Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England. This week: manners

There are a few obsessions amongst parents and Helpful Onlookers when it comes to child-rearing, such as how much your baby weighs, what career choices you have made for after maternity leave, and my personal favourite - manners. 


Once when Deceptively Angelic Looking Child 1 (DALC1) was about two she yelled at me 'NEED DRINK NOW!’ (don’t we all, Darling) and, not thinking anything of it, I passed her a drink. I happened to catch my sister’s eye and saw that she was horrified at the way DALC1 had spoken to me. I was, of course, more aware than her that DALC1 could only speak in short phrases and simply lacked the ability to say ’Dearest Mummy, I wonder awfully if you might be so kind as to pass me a beverage please’.

On another occasion I remember being at a friend’s daughter’s third birthday party and the child’s grandmother being horrified that she had arrived, been there for 10 minutes already, and the child had not stopped opening presents or playing with her friends to come over and say hello. Terrible child.

'Please' and 'thank you' and 'I’ve had such a lovely time at your house' are words that just slip off my niece’s tongue, whereas DALC1 gets so tongue-tied and embarrassed that once we stood in a friend’s doorway for a good 15 minutes while I tried to make her say 'thank you for having me'. She had had a lovely time, was very grateful, but just couldn’t get the words out.

I want to raise kind, conscientious, fun, happy, empathetic children. They will be polite, because their parents are polite, and children copy what they see not what they are told to do. (I mean, I call my opponents some rude words as you know and are horrified by but generally I am very well-mannered). Manners can show respect, humility and genuine gratitude, which are good qualities to have, but they are mostly superficial. Manners are really just charm and charm is only two steps away from smarm.

Once as a trainee in conveyancing (awful, kids, don’t do it) I phoned to speak to a conveyancer, Martin, who hadn’t got back to me in weeks to progress a particular transaction. My clients and I felt quite aggrieved. I phoned his firm’s switchboard, quite het up, and asked for him:

Me: Could I speak to Martin please? It is [me] from [my firm]

Voice: Just a second please… MARTIN? MARTIN? I think he will be here in just a second…. MARTIN? Oh, goodness, I’ve just remembered, I AM Martin!

I was immediately disarmed and found myself grinning. As you can imagine he then went on to profusely apologise for his lack of contact and tell me how it was all his fault and blah blah blah. It was all a load of nonsense. I may as well have been speaking to Daniel Cleaver. There was no respect or humility, just a desire to use his posh voice and quick wit to get himself out of a sticky situation.

A couple of years into my job at my old firm (I may have mentioned this firm before) a new managing partner was recruited. He was such a breath of fresh air - affable, cool and charming. I have never forgiven myself for how long it took me to work out he was intent on gutting the firm, doing no work and sleeping with the trainees.

On the other hand I have often worked with people whose shyness has made them come over as rude. This can particularly be the case when the shy person is more senior than you - it feels like it must be rudeness because why would they be shy in front of you?

As Elizabeth Bennet once said of her beaux 'one has all the goodness and the other all the appearance of it'. On the subject of old English I am currently trying to convince the third trainee of my career to use modern, clear language. The younger they get (compared to me) the more traditional and flowery their language. My current favourite- changing 'should' to 'would' in her letters - as in 'I would be grateful if you could sign this form' not 'I should be grateful'. At least she has good manners.