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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