Sunday, August 15, 2010

Etiquette and Manners - How and Why They Matter

Peelawat Gives A Wai to the Shaman Who Has Treated His Foot

Being retired provides with me a great amount of time to do the things that I like to do.  I also have a great amount of time to think about many widely varied subjects.

Writing a blog and socializing on Facebook provides me with focus as well as motivation to explore different aspects of life.

Living overseas totally immersed a culture which is very different from the previous 46 years of my life experience stimulates me to be a better observer of human activities and interactions.  These observations give me the opportunity to share with others what a different part of the world is like from their part of the world.

My life long interest in photography is encouraged by the opportunities to document the culture, people, and sights of far away and exotic lands.  These lands are far from my origins in Groton, Connecticut.

I consider myself to be fortunate, not special because I was not raised that way, but fortunate to have all these opportunities and experiences. My mother often reminded me as a child that I was not special and deserving of treatment or consideration different than any one else.  Now that I look back upon that, that much reinforced lesson was a very valuable life lesson.  It was a lesson that lead to a happy and contented life.

Lately I have written blogs that now that I look back at them have a great deal of commentary related to Thai, more specifically Lao Loum, etiquette and manners.  Recently, I have had personal correspondence with a classmate of 43 years ago related to my 18 month old Lao Loum grandson's development of manners.  She has been teaching for four years in Florida and has lamented the lack of etiquette as well as manners of her elementary school students.  This does not surprise me for I have seen a lack of etiquette and manners in many children as well as some adults during my visits to the USA.

According to Wikipedia, not Wikileaks, "Etiquette is a code of behavior that delineates expectations for social behavior according to contemporary norms within a society, social class, or group."   Sounds good to me.  Works for me.

As for manners, Wikipedia states "Manners on the other hand are unenforced standards of conduct which demonstrate that a person is proper, polite, and refined"

This blog will focus not on which fork to use at a formal dinner, when it is acceptable to wear white clothing, or the proper salutation that should be used in a letter for various dignitaries but rather on the fundamental behaviors that are necessary for a society to function with minimal conflict with respect for individual considerations while ensuring that the overall needs of society for the greater good of all are addressed.

I look upon current events in the United States - the determined decision of a Muslim group to build a Islamic Center quite close to the site of the 9-11 attack.  I do not object to Muslims having a right or exercising the right  to worship and teach their religion.  However I am saddened that their apparent lack of empathy and understanding or perhaps their lack of etiquette and manners that prevents them to respect the sensitivities of the local population in order to come to a compromise that is good for every one.

Just this morning I read that a Christian group protested outside of a mosque in Bridgeport, Connecticut during worship.

In San Francisco, Catholic services were disrupted by Gay activists with some of them dressed up as Nuns.

A Christian fundamentalist group conducts hurtful and mean spirited protests at the funerals of fallen soldiers.

Comedians make crude and offensive sexually orientated remarks regarding the children of celebrities.

Some politicians lamented that a certain political figure had not been on board a plane that recently crashed killing several on board.

Where is their decency?

Yes, we all have a right to our beliefs and a right to express ourselves through protests or through the media if we so choose.  However just because we can does not mean that we should or at the very least ignore the sensibilities of others while exercising our rights.  I do not advocate the suppression of first amendment rights but I do believe strongly that they should be exercised with a greater deal of etiquette and manners.  The point of a protest should be to communicate rather than to humiliate or intimidate one's opposition.

Often groups as well as individuals seem to regress to childhood behaviors.  Remember when as a child you or someone you may have known got in trouble with an adult for doing something that was obviously wrong or dangerous.  Quite often the child's reply to the adult was "You didn't tell me that I could not do that"  This lack of taking responsibility for one's actions, blaming others for our transgressions, and avoidance of accountability is part of childhood development that is expected to cease with adulthood.  Today the same sort of foolishness gets played out in our society only it involves adults behaving as children rather than children going through a developmental stage.  Just because there is not a specific law, order, or directive which disallows a certain behavior does not mean that the behavior should be performed.  Etiquette and manners are the guidelines which should be considered in choosing our behaviors.

In the United States, politicians sully the chambers of our legislative temple, Congress, with their breaches of proper etiquette and good manners.  This diminishes them personally as well as diminishes the status of their office. It gives new meaning to the phrase that the "Inmates are running the asylum".   It is the lack of respect that leads to conflict as well as prevents collaboration as well as cooperation for the benefit of all.  For too many of our politicians their concern is no greater than for themselves or their allegiance is no greater of further than that for their political party.  This is nothing new, but I believe that it has never been worse or so seemingly widely accepted.

Young Thai Girl Giving a Wai to a Foreigner at a Festival

Surprised by a Photographer, a Lao Loum child gives a wai
Lao Loum children here in Isaan are taught etiquette as well as manners commencing at a very early age.  Toddlers are taught by their parents, extended family, teachers, as well as neighbors.  Interestingly and sadly I very often can identify a, "Thailang", a child of Thai and Falang parents based just on observing their behavior.

