British Council - Modern manners

 [Commissioned by the British Council as part of its Trends UK initiative, illustrating aspects of life in the UK for people overseas learning English and interested in visiting Britain. The brief was to for concise, jargon-free text that gives an immediate insight into a topic of interest to young people in the UK]

Part 1: Good manners by young people are often overshadowed by negative publicity
Part 2: UK young people speak their mind on “good behaviour”
Part 3: How learning and applying “good citizenship” brings tangible rewards

Suggested overall title: Good manners – fad, fashion or forever?

Part 1:

: While much of the UK media may focus on negative behaviour, the vast majority of young people have a positive approach to good manners and citizenship.


Grumpy old men…

“The young people of today love luxury; they have bad manners; they scoff at authority and lack respect for their elders; they contradict their parents….”

Harsh words, indeed – but here’s the surprise: this is not the complaint of an ill-tempered bank manager or even a grouchy pensioner, but the words of the Greek philosopher Socrates, written over 2,000 years ago. They suggest that throughout history, some young people have always challenged what their elders have deemed acceptable behavior – and that some older people find that a problem.

But while newspapers focus on curfews and tagging for the anti-social activities of a minority, many of today’s younger generation in the UK have strong opinions in favour of what most would consider good manners and respecting others.

Unsung heroes
The reality is that it is often difficult for young people to have a genuine voice in society. So many of the institutions that influence our lives – the media, politics, business – tend to ignore, criticize or, worse, patronize younger “citizens”, despite stressing the need for them to respect society’s official and unofficial rules and regulations.

Dr Hugh Starkey of the University of London’s Institute for Education says: ‘Young people are frequently presented as citizens-in-waiting, not citizens in their own right and so they are seen as lacking equal status [with older people and those in authority].’

Ironically, while today’s youth is often portrayed as threatening yet politically apathetic, time and again it is young people who are sufficiently concerned – about poverty, injustice, world hunger, homelessness and many other issues – to do something about it. From Live Aid in 1985 to Live 8 in 2005 and from local environmental groups to Voluntary Service Overseas, thousands of young people in the UK show their commitment to helping and treating others with respect.

No age limit on manners
Anthea feels manners are definitely important: ‘There’s no reason not to be well mannered: it makes life more pleasant. It’s common sense really, but everyone’s in a rush these days and politeness is sometimes forgotten.’

In her part-time job as a waitress, Anthea sees a lot of good – and, occasionally, some bad - manners: ‘Older people can be just as rude as anyone else – particularly businessmen who think their suits and wealth are a substitute for politeness. Younger customers are almost always nice to me and to each other, even though they may look pretty wild and different.’

Next month: What do young people themselves consider “good” and “bad” manners?

Part 2:
Summary: Young people in the UK voice their opinions on manners and etiquette.


Appearances can be deceptive

‘Young people today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age.’

This may have been French crusader Peter the Hermit’s opinion back in 13th Century, but is it true of young people in today’s Britain? For an answer we asked a variety of young men and women for their opinions on etiquette and behaviour.

‘Like he would be an authority on young people…being a hermit?’ says 17-year-old Stuart, allowing humour and common sense to mask frustration at often being judged purely on appearances: ‘A lot of the older generation think that we are discourteous without ever giving us a chance to prove whether we are polite or not. That could be due mainly to some teenagers who are disruptive and impolite to everyone, but that’s not the norm.’

Standards of behaviour
Stuart distinguishes between behaviour with his peers and in more formal situations, but even when relaxing with his friends, there are things he would consider to be poor manners (see panel).
Modern communications technology - particularly the ubiquitous mobile phone - has brought its own etiquette. Anthea feels: ‘As long as you don't talk really loudly and the conversation doesn't intrude, I’d say talk all you want.’

Confident enough to be nice
In early and mid-teens, peer pressure to conform can be strong. Eventually, this ‘cool rebel’ phase – which usually involves being totally self-centred - wears off and we feel comfortable making our own decisions.

Steve says: ‘I think most young people are well mannered one-to-one. It’s a balance between being sufficiently self-assured to express your personality and being able to respect others. My first ideas about manners came from my family. I think that’s usually the case and very important – especially if see a group of 12-year-olds mouthing off at one another.

’I know,’ he says with a grin, ‘sooner or later we end up sounding like our parents!’

Next month: We examine what is taught in citizenship classes – and how it is received!

Part 3:
: UK schools teach citizenship to promote respect for oneself and others.


How to be a citizen…

Not everyone grows up learning the sorts of manners that most of us take for granted. So, since 2002, under a government initiative every child in UK schools has at least one class a week in ’citizenship’. This covers a wide range of topics aimed at ensuring young people learn respect for others and an understanding of the society in which they live.

Students learn about human rights and responsibilities, the environment, democracy, and discuss many complex issues such as discrimination, bullying and personal safety.

Julie teaches citizenship to 11- to 16-year-olds: ‘Citizenship builds on basic respect for one another – usually in addition to what is taught by parents, guardians and friends. But it also encourages children to look at the way the UK and, indeed, the world is run. We’ve recently been working on fair trade, the role of the media and the role of leaders in society, for example.’

Out and about
Students generally enjoy the diversity of the classes with the focus on debate rather than written work. They also have projects to complete, occasionally augmented by guest speakers and trips outside school.

Julie cites examples: ‘A local magistrate has come into the classroom to discuss how criminal and civil law in the UK works in practice. I also took a class to the Tower of London, where we visited an exhibition about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. This led to lively discussions afterwards in class about different kinds of freedom and how people can disagree effectively without violence.’

Most young people feel the ideas discussed are relevant in preparing for their role as tomorrow’s adults. Anthea recalls: ‘I enjoyed learning about the topics that citizenship classes covered. It’s important to be aware of the issues raised.’

Express yourself!
The Government has put forward further ideas: Every Child Matters, aiming to ‘join the dots’ between education, social services and many other ways in which the state interacts with young people. Its goal is to enable every child in the UK to be healthy and safe, to achieve his or her potential and to contribute to society in return.

It is very positive, says Julie: ‘The ground rules of citizenship – such as respect, listening and the right to have or to change an opinion – are a follow-on from learning manners. We see students gaining confidence because they can express their ideas without prejudice.’

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