English, sorry to say, get rude awakening as fabled courtesy fades The Polite Society addresses manners

November 24, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Some people think the art of courtesy in England is utterly decayed. Some think it is only in decline. Almost nobody thinks it's improving.

This is something to worry about. In the Western world, at least, England is to courtesy what Russia used to be to communism, kind of a mother country.

This is the land where chivalry, that elaborate code of exquisite ritual courtesy, was refined at the Court of King Arthur. (It is regarded as impolite to suggest that Arthur may have never existed.)

The English have a timeless preoccupation with courtesy and are always celebrating its benign effects. One of Winston Churchill's most often quoted bons mots was, "When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite."

dTC Nine of the 14 entries on courtesy in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations are by English authors or personalities. Expressions such as "Pardon me" and "Sorry" fall off the lips of Englishmen and women almost reflexively, in situations public and private. In fact, English people more often than not will respond to a rude remark with a polite one.

Being polite in the face of rudeness is seen as a small heroism.

Even your average "yob" or "lager lout," rarely given to courtly behavior, is not entirely without manners and likely will grunt an -- excuse if his huge hobnail boots crunch your Bass Weejuns inadvertently on a crowded bus or subway. (If he meant to do it, of course, he probably will decline to apologize.)

There is no up-to-date statistical evidence that social courtesy is in decline in England. No polls have been taken on the subject for a long while. Still, some people just know. And some of them are trying to do something about it.

Ian Gregory, for instance. Mr. Gregory is a minister of the Congregational Church in Newcastle under Lyme, and a few years back he got so disgusted with the general state of people's manners that he founded The Polite Society.

His aim was simple: to change the world as we know it.

The idea came to him in 1986, when two members of his flock returned from an extended stay in Asia and told him they didn't recognize their country anymore.

"They told me we had deteriorated in the way we treat each other," Mr. Gregory said. "It just confirmed for me the feeling that something sinister was happening to us."

The Polite Society's strategy is to encourage people to be more pleasant to each other, to dust off the golden rule. In the five years of its existence, the society has built up a membership of about 600.

Joining, which requires a modest fee, gets the new member a manual called "The Good Manners Guide," regular newsletters reporting on the continuing struggle against boorishness, the best wishes of the founder and a T-shirt with the society's logo.

The Polite Society also sponsors a National Courtesy Day. The last one was Oct. 11. A reporter for one of the big national dailies, The Guardian, went around asking people how they were treated that day, and most said they hadn't noticed any difference.

One woman, who weighed about 270 pounds, said she thought a courtesy day was a good idea. "I get a lot of abuse and ruderies," she said.

Mr. Gregory is not the only knight in the lists against cloddishness.

The London subway system has signed on, changing the recorded voice that warns millions of people each week to "mind the gap" at the 12 stations where the gap needs minding. The gap in question is the space between the train and the platform. At those 12 stations the train stops six to eight inches from the platform. One might stumble except for the warning to "mind the gap" as the train slows to a halt.

The command booms through the station like the voice out of the burning bush in a Cecil B. De Mille biblical epic. It is not the voice of someone you'd want to get on the wrong side of. Still, subway officials decided recently that maybe it was just a little too heavy, too peremptory. They agreed to use the sweeter tones of Suzy Becker, a 27-year-old from Hendon.

Ms. Becker's is the voice now heard in the Piccadilly Circus station. It is smaller. It is musical. It fairly sings: "Mind the gap, please."

"She does say please," said John Reed, a spokesman for the transit authorities. "We felt we could bring a little bit of courtesy to the underground. It makes the people who use the underground feel a little more friendly."

Give that man a Polite Society T-shirt.

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