A little old-fashioned civility

Carter Haydu
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It seems in Canada, unfortunately, our culture has in many ways come to view formal acts of etiquette and manners as somehow disingenuous and antiquated.

The way people treat each other when driving is perhaps the zeitgeist of the current state of human exchange in our society. For some reason, which makes no sense to me, often people are very indignant and rude to other drivers on the road — very unforgiving.

Why is it that if one gets cut off in traffic, the common response is to make a violent hand gesture, yell at the other driver, or honk the horn with hostility? What is so often a mere miscalculation or lapse in attention is responded to with so much venom. This isn't the case everywhere.

I know of one country where the response to such traffic 'ohh-ohhs' and 'oopsy daisies' is not to make the other driver feel like an idiot. Rather, such incidences are met with a polite smile, both by the driver who made the mistake, as well as the driver who gets cut off. Rather than giving 'the finger,' an exchange of respectful upper-body bowing is more common.

I can't lie to you, in many ways South Korea was an absolutely bizarre and unexplainable culture from my limited rural-Alberta perspective. There are still things about the country and its customs that both confuse and downright amuse me.

However, during my time as an ESL teacher in East Asia (2002-03) I mostly came to enjoy the intricate etiquette associated with Korean culture.

For example, there is a hierarchy in Korea, where the elderly are looked upon as the greatest thing since Star Trek. When at a meal, it is customary for everyone to wait until the oldest person begins eating. On the subway, a younger person would always relinquish his or her seat to a senior citizen.

Hands take on a whole new meaning in Korea, and how one positions his or her extremities when offering or receiving something communicates status and respect in ways that are quite unfamiliar in a North American context.

There is one subtle Korean etiquette I think every ex-pat enjoys and quickly adopts, and often continues to unconsciously perform even years after leaving the Peninsula. I speak, of course, of bowing.

Perhaps I am remembering Korea with a bit more nostalgia than it deserves. However, I also think it would be nice if we in this country treated each other with a bit more everyday civility.

One area I think could use more manners is interactions at the local grocery markets. For some reason, it seems people avoid eye contact with the checkout person. I often notice that, while customers will say 'thanks,' or 'no thank you' or 'have a nice day' to the store employee, it's done so with some robotic tone that does not express any real gentility towards the person.

Perhaps it would be better if we demonstrated increased appreciation for those at the till of our service industry; making them feel valued for this small-yet-important task they perform repeatedly every day.

In Korea (or at least the Korea of my memory), everyone was honoured for the minor role they played, however grand or ordinary. Small gestures of respect, such as a petit bow, were regularly employed to people in the service industry. Somehow, even ordering fast food seemed like a more human exchange over there than it does over here.

But all is not lost. We have etiquette rules Canada, which might be largely forgotten, but still exist somewhere in the back of our collective consciousness.

For example, there was a time a gentleman would open the door for a lady, not because he wanted to have sex with her, but because it was considered polite. I think this is something most men sort of know they could do, although I reckon often aren't sure if they should do.

Maybe those men who don't 'hold the door' are merely worried about offending women in this post-feminist era. However, I think that's a mistake. I doubt feminism was ever about removing rules of etiquette that express genuine respect a man has for a women.

I don't mean for this column to suggest we are living in the end times of human decency in this country. There isn't a huge problem with manners, I don't think. However, Canadians have seemed to embrace informality in recent decades, for whatever reason. Maybe it's worth re-considering, at least a bit, and working towards a little more civility. It might make us all feel a tad more valued.

But, then again, I'm as much a culprit as anyone else.

Carter Haydu can be reached at 691-1265.

Organizations: North American

Geographic location: Canada, Korea, South Korea Alberta East Asia

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