Please may I….
From the Headmaster's Desk, September 25, 2018
My thought for the week today was inspired by a flippant comment from a Year 13, made to me when I was in the Sixth Form Centre a couple of weeks ago. I will not name and shame this person, but a boy who was slouched in his chair playing on his phone, casually said to me as I walked by, ‘Can you get me some food?’
I found this distressing, not because he asked me for food, nor because I am the Headmaster, and I do not care about such trivial matters. On the contrary, I care about the needs of all of you, and if you are hungry, then I want you to be fed.
I also hope that I am approachable and if there is ever problem, then pupils will not be afraid to come and raise it with me, or indeed another member of staff.
My only problem was the manner in which the question was asked.
Rather than, ‘Can you get me some food?’ this young man could have said, ‘Sir, I’m quite hungry; please could you help me find something to eat?’ Or simply, ‘Please may I have something to eat?’
I had a brief conversation with this Sixth Former and started to explain the importance of manners. I actually ended up referring to the Bible passage read in assembly earlier this term, when Jesus says, ‘What man is there among you who, when his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?’
I went away and got seven cookies for the boy and his friends. He was very grateful, and a touch embarrassed. The point was, of course, that I was trying to teach him a lesson.
Fortunately I think the lesson has been learnt. He has reassured me that next time he asks for food in school or a restaurant, he will use this phrase: ‘Please may I have some of the curry today?’ ‘Please may I have some more pasta?’ And then, of course, ‘Thank you.’ It costs nothing to do, but makes everyone feel better around you.
This interaction reminded me of another interaction I once witnessed when I was staying at a friend’s house. To give a little bit of context, we were staying at a lovely family home in Scotland; for those who know it, we were near Elgin, near the mouth of the River Spey.
As luck would have it, my friend’s mother is an extraordinary chef. She has published cookbooks and actually received an OBE for her contributions to cooking. I came into the kitchen that morning and she was cooking a feast, including perfectly poached eggs (my favourite) and bacon and was just pulling out freshly made blueberry muffins from the oven.
As I was thinking that all of this was too good to be true, my friend walked into the kitchen and ruined the morning with poor manners. He looked at his mother and said in a gruff tone, ‘Ugh, where’s the orange juice?’ I was slightly horrified.
This award-winning chef was cooking breakfast and her son was 1) apparently taking this for granted and 2) rudely asking for the OJ. It was such a traumatising moment that I have never forgotten it.
It would have been so easy for my friend just to say, ‘This looks amazing, thanks, Mum. Please may I have some orange juice?’
‘Please may I . . .’ One of my favourite phrases in the English language. Watch the way a waiter responds in a restaurant, or a server at Blue Coat or next time you’re ordering at a fast food counter. ‘Please may I have the Big Mac?’ The person serving you will say, ‘Of course’, and take pleasure in looking after you because you asked so nicely.
No more ‘I want more sauce’. No more ‘gimme chips’. Let’s even avoid what my father always says in restaurants: ‘I’ll have the chicken.’ I find myself squirming and thinking, ‘Please, Father, would you at least put a please on the end of that sentence.’
So this week, have good posture, look your fellow human being in the eye, and say, ‘Please may I have . . .’ You’ll make my day. You might even make their day! And you’ll certainly feel better about yourself.
The benefits of good manners are endless. Good manners in formal places, like schools, help you to earn respect and get positive attention. Good manners in the business world have been shown to increase sales and profitability. Having good manners with your friends means they are more likely to continue to invite you to activities and events. Research even shows that romantic relationships are stronger and last longer when couples are polite and respectful to each other.
In fact, I don’t know any downside to having good manners: if anyone does, then, please, do tell me.
So, this week, let’s all make an effort to be unfailingly polite. Even when treated badly, respond courteously.
Have a great day, and I look forward to hearing plenty of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ around the School this week.
Thank you for listening.