As a child growing up, I was taught what was seen as ‘basic good manners’. I was often told to “mind your manners”, and thoroughly drilled in the use of “please” and “thank you”. If I forgot, or ignored basic courtesy, my parents, or other relatives, quickly reminded me.
This process of being civilised by adults caused me some confusion when I first started to learn Spanish. I remember being warned not to over use the Spanish words ‘por favor’ (please) when ordering in a cafe bar, or in shops, on the basis that the Spanish rarely use the expression, and when foreigners use it, it is seen as “unacceptably pushy”.
This comment confused me, and over the years I have made a point of listening to the Spanish ordering food and drink in bars and restaurants, and it is true that very few Spanish use these simple words of courtesy.
Their orders are more of a demand than a request, but they mostly say “gracias” afterwards. Don’t misunderstand me, most Spanish people are polite; they may smile and add a friendly thank you, but the basic manners of courtesy, as many British people were traditionally taught, are simply not used.
Maybe things are about to change if a recent report is to be believed. One cafe owner, Maria, in Madrid, is so annoyed with many of her Spanish customers whom she regards as rude that she is charging more for coffee and pastries to those customers whom she regards as impolite.
Prices may vary from 3 euros for a coffee to 5 euros if customers are deemed to be rude. The price of a cup of good coffee can fall to as low as 1.30 euros if a customer is especially polite. It is the little words of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ that make all the difference, according to Maria.
The idea was inspired by a similar scheme in France, which has been a great success. It is working in Maria’s cafe bar too, and Maria reports that already she has seen a change in attitude and politeness to both herself and her staff. Maria blames the pace of everyday life that has become so hectic, and customers simply forget to be polite until it hurts their pockets.
Much of this is a cultural issue, of course, and Maria, who is from Columbia, maintains that the Spanish are less inclined to use the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ than by people in her own country, who Maria sees as more well-mannered.
I can see where Maria is coming from, but I would also like her to consider the option of customers being allowed to pay less for their coffee and croissant if the waiter is rude, does not listen or gets the order wrong.
Personally, I am all for good manners, and I am grateful that my parents ensured that I behaved appropriately. I will continue to use ‘por favor’ when I order my coffee and croissant, but only in moderation.
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© Barrie Mahoney