No, please, after you – by Rev. Mark Woods

Most of us are pretty lazy when it comes to national stereotypes. Mention a country, and a ready-made image of its inhabitants springs fully-formed to mind. Out of respect for the context of this column, I’ll refrain from giving any examples.

But in any case, even when they aren’t plain wrong, they’re a very blunt instrument. Anyone, in any country, can be kind and courteous; anyone can be mean and aggressive, or overweight, or unwashed, or whatever other jibe you want to throw out.

Does that mean that different societies have no individuality at all?  No, there’s a huge difference between French culture and German, for instance, or Russian and Italian. And even those categories are far too broad: in my own country, between a Rossendale farmer and a Newham hoodie, proud Englishmen both, there is a great gulf fixed of mutual incomprehension. 

So what about the famed British politeness? Well, it’s not entirely a myth, though we’re changing. Like the rest of the developed world, we’re living more quickly, we have less time – or think we do –  and less patience.

But there is, across most of our country, a basic civility, a willingness to help, and a certain habit of self-deprecation that I’ve always found rather appealing. We don’t trumpet our achievements, such as they are (see, there I go) and a recent survey has shown that the average Brit apologises seven times a day – rather high, most people would think, but we would say it’s only polite. And all of this is written, of course, under the provisos of the first paragraph: none of it is strictly true.

Where was this politeness, I wonder, a few weeks ago when parts of London and other cities erupted, out of the blue, in a frenzy of riots and looting? It was genuinely shocking, though one of our Baptist ministers with an ear to the ground said he’d thought that ‘something’ was coming. Most of us were taken completely by surprise. Our courts were crowded; large numbers of the looters were identified, and they are counting the cost of their new trainers and flat-screen TVs as guests of Her Majesty.

Well: see the first paragraph again. Stereotypes are lazy. People – even Brits – are sometimes greedy and feckless, and civilization, as C P Snow says, is just a coat of varnish. But I see two things here for further reflection.

First is the lesson of the riots themselves. Things became more important than people. For the sake of a few consumer goods, people were terrified, had their livelihoods destroyed and their homes burned. Politeness seems a frail bulwark to set against that sort of behaviour. But politeness is how you behave when you see the other person as a person, rather than as an obstacle to your enjoyment.

Second, though, is what happened afterwards. Broomstick armies took to the streets, determined to clear up the mess. People were outraged that such things could be, and – here is a prophecy, if you like – it’s not going to happen again. There was a reclamation of community from the wreckers. People were embarrassed, ashamed, and determined to say to the world, ‘Our city is not really like that at all.’

That gives me hope. In the end, the kind of character our society has is based on thousands of individual acts of will. There’ll always be those who choose wrongly, but it’s possible to achieve a critical mass of those who treat other people with dignity, respect and consideration, and that will shape how a nation sees itself, and how it’s seen by others. Some stereotypes are worth living up to. 

The Revd Mark Woods is editor of The Baptist Times, the UK’s Baptist newspaper

 

1 Comment »

  • Capt. J.P. Burke, USN (Ret) says:

    Mark, I have had the privilege of working with members of the Royal Navy frequently over a span of 32 years of my life. Those men were courteous and willing to help at every turn. If these men were representative of British Society in general,,, you are uncommonly fortunate. I’d almost bet that those
    people who caused the “ruckus” in London during the riots were not Royal Navy personnel!!

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