Polite Society keeps rudeness in its place

October 07, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

The secretary of the Polite Society, Gill Mackenzie, is talking about how technology threatens courtesy when the telephone cuts her off without so much as a recorded excuse me.

After 20 minutes of rude buzzes and blips, Miss Mackenzie is reconnected.

"All this technology must be kept in its place," says Miss Mackenzie, fairly severe but still determinedly polite. "It is supposed to be there to help us."

Today is Britain's National Day of Courtesy.

The Polite Society always calls for Courtesy Day on the first Friday in October.

Summer is over, the depressing English winter is at hand and the stock of politeness tends to start running low. And, even in Britain, Friday is notorious for tiredness and bad temper.

The Courtesy Day theme this year is that technology should not put human relationships at risk.

"We're afraid that in a few more years we'll be heading for the rocks," says Miss Mackenzie, who monitors the state of the nation's politeness from Henley-on-Thames.

"Technology will make us less likely to be able to communicate with people," she says.

She cites kids who prefer computer games to their grannies, computer users who message their friends six seats away.

"There is a new generation which can do anything with a keyboard but has no idea how to carry on a conversation or to BTC smile naturally," she says.

Gerald Hanson, the Polite Society chairman, says: "We must control technology or it will control us. We must not let technology harm us."

The Polite Society, with about 1,200 members, was founded eight years ago when a marked decline in courtesy seemed evident in the "aggressive, assertive, me-first '80s."

"Somebody had to do it," says Mr. Hanson, who runs a small firm that imports German porcelains. He's very polite. So is Miss Mackenzie.

Although not as courteous as they were two or three decades ago, Britons are fairly polite these days, Mr. Hanson thinks. "Even Prime Minister [John] Major says we have to be careful we don't develop into a yob culture," he says.

Yobs are British louts and extremely impolite. They're famous for whacking non-British soccer fans to whom they haven't even been properly introduced.

Both Miss Mackenzie and Mr. Hanson believe Americans are often quite courteous, and Mr. Hanson has even been to the United States.

"Twenty percent of our members are from the United States of America," Miss Mackenzie says. "Spectacularly, from Utah.

"Almost all the schools in Utah are members of the Polite Society," she says, somewhat mystified. "I would have thought Mormons were pretty polite anyway."

She does find the young American oarsmen who come to Henley for the rowing regatta a bit troublesome.

"They forget they're 8 feet tall and weigh about 18 stone [252 pounds]," she says. "They tend to knock you into the river before they're aware of you."

Neither Miss Mackenzie nor Mr. Hanson wants anybody to think The Polite Society advocates an imperialism of courtesy.

"We don't want anyone in any country to think Britain wants to teach them manners," Miss Mackenzie says. Politely.

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