Private lives

I read something the other day in which Bill Bryson bemoaned declining standards of public behaviour, based on having seen a woman leave a meager tip in a café when she believed no-one was watching. He contrasted this with the Britain he arrived in 40 years ago, where ‘behaviour was predicated on doing the right thing whether anyone knew about it or not’.

Now I adore Bill Bryson, and frequently find myself shrieking with laughter and whooping with recognition at his writing, but I’m really not sure about this one. For one thing it seems a trifle rich from a man who has boasted in at least one of his books of stealing from hotel mini-bars.

But let’s leave that aside, along with the odious and pitfall-strewn business of tipping, and consider the matter of private vs public behaviour, which I think underlies the point he was making.

There is much hypocrisy and self-righteousness in this sphere of human life. We are generally more enthusiastic about seizing the moral high ground in our pronouncements than applying it in our actions. Everyone professes outrage at the chronic failure over decades of Greeks to pay their taxes, but how many of us can truly say we wouldn’t avail ourselves of the same opportunity if we thought we could get away with it?

And even on less significant matters, can we really be held to public standards of behaviour in private? Do we even know now the difference between public and private in a world where so many are prepared to broadcast intimate details of their lives, feelings and opinions to the world via social media? No hangover too severe, no drunken indiscretion too embarrassing.

It used to be considered bad manners to talk on the phone when in company, since it not only excludes those physically present and makes it clear they are a lower priority for you than the person on the phone, but then heaps insult upon injury by demanding they affect disinterest and deafness until you make yourself available once again. Although I still hate it when someone I am with breaks off to talk on the phone, such sensibilities now sound hopelessly quaint and old-fashioned.

The law in many countries has something to say about what is and is not appropriate public behaviour, but our individual or collective sense of propriety generally dictates what we do and don’t do in public. There are some things we’d really rather not be seen doing. These vary from culture to culture. For example, men stand and pee by the roadside all the time in Africa and no-one bats an eye, but it never fails to give me a jolt when I see someone doing it in Europe.

But I think maybe our sense of the boundaries between private and public behaviour are being eroded and blurred. I don’t know how else to explain a revolting episode on the Tube in London recently, when I heard from further down the carriage an odd but strangely familiar metallic clicking sound. I looked to see what it was and saw a middle aged man clipping his fingernails and letting the parings drop on the floor. I was appalled. It was disgusting, inconsiderate and to me a highly objectionable breach of the line between what is allowable in private and in public. What made him think this was acceptable? What made him see absolutely nothing wrong with inflicting an extra and deeply distasteful task on the cleaners, and an equally distasteful sight on his fellow passengers?

When I was in my teens my mother told me it was bad manners to apply lipstick in public. I wonder what she would have made of a story from a few years ago that highlighted the vanity and grooming standards of Japanese schoolgirls by reporting on a mutiny of commuters when one girl began to shave her legs on the train on her way to school.

It seems that the more connected we are through our phones or other devices, or the more our individuality is crushed by big cities and dehumanizing commutes, the more we create our own bubble, in which we believe our behaviour is our business and ours alone.

But it never is. Unless we are in private.

And that’s where we come back to Mr Bryson’s story, because his nostalgia for a time when courtesy, respect and generosity were our default position really only highlights that, actually, good manners and appropriate public behaviour are about consideration for others. We should exercise that consideration in private with those we love, but for life in our increasingly overcrowded world to be tolerable we need to exercise it in public too.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and give myself a pedicure.

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Help yourself

How much help is it reasonable to expect from others?

Of course the answer to that depends wholly on context. Family and friends are likely to help out in a crisis, and simple kindness means we might want to offer assistance to anyone struggling on to a bus with a baby buggy, but it seems to me that there are times and places where it is wholly reasonable to expect help and yet none is forthcoming.

I’m talking here about people whose actual job it is to provide assistance in the form of service, guidance, repair or recompense but who entirely fail to do so.

Now I know that am marching on into an increasingly irritable middle age, so I accept that I may be experiencing the unfortunate confluence of rising expectations and declining patience that is the hallmark of a Grumpy Old Woman. Nonetheless, a glance back over the past few weeks of the call centre queue that is my life throws up a dispiriting array of occasions when, shall we say, expectations have not been met.

