‘Humans are the pre-eminent species amongst all life forms that inhabit Mother Earth’. We have all heard this assertion before and by all accounts including available scientific evidence collated over centuries we most probably are.
So why are we better/superior than fellow organisms? There is a myriad of differences between Homo Sapiens and other animals in the kingdom of ‘Animalia’ which account for and contribute to this advantage. That said, let’s focus and explore a few of the defining distinguishing characteristics that put us on a higher pedestal. To begin with, we claim to be much superior when it comes to being endowed with a quality called intelligence. The scientific term used here with respect to intelligence is ‘encephalization quotient’ which is a way of measuring the intelligence level or cognition in an animal. We are also perhaps almost unique in the animal kingdom with regard to possession of a quality called self-reflection. A quality that allows us to dwell on our actions, draw certain inferences/learnings and implement some corrective/redemptive measures or improvements as may be the case in future transactions with society. A voluntary course correction if you may in the voyage called life sailing in an ocean called society and when on a collision course with icebergs called greed, envy, rage and apathy et.al. Some of the other primates might share this quality with us but evolutionary anthropology suggests we are again far superior and more ‘evolved’ in this regard.
Last but not least, we are categorized as ‘social animals’ and the most evolved on this front as well. To that end, most of us would like to believe that we distinguish ourselves from other social animals by living to and transacting with fellow humans through a code or set of self-enforced rules/practices variedly called ‘etiquette’, ‘manners’, ‘civic sense’ and ‘chivalry’ etc. The general consensus in our society is the level of etiquette a human being practices displays her/his degree of evolution as an intelligent, empathetic and socially-conscious and socially-responsible being .
“Etiquette is all human social behavior. If you are a hermit on a mountain, you don’t have to worry about etiquette; if somebody comes up the mountain, then you have got a problem. It matters because we want to live in reasonably harmonious communities.”
~ Judith Martin
Etiquette in the Indian milieu
Let’s explore etiquette within the Indian context as a synoptic case study. Etiquette is vast and can be categorized depending upon the setting or activity within the premises of which it is executed. Examples of the categories would be workplace etiquette, driving etiquette, movie theater etiquette, shopping mall etiquette, elevator etiquette, toilet etiquette to name a few. That said, the etiquette within the various categories is not mutually exclusive. In fact, there is a huge overlap across categories. My theory with regards to this overlap is that etiquette in all its manifestations is fundamentally born out of only a solitary foundational principle articulated below.
Etiquette: Respect for the fellow human being and concern for their welfare and of the society at large.
Allow me expand on my postulate with India centric examples for your benefit. Let’s conflate the terms ‘civic sense’ and ‘etiquette’ for the Indian context as they are very tightly coupled for all ends and purposes.
Example 1: What would it mean if I were to not sneeze into my elbow-pit and instead spray you with my mucus when I’m in the throes of a nasty bacterial infection? The answer is simple. By not sneezing into my elbow pit or a napkin or coughing into my cupped hands (and washing the hands immediately thereafter as we could contaminate anything we touch) there is a high likelihood that I’m gifting you my germs and allied illness. This kind of behavior is emblematic of someone who has no regard whatsoever for you or your well-being.
Example 2: What would it mean if I were not to grant you the right of way (when merging onto a Main Street from a side street) and instead barge in without any consideration? The answer is quite simple. By merging onto the main road without waiting on my fellow commuter to pass through that intersection there is a high likelihood that I’m not only inconveniencing them by forcing them to swerve sharply to avoid contact with my vehicle but also in the process increasing the chances of them crashing into other vehicles in another lane owing to this abrupt encroachment thereby ultimately jeopardizing everyone else’s personal safety (A domino effect or chain reaction of sorts). This kind of behavior again translates into my utter disregard for my fellow human being and for their well-being (by serving as the spark that ignited that catastrophic blaze).
Example 3: What would it mean if I were to play a video clip on my smartphone without using a pair of headphones when I’m seated in the waiting area of a hospital/commercial establishment or any public place for that matter? The answer yet again is quite simple. By playing that video clip and its associated audio on the smartphone’s speakers I’m not only disturbing the decorum of that place and causing consternation to my fellow humans therein but also potentially causing irredeemable harm to young ones who might be impacted by inappropriate language/content that they are exposed to in the process. Yet again, this kind of callous behavior translates into my utter disregard for my fellow human being and for their well-being.
