Thursday, 27 December 2012

If you don't mind awfully...

Only if it does not cause you too much inconvenience... possibly, I may indulge you in a discourse about British politeness, please if I could?

As you no doubt will be aware, British politeness is renowned. Famously. Worldwide.

The German word for politeness [Höflichkeit] translates directly into Courtliness or Courtesy (certainly something to do with courts)... which made me wonder about the origin of British politeness. Is it something steeped in tradition rather than rooted in human kindness? To a German, British politeness can be at times something quite stilted, a bit plastic and not quite entirely honest. In Germany Höflichkeit [politeness] doesn't rank as highly as Ehrlichkeit [honesty]... many times it seems the other way round in Britain: it's about pleasing the other person by telling them what they want to hear... and living with the consequences after (ie you get a "nice" Christmas jumper year after year).


I am totally digressing. Please do excuse me for wasting your time that way. Where were we? Yes. Politeness, a form of social interaction, a socialisation processs - behaving respectfully and considerately towards others.

Rules of politeness do exist. You can see them in action as polite patience and waiting your turn (queuing, an amazing spectacle!), giving people personal space (as a more northern society a lot of space is required), gestures of kindness and courtesy, a healthy overdose of sorries, thank yous and small talk, understatements and hedging statements. And in whatever you do never (never ever!) complain, please pardon my forthrightness but stiff-upper-lipness rules and Britannia's waves politely. Certainly if you speak at all (possibly small talk), don't speak too loudly if you can!

My observation, if you allow me, was going to be this. If British politeness is something that's there, it exists, it's real, something that everyone prescribes to, something the pervades society - why is it so solidly suspended on our roads?

An example? Consider this manoeuvre.
  1. a tailgating driver, quite possibly threatening to rear-end you [broken rule of polite patience]
  2. then a close-shave overtake [broken rule of personal space]
  3. followed by speeding away to "make up lost time" [broken rule of stiff-upper-lip]
  4. or a left-hook [broken rule of polite patience and personal space]
In our roads there is a general rule of "quiet" acceptance for barging and shoving, squeezing-in and asserting your space and presence. Rather brash and brazenly so.

A most weird one is where 'rules of the road' and 'rules of politeness' directly collide. And implode. "Merge in turn"... your herd instinct tells you to get the h*ck out of that soon-to-be-merged lane as soon as poss... or otherwise the wrath of others would rain down on you, and you are forever doomed to stay in the merging lane till the end of days. Melt-down ensures and a wormhole opens up.

To me it seems rules of politeness are "on hold" as soon as you get into that thing. You close the door, and it transports you into a parallel universe where a new set of rules apply. A selfish retreat, a holiday from being British, polite and proud of it.

Unless you are aware, and you counteract it, you fall prey to Demon King Car and its Rules of the Road, so diametrically opposed to rules of British Politeness.

Why is that?

Maybe British Politeness is dead? As are nearly 2,000 road traffic victims every year. Politeness may have saved them. Yet society asks us to simply stiffen up our lips, and get on with it. A collision of principles?

Or maybe British politeness never did exist on your roads?

I leave you with the real Cholmondley-Warner...

Thank you.

A post where I haven't even mentioned the word b*cycles!


  1. Things which the Brits regard as politeness (punctuality, for example, being "the politeness of princes", and "if you can't think of something nice to say, don't say anything at all") are viewed with some amusement by others, notably our nearest neighbours the Irish, where it woudl almost be regarded as rude to be too punctual, and you speak your mind and people don't take offence.

    However I don't think the notion of politeness, or courtesy, suspended the instant you get behind the wheel of a car is a peculiarly British phenomenon. Have you ever seen the ad for AXA car insurance, speculating on how things would look if pedestrians behaved the same wasy a drivers? Elbows, shoves, snarls, lipstick marks across a cheek, spilt handbags etc. I think that ad was made for Europe-wide consumption!

    Certainly I have noticed atrocious behaviour from Belgians, and Swiss behind the wheel. The French have their moments too, even if they are not quite so aggressive towards pedestrians and cyclists as the Brits - and they don't extend the same courtesy to other motorists!

    Even the Dutch - wash out my mouth with soap! - can be pretty bad as drivers. I have not experienced them on Dutch roads but in high summer they are like ants in the Dordogne valley of France, and as a cyclist I was very wary of them.

    I think it has a psychological explanation - they are not bad people really, just they experience a Jekyll/Hyde transformation as soon as they get behind the wheel. All that tension and frustrtation over the crowded conditions, which somehow don't nmatch the story they were told by the advertisers, who of course film car ads at first light in midsummer or in the most remote parts of the globe to give the impression of the freedom of the open road.

  2. Sorry, I offended!

    The question I was trying to pose: even in a particularly and peculiarly polite society drivers STILL behave like idiots.

    [I saw a German driver steering his car - twice! - most idiotically in Newcastle the other day - I'd say the real influencing factor is the road environment, street layout, space given to modes etc.]

    1. No offence taken :-).

      Yes, I think road environment has a great deal to do with it. I recall psychology students at my uni talking about their experiments with rats, where they put a rat into a confined, but relatively spacious, observation run, then added one more rat ata time, observing how they behaved as the crowding got worse. They do reach a point wherethey start to fight with each other - or worse. That was in the 70s and probably wouldn't be permitted now of course.

      Anyway, point is that road conditions generate the frustration they feel, no doubt partly because they bought the idea of that open road (or empty city street) and somehow are still surprised when they see reality.

      Of course their road environment is largely self-inflicted - they are not actually compelled to get into their cars - whereas we cyclists have such conditions imposed on us.