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Minding our P’s and Q’s

Minding our P’s and Q’s

I was brought up to be unfailingly polite by parents who were concerned that I should be a gentleman. Perhaps I should say ‘dragged up’ as this was Dagenham, a bleak smear of 1960’s east London greyness, in which I learned some VERY rude words at Henry Green Infant School, where little Dudley Moore learned considerably more rude words, some years earlier.

Innocently, at the age of six, calling my father the worst word in the English language, having been assured by a school chum that it was a compliment and suffering Dad’s robust response, gave me a reason to be interested in politeness.

So what makes good manners?

Some things annoy me that wouldn’t bother others, like the checkout girl who absently waves my barcodes to ‘bip’ without any interruption to her gossip with a colleague. Or the shopper in front of me, who is physically present but paying attention only to the voice leaking out of his ear–clamped Samsung. Or the Y9 girl who is gently called by name and lashes back with “What?!”.

There’s no consensus any more about what makes good manners. I remember the father of one persistent trouble maker, summoned after yet another playground bust-up and keen to impress on the head teacher that he’d brought his son up right:

“I’ve told him again and again Mrs Brownlow, wait until he’s outside the school gate, then t**t him!”

And in schools we are often our own worst enemy. We extol the virtue of taking turns and then we push in the dinner queue. We ban interruptions and interrupt at will. We bang on and on about the importance of listening and then fail to do it.

The missed opportunities are legion. Take the classroom assistant who arrives just as the lesson gets going. What a great chance to show today’s ‘yoof’ how manners should be done:

“Ah Miss Jenkins thank you so much for joining us this morning. It’s great to have you aboard. How are you today?”

Wouldn’t that be nice…or even just a plain ol’ ‘Good morning’?

Sadly, my welcomometer frequently registers absolute zero between teacher and support staff, almost as if the assistant is afraid to make waves and the teacher doesn’t quite know what to do with the support available…

And where many of us in schools can make a quick, solid win is to stop saying ‘please’ and start saying ‘thank you’.

Obliged as we are to face down miscreants who express their existential teenage torment by wearing a hat indoors, we say something like “Take the hat off Dylan, please”. Now try repeating that. What do you sound like? Nothing at all if there are earphones in under the hat of course… but assuming we can be heard, what do we sound like when we repeat “please”? Pretty weak I’d say.

Now try “Take the hat off Dylan, thank you”. And if Dylan doesn’t whip off his beanie at the first time of asking you can repeat ‘thank you’ with a more assertive tone and you don’t sound weak, in fact the opposite.

I’d add two more tweaks to this gambit.

First I’d start with “Good morning Dylan”. It’s another interaction and as such, it’s another chance to model good manners. (Quick rant: We spend our professional lives telling these people to walk away from a fight, which takes shed loads of courage to do…. and we can’t find it in ourselves to start a conversation with a pleasantry?)

Secondly I’d say “Taking the hat off” rather than ‘take’; it’s a description of What I Want To See, rather than a command. It’s just as assertive but to Dylan it feels less like having a finger dug into his ribs.

The other advantage of ‘thank you’ is that you sound like you’re really expecting compliance. It works wonders. Really. I’ve been contacted by several staff in the last week or so who’ve found that ‘thank you’ works where ‘please’ had failed.

We should be polite…. and we should be in charge.

Thank you for reading this!

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