Example 4: What would it mean if I were to use the loo/urinal and then leave without raising the seat before peeing, flushing and washing my hands? The answer this time round too is quite simple. By not raising the seat prior to urinating and not flushing the loo/urinal after I’m not only setting the stage for my fellow human being who is to use that amenity next for an exceptionally unpleasant experience (physical revulsion and mental trauma) but also exposing them to a health hazard in the form an urinary tract infection. By not washing my hands post the usage of the lavatory I’m potentially turning myself into a disease carrying vector by way of a mere contact of this un-santized and potentially harmful bacteria ridden hand with another human being. Yet again, this kind of insensitive behavior translates into an abject lack of regard for my fellow human being and for their welfare.
Example 5: What would it mean if I were to dump all the trash generated from my household not in but around the designated garbage bin provided by the local municipal body? The answer is familiarly simple. The family that resides opposite the location of the neighborhood garbage collection bin has to suffer the ignominy of having to not only endure the eyesore of a pile of trash day in day out but also the vile stench emanating from it. Moreover, as the trash putrefies it becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes as well as other rodents who in-turn manifest themselves into agents of disease and destruction. All of this because I could not take that extra step to empty my trash cans into the garbage bin!. So you see my insouciance translates into a complete lack of respect for my fellow human beings and no concern whatsoever for their welfare.
Example 6: What would it mean if I were to waltz in and nonchalantly cut into right at the head of a queue at a bank, cinema, post office, airport or anywhere else for that matter when my fellow human beings have been waiting patiently and in an orderly fashion for their turn to arrive for a considerable amount of time? The answer is predictably simple. This brazen maneuver will most likely lead to anguish and trauma for my fellow humans who are non-confrontational by nature and also could lead to a verbal and/or physical showdown with those who aren’t as coy. Furthermore, this act of mine could lead to a climate of overwhelming frustration and prompt a complete breakdown of orderliness and the triggering of a free-for-all where the queue is summarily abandoned. So in this instance, I’ve not only injured the psyche of quite a few of my fellow humans but also precipitated a collapse of an important societal construct (the queue) with unprecedented success. Another glaring example of my lack of respect for the members as well as for the very underpinnings of society.
Few Other Examples: A cursory glance at a few other examples of etiquette/civic sense/chivalry. Holding the door for the person behind you, not honking unless absolutely required (I mean absolutely), holding the elevator doors open when you can hear footsteps approaching and wait on the sides when waiting to board an elevator so that the people in it may egress, moving to the right side (In India) of an escalator or conveyor paths if you are stationary so that people who are climbing/walking may pass by, moving over at once to the side upon hearing the siren and let the ambulance or fire-truck pass through, slowing down your vehicle to a halt at the sight of children, stopping for pedestrians and allow them to cross over safely, stepping aside/vacate seats for the sick, elderly, infirm, expecting mothers in public transport or anywhere else for that matter.
There are of course other categories of etiquette e.g. Dining etiquette that I won’t be broaching here just because I believe they do not materially impact society in a negative manner if not followed. That said, observance of such etiquette does indeed make for a better social experience. Cultural etiquette is yet another domain that is localized and less relevant for the purposes of our exploration.
That being said, there is a still a host of other examples of etiquette at play that I can lay out to drive home the point I have belabored to make thus far. That said, I hope the aforesaid examples are sufficient to paint a clear picture of the lack of etiquette and deficit in civic sense that ails the Indian society of today.
American novelist Paul Theroux had famously observed, ” The Australian book of etiquette is a very slim volume”. By that yardstick, the Indian book of etiquette is an invisible volume!
So where have we gone wrong as a society and a country? Can we blame the lack of education or simply the inability to self-reflect and therefore course correct for this unfortunate and quite frankly unacceptable state of affairs? These factors probably have a part to play. But only a small part. I know of plenty of intelligent and educated human beings hailing from households with purportedly a solid moral compass exhibit absolutely no manners, ethics, etiquette, civic sense or chivalry. On the other hand, there are scores of examples of human beings on the wrong end of the entitlement spectrum who are paragons of empathy and ethical behavior.
From the life lessons I have accumulated over time, the inference I’ve been able to extrapolate from them is that the insidious culture of ‘I, Me, Myself’ that has invaded and taken over the Indian society (don’t know how or when). A complete absence of a value system during one’s formative years or worse where one that instills tenets that are at odds with our definition of etiquette/civic duty is the order of the day. This scourge has slowly but surely destroyed any and all endemic belief systems which promoted the concept of ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ (a concept across all major civilizations, societies and faiths) much like how the Asian carp has taken over the major American water bodies at an alarming rate and destroyed all local fish population in them.
Changing this untenable status quo will seem like a Sisyphean task but we as parents and custodians of the future generations must endeavor to not just preach to our kids to not drive on the wrong side of the road just because it is a shorter route to their destination but by putting this into practice by setting an example every single time!
“It is easy to laugh at etiquette, but in hundred years, our children’s grandchildren will almost certainly be laughing at us.”
~ Sara Sheridan