From Amazon to Zambian Internet service providers, via British Airways, Uber and others, I’ve had a bellyful of case reference numbers, specified delivery times that pass with no delivery, and a tinny eternity of the Flower Duet on hold. I’m driven to rage by chirpy recorded messages asking me (rhetorically) whether I know that almost every problem known to man – climate change, the refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic extremism – can surely be solved by visiting their website. Thanks, but I’ve tried that already. That’s why I’m calling. And what is the whole customer-service-line-that-gives-you-absolutely-no-chance-of speaking-to-a-human thing about? (I’m talking to you, Vodafone) And the ones whose ‘Contact Us’ page is nothing more than a way of trapping you in an endless Escher-esque loop back to their FAQs, which of course don’t answer your particular Q, since perhaps it is not A very F, otherwise YOU WOULDN’T BE PUTTING YOURSELF THROUGH THE PAIN OF MAKING THIS PHONE CALL IN THE FIRST PLACE.

I had to go to Ikea recently to buy stuff for a daughter going to university. We’re pretty good at the whole Ikea thing now, and have totally nailed the shortcuts that avoid you having to traipse through the whole ghastly sausage machine behind two fat women and their army of kids moving at the pace of an asthmatic snail. Thus it was that we arrived in the lighting department with rather smug alacrity, selected a desk lamp, doubled back briefly into textiles to buy a rug, paused on the way through the market place for the obligatory bag of tea lights without which no visit to Ikea is complete, and made for the tills.

Of course I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

Unpacking in her hall of residence a few days later we discovered that when switched on, the desk lamp gave out a hallucinatory pulsing beam, reminiscent of a rave in a small town club rather than the calming pool of light in which I had fondly imagined my daughter engaged in quiet and diligent study. Dozens of miles from an Ikea, and (naturally) without my till receipt, I called their customer service line.

The best thing – what am I saying? the ONLY good thing – about the Ikea customer service line is that they play Abba while you are on hold. This all but demands you join in with a singalong to Waterloo, which can cause a certain amount of embarrassment and confusion when a person actually comes on the line. Recovering my dignity I explained my predicament and was told, as I knew I would be, that I must go to a store.

The next day I did so, making straight for the Returns and Exchanges desk, where I explained the issue. The assistant looked nonplussed, so I suggested that perhaps she could plug the lamp in and switch it on in order to see the problem for herself.

She said, “Well, I’ll have to see whether there’s anyone in the store today who’s got the authority to do that.”

I am rarely lost for words, but I have to say that she had me there. I mean, there we were, in a developed country in one of the world’s most successful retailers where all around us staff members were tapping on sophisticated electronic devices, and yet she was suggesting that plugging in a lamp was outside their skill set or authority.

Fortunately, at this juncture another yellow-shirted employee happened by. Perhaps his attention was caught by the sight of a middle-aged woman tearing her hair and rending her garments but, whatever, happily he stopped and took the matter in hand. With the sort of assurance that comes from knowing his way around any flat pack assembly instructions you could throw at him, he took my lamp, moved two meters to his left, and plugged it in. It flickered in the same unpleasant, epilepsy-inducing way that it had the day before.

In no time he had authorized a voucher for its exchange and in just a little longer I was on my way. Job done.

We are so accustomed now to staff who manage to imply that the problem is somehow your own fault, or who are so miserably ill-informed about their own products and services that you must be bounced from department to department and answer the same security questions over and over again, that good customer service is rare enough to be truly memorable.

I was reminded sharply of this when I went into a branch of Sports Direct to buy some trainers. Sports Direct is a British retailer known for its cavernous stores and the overstuffed mess of bright nylon and branded hoodies that fill them. I went only because trainers are cheaper there than elsewhere, but it’s a heavy price to pay. Previous visits had yielded rudeness and only the most reluctant show of help from the spotty and callow youths that work there.

Well that’ll learn me.

The young man who came forward, unbidden, to offer assistance turned out to be charming, helpful and extremely knowledgeable about sports footwear. In no time at all he had me sorted with exactly what I needed. I was so surprised and delighted that had he suggested it, it is perfectly possible I would have left with a full Manchester City strip as well.

The warm glow from this transaction hasn’t faded yet and the next time any of us need anything made of lycra or with air cushioning, I know where I’ll go. Vodafone and others, you could learn a lot from the young man in the women’s shoe department at Fosse Park. Maybe you should pop in.