The Oil in the Machine

A long time ago in the early 1980s, I was studying at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton NB, Canada. The university is on top of a hill and I used to negotiate a wooden stairway from the road where I was living to get up the first part of the climb.

One day, some people were at the top of the stairway, so I waited patiently at the bottom to let them come down. They took their time and then walked past me calmly without the hint of a thank you.

I was flabbergasted.

“That would never happen in England,” I said to myself.

Chistmas 1982 found me in England, and guess what? Exactly the same thing happened to me.

I made a careful mental note then and there that I would never again assume that behaviour in the land of my birth was superior to or different from the country in which I happened to be while abroad. The last thing I wanted to be was an ex-patriate living in a dream of a country that never was.

I have now been living in Switzerland for thirty years.

In July, I went to England with my wife Brigitte to visit my mother who is the same age as the Queen.

One day we went to the beach at Holywell, Eastbourne. It was very pleasant indeed. A light breeze, a little cloud, a hint of sun, neither too hot nor too cold.

We’d been there a while when a number of children in school uniform started to arrive at the beach. Some of them went swimming. One even went into the water in her school uniform. Three boys, probably aged somewhere between ten and twelve started playing with a ball somewhere behind us up the beach.

Suddenly a tennis ball whizzed out of nowhere and hit my wife extremely hard in the back. She was both shocked and physically hurt. Understandably, she was angry, but the boy responsible ran away and the other two just laughed.

I suggested that we hang on to the ball until she got an apology. Sooner or later, someone would have to come and ask for the ball back, I reasoned.

Nothing happened.

Only when we got up to leave the beach did two adults come up to us. One was the father of one of the children, the other a teacher from the school.

We explained what had happened and that an apology was in order. The teacher tried to convince us that the boys didn’t know what they were doing and hadn’t hurt my wife deliberately. The father said that it was the last day of school and the children were just blowing off steam. At no point did either of the adults in charge show any sign that an apology was in order.

I said that we weren’t going to give the ball back until the boy who had thrown it gave my wife some sort of apology. A third adult came up and asked for the ball informing us that we couldn’t walk away with other people’s property.

I repeated what I’d said before.

The father eventually came up with the boy who simply said, ‘Sorry,’ without any grace or sincerity at all. I felt it was probably the best we could do and we gave the ball back.

I must admit that I was shocked by the attitude of the adults present and saddened to think that basic manners in England had sunk to such a low point.

Boy hits adult with ball on beach: apology. End of discussion.

Here, we had adults going to any length to justify the behaviour of children with no hint of an assumption of responsibility. We were the culprits because we were walking off the beach with the ball.

I would like to be able to say that this was an isolated incident, but in the last six months I have been in several situations where similar things have happened – and in different countries too.

There is a growing refusal on the part of parents generally to accept responsibility for the behaviour of their children in public or to admit that they might be at fault. Indeed, if you indicate in any way that the behaviour of their child is bothersome, the parents use emotional blackmail to give the impression that they are the victims and you the one at fault. They also become very aggressive, very quickly.

I do not think that parents who continually try to find excuses for their children are doing them any favours.

We live in a society that has become so ego-driven that even the golden rule of civilization has been eroded.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Or in other words, don’t do something to someone else that you wouldn’t want done to you.

Without this rule, there is no civilization.

Why is it so difficult for people these days to apologize?

They will go to any lengths to try and present the other person in a bad light and make a crisis out of something that would be forgotten almost instantaneously with a quick apology. They argue that black is white and that white is black. It is the world upside-down.

We’re talking basic politeness here.

It is my belief that politeness is the oil in the machine of human society. Without oil, what happens to a machine? After a while, it doesn’t work anymore.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that ‘polite’ equals ‘weak.’ The very fact that you are capable of standing back from yourself long enough to think about somebody else indicates that you are far stronger than the many impolite people around you.

It’s simply a question of offering basic respect to other people.

It doesn’t cost anything.

It doesn’t take up a lot of time.

And it helps considerably to improve human relations in general.

Have a great week.

Love

Richard

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