Look Mr Jensen in the face when you talk to him,” said Mary to her five-year-old Ben.

I felt a little embarrassed for Ben. I did not really care whether he looked at me or not—I remember being too shy to look at people and I could hear in Mary’s tones the voice of my mother correcting me when I was a child.

But Ben lifted his face and repeated his answer for me, without great pain or effort. And he and I chatted on about the importance of his latest Lego building and getting dad out at cricket.

It is interesting to watch families and the emphasis they do or do not place on simple manners. Many manners are culture bound expressions of human relationships that have to be changed as we cross cultures. Some manners are conventional markers of class consciousness. Some manners are just plain anachronistic. There really is no reason why gentlemen should walk on the kerb side of a lady in today’s world. Slops are no longer thrown out of upstairs windows into the street, most sewerage gutters are underground, and horse-whips from passing carriages do not often hit pedestrians these days. The motor car that mounts the footpath will damage more than the person closest to the kerb.

However the reason behind good manners is often that people matter. Many manners, though quaint and even symbolic, are expressions of our concern for the other person and their welfare. Some manners are concerned not for the other person so much as for the priority of having relationships at all. And children need to be taught such manners, because self-centredness is natural in a sinful world while other person-centredness is unnatural. In the teaching of simple rules of social engagement, an attitude towards others is being instilled.

To ‘rise in the presence of the aged’ not only shows respect but also helps teach respect for the elderly. To turn the TV off when visitors come, says that real people and real relationships are more important than the the imaginations of the entertainment industry, and that those who have put themselves out to visit should be treated with respect and hospitality. It involves a cost, for we have to turn off what we are enjoying at the time—even lose forever the outcome of the story—for the sake of other people. Yet this is the lesson of life we often need to learn and to teach—for other people are more important than our momentary pleasures.

Similarly, the basic table manners of not reading at the table, waiting for each other before starting to eat, giving thanks to God for the food, all contribute to our fellowship and our education, teaching us gratitude and reliance towards God and encouraging us to put ourselves and instant enjoyment out for the love of others. The failure of the Corinthian Christians to love each other at the Lord’s supper could not be corrected by good manners but by a changed heart. However, such love would be expressed in obeying God’s command to ‘wait for each other’.

By the time my visit to Mary and Ben had finished, Ben was not yet looking me in the eye but he and I were deeply involved in the design features of the ultimate Lego castle.

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