The new etiquette

A couple of months ago, an old bloke who lives in my neighbourhood tripped on a gutter and stripped 30 centimetres of skin off his shin ...

It was a nasty graze for a 90-year-old man and one of my mates helped him to the local doctor's surgery, pressing to his leg a clean cotton baby wrap a passing mum had donated.

When they arrived, there were two people already in the waiting room; a woman my friend gauged to be in her 70s and a 30-something mum wrangling two kids under four.

Both of them watched as my mate helped this gent into a chair, his slip-on shoe rapidly filling with blood, the mum even chatting with them before she, then the elderly lady, proceeded to take their appointments with the doc ahead of the old man.

Sure, they were waiting first, but you'd have thought a distressed, haemorrhaging, nonagenarian might have occasioned them to push back their schedules 15 minutes.

But it was not to be.

Shortly after this episode, I read an article by Sasha Burden, a female journalism student who'd written of the "horrific" internship she'd endured at one of this newspaper's competitors.

Among a litany of complaints, Burden said men at the paper "were also continuously and unnecessarily sexist, waiting for me to walk through doors and leave the elevator before me".

It made me wonder if Burden would have let the old bloke jump the queue if she'd been waiting at the doctors' surgery, as well as just how obsolete ye olde world rules of etiquette have become in a world where both sexes often use the same hairdressers and bathrooms, not to mention beauty products.


Would not all of us - young and aged, male and female - be served by an updating of what is the "accepted" thing to do in social situations?

Some people sneer at etiquette, considering it airs and graces from a bygone era, but I believe it's largely a simple methodology for minimising conflict when living cheek by jowl in cities.

Knowing you wait for others to disembark from a bus before you board, that you let the car in front of you merge in traffic and, that if you spill someone's drink, you offer to buy them another, is etiquette.

We do these things to make life run more smoothly and to acknowledge physical practicalities - which is why we stand for the elderly and pregnant women on public transport.

Another term for it might be "common decency".

Granted, there's no denying some etiquette is rooted in a rather dated, patronising world-view that women require deference and pampering because of their "fragile" natures.

What can be confusing is that nascent, "progressive" attitudes such as Burden's aversion to door-opening are not shared by many others; I dare say not by the mother of two and elderly lady my friend encountered in that doctor's waiting room.

This is why the "equality" so many woman demand in the more meaningful aspects of their lives is still not reflected by cultural niceties such a men condescendingly buying women dinner, opening car doors for them in the rain and leaping in front of their girlfriends when a gunman shoots up a cinema.

The "new etiquette" would seem to be a natural idea for an e-book, hopefully distributed via iPhone app to schools and workplaces alike, so we can all avoid the discomforts such as Burden and my 90-old neighbour needlessly endured.

For his part, the old bloke seemed pretty clear on the "done thing". After he'd been patched up, he shook my friend's hand, looked him in the eye and said "thank you".

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