Politesse and context

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5 January 2012

Most of us are human beings. Yet how we are treated very much depends upon where we find ourselves at any particular time.

Between June and October 2011, according to the edition of Le Monde for 5 January 2012, the Paris public transport authority , which covers buses and trains (including the métro) in the Paris area,  spent 1.2 millions euros on advertising aimed at encouraging passengers to be polite to each other as well as to transport staff.

It has undertaken similar publicity since 1997, but last year, apparently, the campaign was strikingly successful in terms of the response from a travelling public which seems to have had enough of rudeness and bad manners.

Be that as it may, it is clear that travellers anywhere, not just in France, generally believe that they have a right to politeness and civility en route to and from their destinations.

Moreover, this expectation is not limited to travel. In shops, streets, parks and public spaces generally, most people prefer the oil of courtesy to lubricate their contacts with other people. And the fact is that, not always but often enough, they are treated with the courtesy that they expect to receive. Polite forms of speech are used to address complete strangers, such as “Can I help you, Sir?” or “Madam, would you like a coffee while you are waiting for your order to be processed?”

We can sum up this behaviour thus: human beings expect to be treated courteously and are often so treated in their non-producer role as citizens or consumers.

How different it is for most people at work!

The former British socialist politician, Eric Heffer, who died in 1991, famously opined that “democracy ends at the factory gates”.  The lack of courtesy shown by management to workers is an obvious symptom of this democratic deficit.

In their non-producer role citizens or consumers are relatively free agents. They have freedom of movement (provided that they have the money to pay for their carriage) and can choose how to use their leisure time. As consumers they are in a particularly strong position since they can choose whether or not to buy a particular product or service.  If the shopkeeper does not treat them courteously, he or she risks losing a sale.

How different it is in the office or on the factory floor! There the hierarchical principle governs all activity. There you are told what to do.  Faced with an order, you have only the choice of saying “yes”. Otherwise, you will lose your job and your salary and, as a result, your family will lose the roof over its head and the wherewithal to buy food.

Knowing this, employers are perfectly aware that they do not need to treat their employees with courtesy. So long as the employee is at work, he or she is effectively a slave to management – a “wage slave” is the term often used. Of course, some employers are wiser than to treat their workers with gratuitous incivility. So-called enlightened managements take the view that they may get a better yield from their human capital if they sugar the pill of authority with a saccharine coating. However, on the basis of many years of experience in industrial relations, we conclude that in general such employers constitute a minority. The vast majority of employers just don’t give a toss about the feelings or well-being of their “human resources’’.

By workers or employees we mean all those forced to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow at all levels in a business, including foremen and middle managers, up to but not including the board.

Accordingly, a shop worker may be treated with contempt in his place of employment. Yet if that employee goes into another branch of that same business and seeks, as a consumer, to buy one of his or her company’s products, they will be treated with the same courtesy as any other consumer. It is a wonder that more workers do not suffer from schizophrenia.

Yet maybe this contempt of management for their employees is a good thing.

Would one really want employees to be so molly-coddled by their managers as  to forget, even momentarily, that they are weighed down by chains?


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