Sticking to the script: gratitude in 1930s Scotland

It was the accepted norm, long ago in my mother’s Scottish hometown, that a housewife could call upon any available child to run an errand on her behalf – such as buying some meat from the butcher’s shop.  Back in those days nobody had refrigerators, so perishable goods had to be purchased on the day of use – hence there was a big demand for kids to run these sorts of errands.

It was normal for children to play in the streets, so all one had to do was open your front door and holler in the direction of the nearest kid:  “Here, you – Jeannie McNabb!  Come you here!”  Then give the child her/his instructions, and money to make the purchase.

When the child returned from the errand, the woman who commissioned it would, by way of thanks, give the child a small coin.  Protocol dictated that the child must strenuously decline this token gift, and only accept it after making repeated earnest refusals. 

The ‘street telegraph’ being what it was, by the time the child went home, his or her mother would know all about the errand they’d run.  She would quiz as to whether any gratuity had been offered, and if so, how vigorously her offspring had attempted to decline it. 

My grandmother’s inquisitions about how strongly her daughter had tried to decline the proffered coin were apparently quite aggressive.  Woe betide any offspring of hers who simply said, “Thank you!” and pocketed the little copper coin! 

What a pantomime this all was!  Yet it was unthinkable for a coin not to be offered in token payment for the child’s services – that was only fair.  Local codes of politeness meant that the child must repeatedly try to refuse the coin (lest they appear needy or greedy) and the adult must urge the child to accept, ultimately succeeding.  Each ‘player’ in the charade had to act according to their required role, in order to fulfil the cultural obligations of reciprocity and courtesy.


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