COMMENT: Coffee obligations and saying 'please'

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ONE of the interesting things I have noticed in regards to human behaviour is that when I interact with my fellow citizens in the day-to-day institutionalised places where we work, relax, have a coffee or even read a book, for the most part, people treat each other well and regard each other with a sense of obligation and mutual respect.

On the whole, what I notice in institutionalised interactions with people is what philosophers refer to as "other regarding" sentiment and behaviour taking precedence over more selfish and individualistic behaviours rooted in pure self-interest.

In an institution wherever it be, for example in a staff common room, a library or a coffee shop, I find on balance that people interact with each other with a due sense of respect often framed in the kinds of manners and obligations you expect in a structured institution.

In the library, for example, these manners often manifest in a commitment to silence and a respect for the books and artefacts inside it.

Defacing of books or shouting in a library is rare and is strongly frowned upon when it occurs.

You cannot just do as you please, and our behaviour in the institution of the library is informed by often unstated agreement to abide by a code of obligations and manners.

In an employee common room or work tea kitchen again, the norms of mutual respect for each other manifest in the manners which structure the way we approach the milk in the fridge, the level of our voices and even simple things such as the sharing of biscuits.

We understand that we are often using a shared resource and that the obligations and mutual respect we have for each other manifest in the unstated "tea room rules".

Finally, in my local coffee shop, if I have a newspaper at my side and I am not reading it, customers will usually ask politely if they can read it.

Better still, I return the paper to the central space where people can access it. I notice that people take their cups and saucers up to the counter and brush the crumbs onto the plate before doing so.

Not everyone does this but enough people do and these kinds of behaviour constitute the norm of good behaviour in the shop. People usually do not raise their voices rudely and "please" and "thank you" are heard in most interactions with staff.

The institution of my local coffee shop has unwritten norms and understandings about manners which frame our interactions.

These unstated but practiced manners and habits form the way we regard each other.

Grounded in our institutional life, the unwritten rules of obligation and manners play out to civilise the way we interact and form the basis of the way we regard others. They temper and restrain our selfish desires.

I simply cannot shout at the top of my lungs in a library, eat all the communal biscuits in the staff room or refuse to say "please" and "thank you" in the coffee shop. It is not that I necessarily think about these things all the time: I do not. It is just that I have internalised norms and concepts of propriety and manners through my institutional life.

When I compare this to how people treat each other, for example in the online world where anonymity prevails or in deinstitutionalised situations such as the global marketplace where the grounded sense of what is proper is less well known, my observation is that the strongly grounded manners and expectations we learn in institutions are more often loosened.

In situations where we interact in obligation-forming institutions usually characterised by smaller groups of people who often have face-to-face relations and expectations in regards to manners and mutual respect, we find stronger "other regarding" behaviours. In the rough and tumble of the market, however, these bonds of obligation dissipate.

This observation has been made at the intellectual level by numerous scholars.

Samuel Bowles observes that when we participate in a competitive market where our interactions with others are often anonymous, less "other regarding" behaviour is observed and practised (see Samuel Bowles, Endogenous Preferences: The Cultural Consequences of Markets and Other Economic Institutions, Journal of Economic Literature, 36(1), 1988, pages 75-111).

This breaking down of "other regarding" behaviour, which occurs in situations of anonymity and competition, is a recognisable aspect of our modern societies.

Critics the world over lament the intemperance found in an increasingly anonymous online world.

Others lament the practices of moral hazard in global businesses which can offload the consequences of bad corporate behaviour to a world of unknown and powerless others. These examples are iterations of this phenomenon.

As educators, what, then, is our response? Is there anything we can do to address a breakdown of civility, obligation and regard for others that occurs in an increasingly anonymous, competitive and individualistic world?

The recent launch of the National Education Blueprint with its specific focus on Ethics as one of the six key student attributes suggests that policy makers are now giving increased attention and consideration to the centrality of ethics in schooling and giving priority to engaging the values and norms which are inculcated in schools and internalised by students.

The specific focus on ethics as a key student attribute in the blueprint is a hopeful sign of policy commitment in this critical issue.

One argument for us to consider is that our educational institutions still possess the capacity to instil a sense of obligation and regard for each other because they are essentially non-market organisations which can reinforce forms of cooperative behaviour grounded in shared obligations and manners which are not individualistic.

The issue before us as educators, according to this line of reasoning, is to recognise that institutional life such as found in schools and universities must reinforce our sense of mutual obligation and regard so as to prepare students for a world which is increasingly anonymous and competitive.

Of course, the extent to which we can further ground our lives in the market, in principles of obligation and propriety is also critical.

The power of the market and its rationality is so strong that no matter what we teach our students the example of unbridled individualism and "do whatever you can" competition can overwhelm the best intentioned aims and practices of our educational bodies.

One thing, however, seems clear to me. The way our institutions reinforce obligation, respect and manners is a critical resource for how we view ourselves and each other in society.

Taking a close look at the formative process that occurs in our institutional life and reflecting upon it may provide us with some insight into how to address the imbalance, intemperance and excessive individualism that increasingly characterises our societies and our lives.

Finally, on a parting note, I cherish the interactions I have in my local coffee shop, and I understand that the meaning of the manners and obligations that frame that institution such as my local library and staff tea room. The example of the "everyday" is, for this writer, at least always educative.

 


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