Acceptable norms

Nov 03 | 2016

Quite recently I was asked to make a speech to mark the 25th anniversary of a local golf society. As you are possibly aware, I don’t actually play golf, so I’m not sure why they asked me to do it.  Although the club secretary, who was also due to make a speech, said that I was one of the few people he knew who could make him look good. I was initially quite flattered by this remark, but then the possible alternative implication occurred to me: Did he think that I would be so bad that he was bound to look good in contrast? Quite possibly! 

The main reason why I’ve brought up this subject is that, when I actually made my speech, there wasn’t one person wearing a tie and only a few wearing a jacket – and this was in a room full of almost one hundred people. Not a problem to me as I have never been a great fan of formality; but in a golf society? It did occur to me that, not so many years ago, this would not have been the case. By the way, I did in fact ask why nobody was wearing a tie, but they told me to get knotted! 

Then I got to thinking about ‘convention’, or to put it another way: complying with the accepted norm; because that’s what we’re talking about here. But of course we must not confuse convention with tradition, for tradition is built up over generations and is time honoured, whereas convention is almost a question of whatever is the current fashion, and as we know, fashion can change very quickly. 

I’ll give you an example. Of late, I have sometimes had the feeling that I am almost the only person in the world that doesn’t have a tattoo. It is now quite conventional for these to appear in various locations on an individual’s anatomy. Even my doctor has one. I know because I saw it on his ankle when I went to see him the other day – only a fleeting glimpse I might add. I wonder whether this is becoming de rigueur for the medical profession. Is it now part of the Hippocratic Oath? 

Sending birthday or Christmas cards is traditional, but increasingly it is becoming a convention that, not only should these be humorous, but they should also contain a suitable – or unsuitable – expletive. In addition, it is a requirement that the said joke should be one that you are bound to have heard before. Furthermore, it will be sure to produce a groan (see comment regarding ties above). 

Hanging in our hall at home we have a delightful old dog-eared sepia photo, taken before the First World War, of a large group of gentleman, one of whom is my maternal grandfather. They are standing in the Lambeth Walk and about to embark on what I believe was called a beano in those days – and as a matter of convention every single one of them is wearing a hat. Not today! 

So conventions disappear according to fashion, but it does not mean that they are a declining facet of society. On the contrary, new conventions are constantly being created. In the UK we have an attitude towards what used to be called good manners. We must be the only society in the world that decrees that if you bump into somebody by mistake then they are most likely to apologise to you! 

And what about conventional behaviour involving a pedestrian crossing? If you stop to allow someone to cross, you naturally expect them to wave a thank you. Then when they reach about half way they will always give a pronounced little skip to signify that they are moving as quickly as possible (I bet you’ve done this!).  

And if they don’t thank you? Well there is often a tendency to wind down one’s window and in a voice suitably laden wit sarcasm, remark: “Thank you!”  This comment will often be met with a non-verbal reply which is created by using two fingers; and very rarely does this imply that: “I’ll be off this crossing within two seconds!”  Interestingly enough, this form of behaviour does not seem to be a convention in most other countries, where the pedestrian crossing is viewed as an inalienable right and therefore does not illicit any response whatsoever.

Beards are another sign of how conventions can change. At the point of writing, beards upon men appear to be acceptable under most circumstances and the female side seem to find them acceptable too – although that isn’t to imply that you would find many of them in a ladies choir for example.  

Many years back beards were highly fashionable, but I can remember a time when these were frowned upon in a business environment - apart from within the Father Christmas fraternity. Once, the only places you would find a beard would be on adverts for frozen foods or on cigarette packets. 

So in conclusion: My opinion is that whilst tradition is the superglue of society, maybe convention simply forces us to conform to something with which we may not agree. But then again this might simply be an unconventional view!