You must train your intuition - you must trust the small voice inside you which tells you exactly what to say, what to decide.

~ Ingrid Bergman ~

What’s Wrong With A Good Manners List?

May 9th, 2012 ~ Est. reading time: 3 mins, 11 secs

Do we really need a good manners list?

A good manners list can be helpful, can’t it? Flick through the list and you’ll find please and thank you. Go further and it will include advice not to stare, point, or push in. But there are two problems with relying on a good manners list.

Good manners aren’t quite as universal as they seem. Elbows off the table could be a big deal at your house. But it’s not in mine. Nor is it an issue in many countries. So culture plays a big part in what’s considered good manners or not. Take these good manners clashes:

  • Try belching loudly at our table and we’ll certainly disapprove. But in some parts of Asia, belching post meal is a generous compliment.
  • In Papua New Guinea, many tribes simply don’t have words for please and thank you, and I believe that’s also true in parts of Africa.
  • Personal body space varies hugely around the world, with Aussies from the bush quite happy to stand four to six feet (1.2-1.8m) apart. South Americans and Southern Europeans, by contrast, feel more comfortable with a foot or so between them. So when body spaces conflict, people get uncomfortable. With both parties jockeying into “correct” position, any bystander would witness a comical chase for comfort, occurring in slow motion.
  • Even if it’s regarded as adoring and romantic here, cuddling in public is both embarrassing and offensive in a number of Muslim countries.
  • Westerners are expected to blow their nose with a handkerchief. Yet Asian folk consider using a handkerchief to be quite gross. At the very least, it should never be used in public.
  • Common swearing and cursing are considered definite no no’s for many in America (and for women in Russia, for that matter). But such talk barely raises an eyebrow for a good many Australians.
  • The act of smiling, which can open doors in many countries, can make colleagues in others think you’re not taking your work seriously. Too much smiling can suggest you’re a “lightweight.”
  • Although giving tips is the norm in America, they aren’t in some other countries. I remember it was once offensive in Australia to try to tip (implying you could “buy” someone’s respect and that they were somehow lesser in status).
  • Being punctual in say, Bali and much of the Pacific, is unusual because rushing in the heat makes little sense. Without the clock controlling people’s behavior, folk are more relaxed and focus on the value of getting together rather than how precise actions are timed. Other cultures might think this unacceptable and rude. But in the Pacific, insisting on punctuality seems impatient and neurotic.
  • Spit in America and you will be regarded as uncouth. But do it in Asia and it will be understood as a practical action.

Such clashes of cultural expectations also reach into each nation.  So what is right for one family, group, or community will be different to another right next door. A teen’s good manners list, for example, won’t match a good manners list for octogenarians. Nor will expressing decorum at your boss’s house feel right if you acted that way with your best friend.

So if manners vary, what’s the alternative to a good manners list? Ultimately, the best version of good manners, I believe, is kindness, which also addresses intention. Having an attitude of consideration and gracious acceptance covers a multitude of sins. Indeed, if you are in an unfamiliar situation and you innocently act in a bad-mannered way, you’re far more likely to be forgiven if people sense you genuinely care.

A multilingual friend of mine was dismayed last week seeing several Westerners in Shanghai complaining loudly that Chinese people ought to speak English. Yet, despite being foreigners, they hadn’t bothered to learn anything in the local lingo. Their attitude revealed their bad manners.  Just like someone in a call centre taking your call and, technically, following a good manners checklist, but communicating with complete contempt. You immediately feel bad manners, don’t you?

A good manners list is fine if it helps people know the basic to do’s of their own culture. But, it’s the way we convey meaning in every situation that ultimately governs how well we do. For me, considering others and watching how things are done covers much. If you travel, it’ll also keep you out of trouble. Regardless, speaking kindly, modelling your conduct, and showing care are three master keys that will unlock the mysteries of all good manners. So who needs a list?







  1. Jan says:

    As much as I disapprove of belching at the table, my family still thinks it is hilarious! Apparently it is ok to change cultures depending on the situation!