by Margaret McMahon
As if in slow motion, the glass tilted, then tumbled from her tray, drenching us in red wine. We liberally dosed ourselves in soda water but to no avail, so I walked home to change while my husband, embarrassed about his wet trousers, decided to stay till darkness fell.
Pretending nonchalance as I walked home along the foreshore, I could see, as they glanced away , the sympathetic look of passers-by. I hadn’t fooled anyone.
The meal was disappointing as was the attitude of the staff. The girl who had lost control of the glass moved to look after another table and there was no apology from any of the other staff. When our son, who had taken us there for dinner, proffered his credit card to pay for our meal, he was handed a pen to fill in the space for a tip.
A slight look of embarrassment crossed her face as the waitress said, “I guess you won’t be wanting that."
Our son didn’t query the bill though he did notice that it did include the cost of the spilt wine.
A similar incident had occurred when we dined, twenty five years earlier, at a restaurant on the same foreshore. The big difference was the approach of the staff at the two locations. Our son, then aged twelve, had a glass of orange juice tipped over him by a young staff member who was full of apologies. The dampening effect of having to perform in a children’s opera in Newcastle that night in a citrus-smelling shirt quickly changed to elation when the apologetic staff gave him a T shirt, emblazoned with the logo of The Brewery. He wore it everywhere - a real status symbol for a lad of his age. Our son’s meal wasn’t included on the bill and, as well, the staff offered the cost of dry cleaning, which we refused
What had changed in those intervening years? Had these modern youth missed out on learning what had been second nature to past generations?
The adage “manners maketh man” was dished out then with every parent’s instruction: “Say please”. “Say thank you”. Good manners were more than just saying the right words. Regard for the feelings of others, respect towards all - not just those that we knew or liked - and an apology when in the wrong, had been taught through the ages. Good manners got you places.
The girl who spilt the wine had not learnt these lessons and neither had the staff rostered for duty that night. They would have been pleased with the holiday penalty rates they were receiving but may have been worried that if they accepted responsibility, the cost of the incident could be deducted from their wage.
I feared that it was deeper than that. Their helicoptering parents may have failed to teach them to learn from their mistakes or to take responsibility for their actions. Stressed parents often expect schools to teach their children everyday skills like manners and there is no opportunity for follow-up so children don’t learn how to deal with conflict or real world demands. Self-esteem, gratuitously encouraged, often blinds them to their culpability.
The terrible Charlie Hebdo massacre claimed the headlines that week. With manners on my mind this incident, when ground down to its basics, seemed to be a momentous failure of respect and manners. It was more than that of course – its roots go deep into history. Without justice and mercy there will be no peace and we must all assume responsibility for that.