actually like, but because we should value the other person and actually take time to listen to what they have to say. We hold doors open for one another, not just because we were told to by our parents, but because it is a signal that we have clocked the existence of someone else around us, and we want to smooth the progress of their day, even by the smallest gesture. We say ‘thank you’ not just because we were told in our childhood repeatedly to do so, but because we are genuinely grateful that someone has gone out of their way to help us.

So when we are told that manners equates to making smalltalk, I baulk somewhat. If our pupils look to the media, social media, and numerous forms of entertainment, much of what they see is aggressive and impolite. We have a rancorous language of politics (I appreciate this has always been the case) that has been dialled up to eleven by one of the least dignified – perhaps the least dignified – ‘leaders of the free world’ in history. Instant celebrity is now based not just on getting on to a reality TV show, but on then being noticed on that show – one way to get noticed is to be as unpleasant as possible to everyone else. So it is down to us teachers, and parents, to insist that manners means decency. And if I ever have the misfortune to have Camilla ask me a question, I’ll know that she probably doesn’t give a monkeys about the answer, and therefore about me. 

 

The School Doctor is a practising teacher at a UK school, using a pseudonym to allow more freedom in his/her regular columns for Schools Improvement.

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