The word urbanity comes from the Latin urbs, urbi, the same root for the word ‘urbe’ that designates a metropolis in Spanish. Urbanity refers to the way that the people that live in a metropolis, in a city, should behave.
Our primitive ancestors considered any other human group as competition for the scarce food, and, therefore, as a real or a potential enemy. Afterwards, in a slow revolution of paradigms, they stop being a horde of hunter-gatherers going through the Savannah to gradually becoming sedentary, and over several millennia, created the first settlements of regular proportion containing from 500 to 7,000 people. By then, they had the need to establish some rules of social coexistence to prevent killing each other at the slightest provocation.
Apropos, city in Latin is civitas, where the concept of civilization -that I link with the progress in the relationships amongst people- comes from. We human beings have moved on from settling our differences with sticks and stones, to disclose them in front of judges, Institutes of Alternative Justice and even organisms such as the UN.
Urbanity does not consist of a series of rigid and eternal rules, but rather of considering others when we relate to them, whether this relationship is momentary, successive, or permanent.
Sometimes we think that we ought to follow the rules contained in the “Manual of Urbanity and Good Manners” -a well-known Latin American reference- written by the Venezuelan Manuel Antonio Carreño Muñoz. Let us see for example these rules taken from the 1854 edition:
9 — We shall never lean the full forearm on the table, and, under no circumstances shall we ever put our elbows on it while eating. Be aware that dropping a hand over the legs -thus hiding it from everybody else’s view- while using the other one for eating or drinking, manifests little culture, and, at the same time, conveys the body with an inelegant and uncouth air.
25 — It is absolutely forbidden for a gentleman, as an act of the most outstanding bad education, to offer his companion to a lady that departs from a social gathering and with whom no previous friendship exists, even if he has occasionally been introduced to her, or danced with her, or if he had his turn to offer her any presents during the gathering.
Such rules being so formal make us laugh nowadays, but they were very broadly disseminated back in the day, so much so that even my grandmother would refer to Carreño’s Manual, from time to time.
In the past, in Guadalajara, when we ran into any person while waking in the street, we would wish that person a good day, whether we knew that person or not. Now, such good manners are getting lost, which I regret very much.
Nevertheless, we must take into consideration our need to coexist with other people and the importance of understanding that the purpose of the rules is for us to carry ourselves in a more harmonious environment where mutual respect prevails.
A week ago, I was on my way to my Essay Workshop session driving along López Cotilla Street right in an area of the city that has been deliberately remodelled with extended sidewalks and speed bumps laid over it specifically to turn it into a low-speed zone, amicable with pedestrians and cyclists. As I passed through it, I came upon a driver that, in trying to avoid the speed bumps, was blatantly and repetitively invading the cyclists zone. “His Majesty: The Car!” the neurons inside my head shouted at me. My blood pressure rose and although I did not see myself in a mirror I can be certain that I my face went red as my fists went tighter and tighter around the wheel. All of it undoubtedly were unmistakable signs of the indignation that such spectacle caused me.
I wonder if people, when given access to goods that they did not have before, lack the adequate knowledge of how they should be used. Is that a possible explanation of it? I remember a trip that my wife and I made to Puerto Vallarta. A friend recommended that we had a romantic getaway taking advantage of the fact that our first child (now our daughter) had not been born yet, before the bottles, diapers and strollers invaded our apartment and the yelling of the baby ended our usual relaxation.
Following his advice, I bought a tourist package that included airfare and lodging at the Camino Real, in one of the most beautiful beaches of the country. It was low season and therefore there were only a few guests. The attention of the staff in such conditions was just wonderful. It was the perfect holiday until we went to eat at the hotel’s restaurant. A group of gringos was there as well except that they were not eating, instead, they were gulping down their food as if they were a pack of dogs, chewing with their mouths wide open and yelling, rather than speaking, with bits of food still in their mouths. My joy turned into repulsion and I had to change seats to avoid looking at such a Dantesque scene as I did not want to throw up just because of what I was seeing. “How can this be possible?” I wondered. “I am investing a good amount of money to go to a nice, elegant place with good service and I run into this living sample of Karl Marx’s lumpenproletariat.” What happened is that, due to the peso-dollar disparity, these wild gringos could easily access places that to us Mexicans would cost a considerable amount of money.
Since then I have found in many places, people that emerged from the miserable economical condition in which they were -a fact that I rejoice over- but that haven’t had the time to refine their taste and manners a little bit. I have had pupils and colleagues and I have met judges and magistrates that, despite their academic and work merits, do not know how to behave socially.
I think that, in general, we need to put ourselves more in the other people’s shoes, to provoke empathy to understand each other. For such purpose, we can take into consideration a couple of fundamental rules: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” and ‘Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.’ At the end of the day we are talking about having the respect, due consideration and care for the other -any other- as that of a person having as much dignity as ourselves.
Gonzalo X. Villava Alberú