I am among the many people who mourn the loss of civility in everyday life, remembering fondly the days when people dressed up to travel or go to the movies, when even children used good manners over the phone, and when men automatically stood to offer a woman a seat. Those days are long gone. The world in general is a much less hospitable place than when I was a child; it makes me very sad, which is why I used to spend a lot of time in my classroom each year teaching my students to use good manners.
Far more than just the trappings of a bygone era, manners are the oil that makes our social interactions move smoothly. They aren’t just cultural niceties, they are the outward demonstration of respect for others, which is why their absence is so dismaying–we’ve become so centered on our personal comfort and convenience, so obsessed with getting what we want or doing what we need to do quickly that we take little thought for the human beings around us.
In a meeting I attended recently, designed to help parents of incoming freshmen at a university understand all the options open to their children, two women carried on a whispered conversation loudly enough that others in the room could hear much of what they were saying. As the professor made his excellent and informative presentation, these two laughed and talked; again, all of it was “whispered,” but at about the same level of volume as a five year old might whisper. Once they were finished, one of them began loudly filing her nails. I don’t know about others in the room, but I was very distracted, and I was amazed that the mother of a college freshman would behave with such disregard for the speaker and others in the room.
Perhaps this seems trivial–what difference does it really make, after all? She was simply multi-tasking, something most of us do fairly regularly. It wasn’t that she was being disruptive by interrupting the speaker or anything, and it was clear that she was at least trying to whisper. However, in such a setting, where 25-30 people have gathered in a smallish space for the purpose of listening to a speaker, it doesn’t show much consideration for the speaker or the others in the room who want to hear what he has to say. I’m sure she is a lovely woman, but she was behaving rudely. The rest of us ignored it, which is the polite thing to do, while we continued to focus our attention on the speaker; that, at least, was encouraging!
It’s so easy to be rude to people–we’re in a hurry, irritated, stressed, you name it, and frankly, people are difficult. They drive slowly when we need to hurry, they dawdle and block the concourse when we’re trying to catch a flight, they insist on using about 500 coupons ahead of us in the grocery line, and there’s always someplace we need to (or would just rather) be.
I’m one of the worst offenders; I become so absorbed with the details of my own life that I often just tune out the people around me, avoiding any kind of interaction with them, hoping to just get whatever I’m doing over with and get on down the road. I don’t usually say rude things, but I’m sad to say I’ve been known to send visual daggers at people who are messing with my agenda. Not only is this self-centered, it’s yet another contribution to the increasingly isolated and impersonal world we live in.
If we want to make a difference in our culture, one of the best ways is to be respectful of others in the way we speak and act towards them. Notice them; make eye contact, and look for opportunities to defer to them, or even assist them. Be aware of the effect your actions–for example, speaking loudly on your cell phone, whispering during a presentation, or meandering down a narrow aisle, blocking others–have on those around you.
The other way to make a difference is to teach our children and students to use manners, both by instruction and by example, saying “Watch me and do as I do.” Do it intentionally; have them stop what they’re doing and instruct them in the proper way to walk down the hallway at church, or stand for older people, or turn off the TV when guests come over. I can guarantee that they’re watching and imitating the way we do these things already–are we being good teachers?
Restoring a greater sense of humanity and civility to the world around us is something each of us can do, one situation at a time. It takes thought and consideration, two very human and grown-up skills, and we’ll most likely fall short from time to time. Still, wouldn’t we all like to live in a more pleasant world? Do manners really make much difference? You bet they do!