Frontlines: Manners and respect

One of our team of practitioner columnists gives her take on manners and respect

There are some schools I visit for which I keep a mental point score: how easy was it to get through the first door, how many minutes before anyone looked up to ask if they could help, how rude were they today? But just when I am despairing about the lack of respect from adults, I’ll visit a primary school where the pupils ask if I’d like a cup of tea, offer to show me to my appointment, hold doors and make polite conversation. So now I am confused. Are we losing the art of respect for one another, is society crumbling at the edges, or is it all still safe out there?

Thirteen months after the launch of the government’s Respect Action Plan, there is much that concerns me, not least the subtitle of chapter one of the plan. “Give Respect, Get Respect” may be a descriptive statement of current attitudes but is it the height of our aspirations? Do we give others respect only on condition that they then treat us in a similar way, or because they already have? Should it be because of rights enshrined in law? Or do we appeal to a higher moral order? Perhaps whether we treat people with respect says more about us than it does about others.

In a bygone age, respect was equated with good manners and about knowing your place in society – standing up for a woman, doffing your cap. Sometimes it can feel as if, in challenging sexism and classism, we threw the baby out with the bath water. We have lost the art of putting others before ourselves. And in the end I suspect that’s the nub of it. Respect is not simply about good manners, but manners do tell us a lot about how we view ourselves in the world and how we relate to our family and community. If “I” and “me” are the most important people, then we cease to see and hear the needs of those around.

Is society getting worse? There are plenty of people willing to discuss either side of that argument. At work, we focus on those families for whom each day may be about “looking after number one” in a battle for benefits, housing, or school support but good manners and respect can be as present or absent in all parts of society. Maybe a demonstration of this from those with power would go a long way towards turning things around.

Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker


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