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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Thanks seems to be the hardest word

Why is there such an absence of good manners in our country?

Were you at all surprised to hear about those unruly Indian passengers on Cathay Pacific Business Class who had to be off-loaded in Hong Kong? When the cabin crew refused to serve them more alcohol, given that they were already dead drunk, they started abusing the air-hostesses in a tirade strewn with four-letter words.

Frankly, I wasn’t. Given the way Indian passengers – especially the rich, powerful and famous ones who travel in First and Business Class – behave on airplanes, this was an incident waiting to happen. But what is truly shaming to us as a nation is that such incidents are happening with an alarming regularity.

Needless to say, airline staff bears the brunt of this bad behavior. If a flight is cancelled due to fog or delayed because of late arrival of an aircraft, you can be sure that a few obnoxious jerks will start verbally abusing the ground staff, even though common sense will tell you that these hapless people have no control over such matters. If a particularly hostile crowd gathers then physical abuse can’t be ruled out either.

Air-hostesses have gotten so used to being treated badly by passengers that it is no longer even an issue. They are routinely spoken to rudely, the odd grope is par for the course, and men seem to regard it as a god-given right to try and pick them up. And irrespective of gender, the cabin crew is shouted at for everything from ATC delays to bad in-flight meals, even though they have nothing to do with either.

In fact, if you want to see how badly behaved Indians are, airports are a good place to start. Car and taxi drivers will try their best to run you over as you negotiate the zebra crossing. The security staff will be rude and obnoxious. Instead of addressing passengers as Sir or Madam – as is customary across the civilized world – they will address you by the familiar ‘tum’ form in Hindi or whatever regional language they speak. And if you are pulled aside for a random check of your hand luggage, they will not make the slightest attempt to help you put it back.

Shops and department stores are another place where you can check out the legendary bad behavior of our brethren – right across the service divide. No customer will ever bother to say please or thank you – and neither will the sales staff. If you are dealing with a shop assistant, the person behind you will not have the decency to wait till you are finished but will interrupt unabashedly. In fact, anybody who exhibits the barest modicum of good manners – like queuing up in an orderly fashion at the till – will be regarded as something of an oddity.

I’m not suggesting that we should go in for the fake-cheeriness of US stores, where everyone is sent off with a hearty, “Have a nice day”. (One British writer was most upset when he was so advised by an American cab driver. “I’ll have any kind of day I want,” he retorted indignantly.) But surely a smile, a please, a thank you, goes a long way in making the world a better place to live in. And it doesn’t even require much effort.

Telephone manners are another area in which Indians could do with a great deal of improvement. I’ve lost count of the number of times I pick up the phone to be greeted with a peremptory “Who’s that?” My answer is always an indignant: “What do you mean who’s that? You’re the one calling me.” Honestly, whatever happened to: “Could I please speak to…?” or even “Is that so-and-so?”

Restaurants are another arena where I am constantly appalled by just how badly behaved Indians are. The word please is conspicuously absent from their vocabulary when they are placing their orders. They ignore the waiting staff when they are serving the table instead of saying thank you. And then, if nobody is paying attention to them momentarily, they call for service by clicking their fingers, or shouting ‘Boy’ or something equally offensive.

Nowhere is this more embarrassing than when you are eating out abroad. You can be sure that the guy shouting loudly on his mobile phone while everyone else tries to have a memorable meal at a Michelin-star restaurant will be an Indian. And don’t even start me on the kids. When foreign children will be sitting quietly in their high chairs, doing a fairly decent job of wielding a knife and fork, the Indian kids will be running riot, careering around the restaurant, throwing more food on the table than into their mouths, and screaming loudly if their maids make an ineffectual effort to discipline them. (And please, all you mummy bloggers out there, please don’t clog my in-box yet again. Let’s just agree that I am a bad, bad person, and be done with it.)

If you don’t think there is a difference, just observe the behavior of Indian and foreign kids on your next long-haul flight. The firangi children will sit quietly with their headphones listening to music or playing a video game. The Indian kids will be running up and down the aisles, trying to trip everyone who passes, while their parents don’t pay the blindest bit of attention.

Is it any wonder then that we grow up to be such a badly-behaved bunch?

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