In the mall the other day, I couldn’t help but observe a middle-aged woman hogging a bench good for three. She was fiddling with her phone, with her hand bag and her shopping bags all seated comfortably beside her. She and her bags occupied the entire bench. She was oblivious to what was happening around her, completely taken by what she was doing on her phone.
Then, I walked into a fast food outlet, which was almost full. The crew were all busy. A few tables have not been bussed. They were littered with trays, and used plates and utensils. To one side of the room there was a shelf for used trays, and large trash bins properly labelled for segregating garbage. Beside the bins were a sink, a faucet, and liquid soap. Nobody was using them.
It is not unusual to see people using benches or tables in public places with little regard for others who may also need them. In a coffee shop, a single customer occupies a table good for four. One coffee cup on the table, then the laptop, mobile phone, notebook and pen, backpack, etc. Computer and phone all plugged in, and the customer using “free” internet connection.
It is likewise ordinary to see fast food outlets and other public dining places like food courts littered with tables with piled up used trays, plates, utensils and serving dishes. There is always the expectation from customers that someone or somebody else will clean up after them. They come to a clean table, use and dirty it, and leave the mess for someone else to handle.
Even in airport gates, for instance, often we have local and foreign passengers waiting for their flights, lying down on benches that could have otherwise fit three to four people all sitting properly and comfortably. And then, you have social media accounts of how some people try to “reserve” parking slots by standing in them while waiting for their car to arrive.
The prevailing urban culture now, it seems, is self before everybody else. The main motivation is to always get ahead in what has been described as a dog-eat-dog world. Just drive or walk around the metropolis and you will realize that few people give way, or respect personal space. Rules are treated like suggestions, and proper decorum considered simply too old fashioned.
The urban Filipino of today is selfish, which is ironic for a country that continues to teach schoolchildren the tradition of “bayanihan.” We have become materialistic, opportunistic, and more concerned with personal gain or pleasure. We have diminished our consideration for others, having become more self-regarding, always looking out only for number one.
Our politics and our communities provide much evidence that we have lost our sense of others. People including politicians and so-called public servants serve themselves first. “What’s in it for me?” rules the day. People can still be rallied to help during disasters and calamities. But our strong regard for other people is unnoticeable in our daily lives.
We are wont to highlight our own concerns and difficulties, and fail to realize that some actually live more difficult lives than us. We prioritize our personal needs and wants, with little concern for common or public good or benefit. Worse, while we try to teach our children to do what is good and right, and we fail to correct and censure others for doing what is wrong.
The common thinking is that in the case of coffee shops, if the store allows it, why can’t a customer who bought a single coffee cup for Php 125 take advantage of the “real estate” and the access to an electrical outlet? Why can’t he camp out in the shop, work there for a couple of hours, and treat that corner as his personal workspace? He did pay Php 125, after all. And the argument, almost always, is that he is a paying customer, and that the place is not full, anyway.
The same goes for fast food outlets or food courts. After lining up and paying for my relatively inexpensive food, and carrying it myself to a clean table, why should I still be made to clean up after? Why should I empty my plates, set aside my tray, and dispose of garbage myself? Why should I even bother to keep my table clean? Shouldn’t the restaurant or food court crew do that for me?
In a country where labor is still cheap, and where a lot of poor people need jobs, businesses and cities can still afford to pay for clean-up crew. Even households with modest income can still afford to hire domestic helpers. In a situation where there is always somebody else for hire to do the dirty job, people will find it difficult to start picking up after themselves. They will continue to think themselves above the muck.
While we are wont to blame our troubles on our government, or on corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen, perhaps the real problem is that we have generally become worse as a people. That we have become unkind, uncaring, inconsiderate, and self-serving. That we now live in an environment that actually encourages self above all else.
It is not too late to change things. And we must, for our children’s sake. In our own little way, we can choose to be considerate: share a seat, a table, or a bench. Or, after you eat in a fast food outlet or a food court, set aside your own tray and used dishes. And keep your table clean for the sake of the next user. Be just as concerned with cleanliness particularly in public restrooms.
And the next time you find yourself waiting for a delayed flight, try sleeping while sitting up. You don’t need to lie down on three seats to get some rest. Other passengers may just be as tired as you. And try to keep your volume down. Your conversation is not necessarily interesting to others within earshot. While you prioritize your wants and needs, do keep others in mind once in a while.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.