Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why Manners Matter

Most of you who have been my digital friends for the last three-plus years have probably at one time or another read the "About Me" piece over there on the left of your screen, if only to wonder if this guy is for real or what. Buried in that little section is this sentence: "I believe in courtesy, common sense, and fair play."

Courtesy. It's one of those things we don't see quite as much as we used to, especially in larger cities. I've gotten used to self-important people whose time is obviously much more important than mine, who shove ahead of me to get just the right seat on the bus, who see nothing wrong with cutting into lines, who have no problem with chatting loudly on their cell phones at the movies, or cutting you off in traffic, or ... well ... you get the idea. The common courtesy, the manners that parents of my generation drilled relentlessly into us when we were young seem to have gone south like a vee of geese honking their way across an autumn horizon.

I'm not the only person to note this.

Last weekend we were in Borders, where Agnes was busily squeezing the last dime out of a long-lost gift card I'd found in the rubble on her side of the desk in the study. While I was browsing the shelves, talking myself out of hundreds of dollars worth of gotta-haves, I spotted this little gem: Why Manners Matter: The Case for Civilized Behavior in a Barbarous World, by Lucinda Holdforth. I could hardly pass up a book like that, and so it is now my commuting book, and I'm about halfway through it (having started it yesterday morning) - it's only 172 small, but wonderful pages.

This isn't an etiquette guide (Ms Holdforth has nothing but scorn for those), but an essay on the importance of manners, of what we might once have called (and I still do) following the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It isn't a preachy book, but a thoughtful one that ought to be read by the very people who would never think to read such a thing.

"In a gesture combining laziness and pragmatism," Ms Holdforth writes, "How about (a modern template for manners) something like:

"1. Keep to the left (or right, depending on jurisdiction).
"2. Keep your word (especially about time).
"3. Wait your turn.
"4. Look after the weak.
"5. Obey the laws and regulations, unless you are mounting a campaign of civil disobedience.
"6. Watch what you are doing: multitasking is the enemy of manners.
"7. Show appreciation for the kind gestures of others; and,
"8. Most of the time, shut up."

The rest of the book is much like this...a breezy, practical, somewhat sad essay on what has happened to what we once called good manners and what we might do to get them back.

I strongly recommend this book, although I doubt very much that any of my regular readers actually need it. I think most of you will probably read it and end up with a sore neck from nodding your head in constant agreement. It's sad that someone decided it was necessary to write a book like this, but such is the temper of our time. If you read Why Manners Matter and enjoy it, you can move on to something more erudite, like Stephen L. Carter's Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. It's about twice as long and a lot more preachy, but has the same message.

And he wrote it eleven years ago.

Isn't it a shame that Lucinda Holdforth saw a need to write something similar in 2009?

Have a good day. Be won't kill you. More thoughts tomorrow.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

Yes, its nice to hear a thank you and please every now and then. The problem is that children are not taught what respect is anymore :(

Mal's Team Gherkin said...

Touche, and well posted, good sir :)

John said...

"6. Watch what you are doing: multitasking is the enemy of manners."

I think that cell phones are the big culprit here, too. Everyone seems to need to be talking to somebody else whenever they are doing something...driving, in the check-out line, at dinner, etc.

fiona said...

Good manners are sadly lacking here in CA for sure. It was a breath of fresh air back in the Auld Country last summer, very well mannered children we Scots breed! :-)

SusieQ said...

Most of the people that I come in contact with are mannerly. I live in the mannerly Midwest. Once you get into Chicago proper, manners have a tendency to disappear though.

The following shouldn't have anything to do with manners, but it annoys me anyway when someone is talking on their cell phone while they are shopping in the grocery store. Someone please explain to me why it annoys me so.

Mike said...

Maybe we should buy a copy for every member of congress.

Allen of Woodhaven said...

When I was a kid, some 40 years ago, I wrote Ann Landers a letter asking the question "Why can't people just be nice to each other?" Unfortunately she didn't pick it for a reply. What struck me then, and still does today, is that very little effort is needed to be courteous, just a little awareness that there are other people in the world and they are, as human beings, as important as we are. As I heard someone once say, "A little kindness never hurt anyone."

Bilbo said...

Andrea - you are soooo right!

Mal - thanks! Good to hear from you!

John - trust don't want to get me started on cell phone etiquette!

Fiona - I'll have to take your word for it (the Scots children, I mean)...but I do think you are okay, manners wise!

SusieQ - it bothers you because people are sharing things that are embarassingly personal. It's almost as if a Get-Smart-Like "Cone of Silence" descends, and all those people around us aren't really listening to our private conversations. You would be amazed (well, probably not) at some of the conversations I have heard drifting out of stalls in the men's room...

Mike - if I thought it would do any good, I'd do it in a heartbeat!

Allen - welcome! I think you're here for the first time...hope you come back as a regular!

Melissa B. said...

I am known as the Miss Manners of my group. Think I might have to pick up this little gem. If only to reaffirm my strongly held believes, you know.