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Deja Vu

December 4, 2012

Strangers on a Train


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2012: SNCF, the state railway operator of France, has announced plans to devote significant resources to combating rude behavior on the nation’s trains. Behavior complaints have risen by twenty-five percent this year, and the agency’s 2,700 inspectors will soon be authorized to implement higher fines and harsher penalties to offenders. The Telegraph reports:

SNCF boss Guillaume Pepy said a “line has been crossed” in “uncouth behavior and delinquency” blighting the lives of many of the four million people who use his company’s trains every day. “Impolite behavior generates a feeling of anxiety and discomfort,” said Mr. Pepy, adding that it posed a “real obstacle” to weaning the French off their cars in favor of public transport.”

Under draft plans, more serious offenders may also be sent on “citizenship courses” to be taught good manners, while 500 new “politeness mediators” will be trained to deal with unruly youths. Another 460 staff will raise awareness among 220,000 schoolchildren next year.

1836: A rapidly expanding nation and new modes of transport and travel left many in nineteenth-century America unsure of how to behave on public coach journeys. Etiquette guides popular during this period of change attempted to address the issue. One, authored by “A Gentleman,” sternly encourages deference to others:

The principle that guides you in society is politeness; that which guides you in a coach is good humor. You lay aside all attention to form, and all strife after effect, and take instead, kindness of disposition and a willingness to please. You pay a constant regard to the comfort of your fellow-prisoners. You take care not to lean upon the shoulder of your neighbor when you sleep. You are attentive not to make the stage wait for you at stopping-places. When the ladies get out, you offer them your arm, and you do the same when the coachman is driving rapidly over a rough place.

You should make all the accommodations to others, which you can do consistently with your own convenience; for, after all, the individuals are each like little nations; and as, in the one case, the first duty is to your country, so in the other, the first duty is to yourself.

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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