Training of young Lao Loum children commences with teaching them to respect, revere, and honor "Buddhas".  Buddhas are the Monks that are so prevalent in Thailand.  Children encounter Monks during the early morning when the Monks walk the streets and roads on their "Tak Bart" - morning merit making ritual to receive their food for that day.  Children, starting at birth, encounter Monks in rituals to obtain blessings, good luck, and wealth for the children and their families.  A visit to a Monk for medical concerns often precedes a visit to the clinic or hospital.  If the patient goes to the hospital or clinic first, their treatment is supplemented with a merit making ritual with a Monk at the local Wat.  Serious concerns or issues may require to a distant Monk who has greater renown and testaments to his powers or influence.  Since children participate in funerals and all the religious celebrations they are frequently visitors to the Wats, Buddhist temples.  Besides being religious centers, the Wats serve as social centers for local village life.

Isaan children are also taught to respect the King, Queen, and Royal Family at an early age.  At the risk of being accused of hyperbole, which I doubt I am guilty of, I would say that every house and business in Thailand has a picture of the King prominently displayed.  Many people will also have pictures of previous Kings on display.  The Royal Family are believed to be Angels sent down to assist and care for the Thai people.

A young Tahsang Village boy giving a wai

Respect for parents, elders and people of a higher rank or status are also ingrained into children starting at a very early age.  Of course as a child, they have to respect everyone.  This instills in the children a humble sense of identity. Lao Loum children do not believe that the world revolves them or that they are the center of the universe.  They know that they are loved by all but they have a role in society and a place in their society.  One of the tenants of Buddhism is the love of and caring for children.  This is a part of the religion that seems to be universally practiced.  Part of the love of and caring for children, involves teaching children etiquette and manners so that the children can be happy members of society.  Teaching the children the expectations and requirements of their society allows them to more easily integrate and positively contribute to their society.  Teaching etiquette as well as manners to the children also instructs the children as to their duties and responsibilities towards their society.  As I wrote the other day regarding the Mother's Day Celebration, children are taught that they have a duty and obligation to love and care for their elders.  The Thai government is not going to care for parents when they are old or can no longer work.  In this society it is the responsibility of the children to care for their parents and grandparents.

My friend, the teacher, indicated that many parents have ignored their responsibilities to teach etiquette and manners to their children.  I do disagree.  I also believe that schools have neglected their responsibility to teach etiquette and manners.  I suspect that my generation is largely responsible for this.  Back in the 1960s there was a strong sense of "Do your own thing" and an admiration for those who chose to live on the fringes of society.  There was a contempt if not rejection for traditional values and the etiquette as well as manners associated with "square" society.  I consider those attitudes to have been a developmental stage for my generation.  However as we became adults we did not appreciate the need for etiquette and manners.  We failed to grasp the need for society to delineate and communicate its expectations for social behavior.  Perhaps in our quest to be unconventional and to be "mod" we forgot the need to have a glue or cement that would hold our new society together while minimizing conflict.  The glue or cement is the etiquette and manners for our society.  We forgot the obligation of a society to define its expectations, and to provide a guideline for harmonious living.  We excused our dereliction of duty and laziness by saying things such as "Who am I to impose my standards on others?"  "Who am I to judge others?" - noble concerns but not justifications for inaction.

I as an individual should not impose my personal standards on others.  However as a member of a society I do have the duty to participate in the delineation of the society's standards and working to ensure that those standards are met by all members of the society - starting with me.  There is nothing wrong with a society having expectations for personal behavior and holding its members accountable to those expectations.  These expectations need to respect individual rights.  Individuals need to respect society's expectations and sensibilities.

Young Lao Loum mother giving wai to passing Monks
Much of the conflict in America today is attributable to the lack of etiquette and manners. If etiquette and manners could be better practiced and applied there would be less miscommunication and derisiveness.  With etiquette and manners a more effective dialogue could be entered into there by resulting in the resolution of issues to the benefit of the common good rather than the current state of diatribes and name calling which only hardens ideology.

To me, the greatest contribution by etiquette and manners to society is "RESPECT".  By practicing etiquette and manners, an individual demonstrates respect for that society.  By practicing etiquette and manners, an individual earns the respect of that society.

I do not agree with many of the political beliefs and philosophies of many of my friends - I suspect that they know that.  However we respect each other and etiquette as well as manners allow us to discuss our differences amicably with us often finding common ground.  It is exploiting "common ground" rather than delineating differences that will allow our society to move forward for the common good of all.

Perhaps this would be the "change" that so many Americans have been hoping for - and still waiting for.

Young Shan child gives a wai in Maehongson, Thailand

Here in Isaan I am confident that adults will continue to meet their responsibilities of teaching etiquette and manners to their children.  I am confident that the schools will continue to educate the children about their society's expectations.

 I hope that quality of life that we all enjoy here will continue.

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