Reversing a Slow Decline

An editorial
by Chris Hibbard
The Meliorist

Reversing a Slow Decline

I grew up in Calgary, spending nearly twenty years there. It was actually a pretty decent city to grow up in – not too big, not too small, and with plenty of opportunities to stay in or out of trouble, depending on your preference. Of course, that was all before Calgary blew up – drenched with oil money, growing way too fast for its own good and becoming an uncomfortable, if not obnoxious, place to return to.

I went home for Christmas, since my family still lives there, and once again I noticed that people just don’t seem to be as polite or well-mannered as they once were.

Did you know that once upon a time Calgary was ranked the #1 friendliest city in North America? Things have changed, and most certainly not for the better. However, I can’t blame the city of Calgary for this loss. Nor can I blame Calgarians themselves, big oil markets or any other industry. The fact of the matter is that this loss of politeness and decline in manners in Calgary is merely one symptom of a widespread epidemic creeping across our continent.

I was brought up to believe that holding a door open for someone is just the thing to do – not the right thing, not the good thing, it was just the normal thing.

I was raised to believe that words like “Please” and “Thank You” were practically punctuation marks with which one began or ended a sentence.

I was taught to believe that if you see someone in trouble, you stop to ask them if they’re okay, if they need any help, if there’s anything you can do.

I learned by example that using courtesy, manners and smiles can make a big difference to another person, thereby helping both the smiler and the smilee.

It was not uncommon when I was growing up to see men pulling chairs back from tables for their ladies, or giving up their own seat on the train for an elderly person. When I used to go shopping (which I try not to do much anymore), I used to expect a customer service agent or retail worker to greet me with a smile when I walked into the store. In fact, as Canadians, we used to be the butt of jokes because we were too darn polite. We also used to pride ourselves on our universal healthcare and our status as peacekeepers, but I digress.

What I’m getting at here, folks, is that I firmly believe that we are losing our manners, our respect, and with them, our identity.

During my ten days in Calgary, I was honked at, given the finger, sworn at, ignored, stared at funny and made to feel like a villain or an outsider – all because I would slow down in traffic to let another car in. I went to numerous stores, only one of which had an employee who greeted me at the door and asked if there was anything they could help me with (kudos to Willow Park liquor store).

I sat in a movie theatre and cell phones rang behind me. I sat in a restaurant and watched a couple eat a whole meal together, without ever seeming to say a word to each other. I sat in a Chapters store and listened to three teenagers have the most profanity-laden conversation, with more four-letter words than I have ever heard – and these teens were friends, just chatting about life.

I watched as a homeless man asked person after person for a dollar to buy a slice of pizza. Only two in ten people even stopped to hear the question, and only one gave him a buck. And guess what, after I had watched this man, to see if he would do with the money what he had claimed, he came back over to me and ate his pizza while asking me how my Christmas was going.

Now, I am reluctant to paint us all with the same brush. I have a new niece who is sharp as a tack and who uses “please” and “thank you” regularly. I have no doubt that there are many more people like me out there, in Lethbridge, Calgary, and elsewhere, who notice this same deterioration, and cling to these antiquated and abstract notions of manners and etiquette, implementing them every day. To you folks, I applaud you and encourage you not to give up. It takes very little effort to say a kind word to someone and having that person take notice and say “thank you” in return is truly its own reward.

For the rest of us Canadians however, I say this: SMARTEN UP! You are not the centre of the universe. I understand that we live in an age in which technology is replacing relationships, in which greed and materialism are our prime motivators, in which fifty per cent of marriages fail and two out of five children will be from broken homes. I understand that the majority of people are only one or two paycheques away from the poorhouse nowadays and that we work our butts off for little recognition. I will even go so far as to say that I understand that with multiculturalism comes a certain level of fear and/or intolerance, but manners should not be held back and used sparingly – they don’t cost anything, there is no drawback to using them. Given that we are not in New York City (do we want to be?), a kind word or simple action is not likely to come back to haunt you.

The Calgary that I grew up in currently does not exist. People are not referred to as Miss or Mr. anymore. Hearing “Yes, Ma’am” and “Yes, Sir” is very uncommon. I pity the individual whose car breaks down on the side of the road in Calgary, for I doubt if anyone would stop to offer help. It is becoming downright rare, and even potentially dangerous, for us to say hello to a stranger on the street or even make eye contact, for that matter.

So here’s the deal.

Here’s what I want.

Here’s what would make me happy.

In this New Year, 2008, I would like to see us all slow down a bit.

Work is really not all there is to life. Money really can’t buy true love or happiness. Life slips by us so quickly and we don’t even seem to care to look around. I have found that what makes me the happiest often tends to be making someone else happy, and so I try to do that as often as I can. I suspect that manners are not like riding a bike; that if we neglect them long enough, we will actually forget how to use them. We should not forget what it is like to be kind – just for kindness’ sake.

I don’t expect us to regress to a time when ladies wore fancy dresses and gloves and men asked permission from their girlfriend’s parents to take their daughter to a movie – that’s just silly. But I don’t think it’s too much to expect to engage in polite conversation with strangers, offer compliments without any provocation and treat our elders with respect. Each of us is unique and individual, it’s true, but we are never so unique that we can’t contribute to society simply by being kind to each other – even in a society that values disposability and convenience over nearly anything else.

I am no expert on manners, courtesy, or etiquette. I have never taken a class on the subject. I do not attend church regularly and am in no way a moral authority on the ‘right’ way to live (if there is such a thing). I simply remember a time not too long ago in which we took the time to ask how people were doing and actually listened to the response. I am not even thirty yet, but I’ve sat back and watched as our relationships with each other have “evolved”; meaning less face-to-face and more Facebook, less context and more text message, less emotion and more E-moticon. As our houses get closer together, we seem to get further apart. We bottle everything up and stay only superficially connected to one another. That way, when we get stressed out, we can either hit the bottle or the pipe and internalize our problems some more or pay a professional to listen to us. Get that last one: pay someone to listen to us. If I’m not mistaken, isn’t that what friends and family (including pets) were once supposed to be for?

In conclusion, while we are essentially all strangers nowadays (even to our next door neighbours), we are also still all Albertans, Canadians, North Americans, humans and mammals. Yet, we are the only mammals who use more than we need, and throw away the rest. Think about that as we start a new year, and as a personal favour to me – hold a door open once in a while.

Happy New Year to you, reader – you are a beautiful person who truly deserves all the best. It’s as simple as that. Thanks for reading.

~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

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