I’m not a prude. Anyone who knows me personally, especially my family, will attest to that. I have, however, noticed a disturbing trend in recent interactions with my fellow human beings. It all came to a head while shopping at the local grocery store yesterday.
One is hard-pressed to observe good manners in a grocery store anyway, but this was unusual even for that harsh environment. I was standing in the frozen food aisle looking for a bag of frozen peas for the shepherd’s pie I was going to make for dinner. As I scanned the shelves to see if the store actually carried “English peas” (I do so love Alton Brown and his attention to detail in his recipes), a woman pushing a cart walked in front of me, and then stopped.
When I was a child, I was taught that, should you need to step in front of someone who is clearly looking at something, you say, “Excuse me.” I don’t know how my parents got that to stick, but I do it to this very day. It would never occur to me to not excuse myself, no less stop directly in front of someone without a word said.
I opened my mouth to say something, and then decided to wait and see if she would eventually acknowledge what she’d done. Not having my stopwatch with me, I had to guess at the time that passed, but I would have to say it was a good ten to fifteen seconds, which is a veritable eternity in the grocery store. She eventually opened the freezer door, took a bag of frozen corn, tossed it nonchalantly into her cart and went on her way as if I’d never existed. That was the part that disturbed me the most: She never even acknowledged I was there.
This is just one case, and an extreme one at that, but I think it calls out a disturbing trend in our society: The death of common manners and courtesy.
Why God, Why?
Of course there’ve always been rude assholes in the world. It just seems like there are way more of them these days, and they’re coming in all shapes and sizes.
So what is causing this proliferation of pricks? I’ll leave it for the sociologists to publish the definitive paper (if you can ever wake them up at the party), but I’ll propose a few theories of my own:
The Internet. Wireless devices. Cellular telephones. What wondrous things these are. They bring the world together in ways my generation could never have dreamed when we were children. They’ve also created a preoccupation with a vast network of people that are everywhere but where you are.
It’s almost become a cliché, people walking around staring at a small, black device in their hand, oblivious to the turning and churning of the world around them. When you value the company of virtual people more than those immediately around you, courtesy dies. I often think of my teenaged daughter and her cell phone. She considers it extremely rude not to reply to every text message she gets, as if not sending an immediate reply would cause some lasting damage to the sender’s delicate self-confidence. However, as she taps away on the keyboard of her phone, she hears nary a word coming from my mouth and, of course, can’t understand why I’m irritated when I have to repeat myself. Look around you right now. I’ve got a ten-spot that someone nearby is interacting with a screen instead of the real, carbon-based beings physically near them.
Technology is a wondrous thing and enables us to do many things better than we used to, but it is absolutely a double-edged sword that will disembowel us all if we’re not careful.
Like it or not, television is the predominant form of entertainment in this country. It is the bringer of information and the babysitter of children. Karl Marx would burst and aneurism to see that television has replaced religion as the opiate of the masses.
This is not going to be a bash on television as a concept. I watch some television and I don’t buy into the in-vogue idea that not watching television makes you somehow to superior to everyone else who does.
That being said, I think that the programming on most television stations is reminiscent of a poorly maintained cow pasture littered from fence line to fence line with steaming piles of bovine shit: There might be a flower growing out there somewhere, but it’s going to be very hard to find and it’s certain your shoes are going to smell bad when everything is said and done.
The proliferation of so-called “reality TV,” an interesting idea at its inception, has rolled forward completely out of control. These days, for every drama or sitcom on the air, there’s a show about competitive baking, admonishing people for not dressing stylishly enough or, God help us, being a promiscuous drunk in New Jersey.
Interestingly, the worst that television has to offer appears to be the most popular. With the constant reinforcement that putting yourself first and others second is not only okay, but lands you a big-time television gig, what motivation is there to maintain simple respect for others? Answer: None.
In the same way that television has desensitized a generation to images of violence, now it is slowly eroding our sense of courtesy and appropriate behavior.
And then, of course, there is the matter of television political pundits, but that’s for another article altogether.
Is it just me, or does it seem that active parenting is becoming a lost art form?
I’m not saying that I am, by any means, a perfect parent, because I’m not. I don’t think such a thing has ever existed. I am, however, an active parent, probably much more so than my children care for. I’m involved in their daily lives. I care about what they do, where they are and with whom they’re spending time.
These don’t sound like extraordinary things for a parent to do, but as I meet the parents of my children’s friends, I’m astounded how unusual my parenting style seems to be these days. The idea that one of my teenaged children could be out until past midnight and that I would have no clue as to where they were is beyond me. I can’t even imagine it. Yet I keep encountering parents who are right there in that situation and, what’s worse, they don’t seem bothered by it. I keep hearing statements like, “Kids will be kids,” and “You have to let them learn for themselves.” While I agree in spirit with these sentiments, children are not supposed to learn about life and the cold, cruel world by themselves. The entire purpose of keeping them in your home until adulthood is to guide and teach them, even when they resist it with every fiber of their being.
With the combination of ubiquitous connections via technology, the wasteland of content on television and laissez-faire parenting style that seems to be evolving into the norm, it’s really no wonder that basic respect for other people is going the way of the mastodon.
What to Do?
This isn’t about opening the door for a lady, or keeping your napkin in your lap. This isn’t about laying your coat down over a mud puddle for your fair lass to cross or even insisting the other guy go first at the four-way intersection, even though it was your turn.
I’m talking about the kind of courtesy that comes from respect, pure and simple.
Wait staff in restaurants are always complimenting my children for their manners. Why? Because my wife and I require them to order food by saying, “May I please have…” as opposed to what I typically hear, “I’ll take the…” or “Gimme the…” These latter two examples are demands, where as the former is a request. What’s the difference? If you were addressing an indentured servant, then a command would be entirely appropriate-there would be no true expectation of respect. However, men and women working in restaurants are not indentured servants. They are people doing a difficult and tiring job and, in most cases, not making a lot of money doing it. The simple act of asking for your food (and yes, the word “please” is required) makes all the difference in that interaction. I’m fairly certain I’ve never been served food with spit mixed into the cream sauce.
Seeing as this seems to be such a rampant problem in our society, and I’m not big on bitching without proposing potential solutions, here are some tips that will facilitate more pleasant and respectful interactions:
- Say “Please.” Say “Thank you.” A simple acknowledgement that someone has done something for you goes a long way. I consistently get smiles from waiters and waitresses because I will pause in a conversation at the table to thank them when they refill my water glass. Not only does it feel good to make someone else feel the same, I find that I get much better service from people. Courtesy should be a win-win for everyone involved.
- Leave the cell phone in your pocket. I always have the cell phone with me. I will admit that. However, it’s important to note that FCC imposes no penalties on someone who opts not to answer their cell phone when it rings. All cellular plans have voicemail. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message. If they don’t leave a message, there’s always caller ID. You have options; one of them should not be to disrupt other people’s lives with your phone. Sometimes I wish they never left the kitchen wall.
- Say “Excuse me.” Let’s face it, we all get in each other’s way sometimes. Had the woman I introduced at the beginning of this article simply said, “Excuse me, I just need to grab something real quick,” I would have said, “No problem,” and you would likely not be reading this. It only takes a second to let someone else know that you know that they’re there, and it can make all the difference.
- Remember, other people don’t care about your personal life. You personal life is just that: Personal. Keep it that way. My family and I don’t want to hear about your most recent pregnancy scare. Nor do we care to listen to you say “Fuck” three hundred times in a four minute conversation with your step-brother. Have some decorum. If it’s not something you’d sit down and tell me one-on-one, then you should probably avoid yelling it into your cell phone in the middle of a restaurant.
- The “Golden Rule.” ‘Nuff said.
In the end, there’s no great secret to bringing back manners and civility to our culture. Any time more than a few people choose to live in close proximity to each other, these things just start to make sense, or at least they should.
I have a challenge for you: Try to incorporate one act of common courtesy into your routine each day. Start simply. Hold the door some someone coming into a building behind you, even if you have to stand there for a few extra seconds waiting for them to arrive. Tuck your suitcase under your table in the crowded airport bar instead of leaving it in the middle of the aisle. When someone yells, “Hold the elevator!” as the doors are closing, reach down and hit the button. You can tell him or her when they board that they should have said, “Please.”
It’s not hard. If we all start thinking outside of ourselves and remember that we’re all just ameba living together in this big blue petri dish, then things will start to take care of themselves. So please, remember your manners. If you can’t, contact me. I’ll help you remember them.