The Death of Good Manners

'Mr. Manners' sounds off


It was a typical Thursday morning. I’d gone to my favorite fast casual restaurant for a power breakfast sandwich and a coffee. On my way out, steaming java in one hand and wallet in the other, I noticed a young woman behind me in a rush to get out. I held both of the big, heavy doors for her with my elbow. She whizzed past me in a blur — never saying a word.

Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy, but would it have killed her to say, “Thank you”?

Later that day, I posted those words on Facebook. To my surprise, 278 people “liked” my post — which also drew 163 comments worldwide. Clearly, I had struck a nerve.

“That is not fuddy,” said a woman who had grown up in North Carolina. “That is civility.”

“Common manners are as extinct as the dinosaurs,” offered a man in Indiana. “It’s a shame.”

What has happened to common courtesy? Are manners simply dead?

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Florida-based etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, author and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, Inc., confirmed that manners have declined rapidly in the last 15 years, and blames technology to a large degree for our self-absorption.

“People have their heads in their cell phones, iPads, and other electronic devices,” she said. “We’re answering email and texting because that’s the way we communicate nowadays. We’re living in a different world. It’s too bad.”

Even talking on the phone has become increasingly rare. Many of our young people barely know how to do it — they’re not being taught and they have little reason to speak on the phone. When you don’t talk on the phone, you lose your social skills, the etiquette coach said.

In a social situation, then, “You’re forced to talk to people, and you don’t know what to talk about. You end up picking up your phone and becoming distracted and bored. That’s when people begin to lose their manners.”

Some friends said not acknowledging a held door angers them so much that they fantasize about what they might do. One New York musician said she is even more shocked when people — and not just young ones — go through a door without noticing who is directly behind. It’s not just a courtesy issue, but one of safety.

“The only bright side is that they may inevitably be jumped or strangled from behind, as they deserve to be,” she wrote — tongue-in-cheek, of course. “Have a nice day!”

A number of respondents said that when this happens to them, they can’t let it go without comment.

“Most times I offer a firm, ‘You’re welcome,'” wrote a man in Tennessee. “Usually I just can’t let that sort of behavior go unacknowledged.” Others said the same thing, in varying terms of outrageousness. But why bother to even say it? Isn’t that just another form of bad manners? “It freaks them out when I say, ‘You’re welcome,'” offered a Kentucky woman. “Maybe through sarcasm they will get it.”

Baby boomers have been lax in teaching their children manners at all. Many families do not even share a daily meal, where common courtesy and table manners would be practiced. And manners are no longer taught in school, as many Facebook friends pointed out.

But shouldn't people have picked up on it on their own by the time they've reached their teens?

"Some of it is common sense," said Whitmore, "but common sense isn't so common anymore. There's that group of people that just don't know to hold the door open for people — who don't know how to say thank you, let alone write a thank you note."

Thank you notes in the age of texting? They may take a little extra time to write, but if you do it, Whitmore offers, "People will remember you. Nobody ever gives a eulogy and says from the pulpit, 'This person wrote great text messages.'"

Whitmore also chalks up uncouth behavior to reality television and the movies we watch these days. One of my Facebook friends from Florida put a finer point on it. "There is a Kardashianization in our culture, a dumbness, if you will, and people just don't seem to care anymore. Where's the class, the etiquette?"

It seems to be a global problem. A woman in Russia and a man in the Netherlands posted that people in the United States are far more civilized than those in their countries.

"If you could only be in Russia, you could think manners in U.S. are wonderful. It always makes me sick to return here from the U.S. and see unhappy and angry faces."

Back to the young woman I encountered — maybe she was just having a bad day. Maybe she'd just broken up with her boyfriend. Or perhaps her dog had just died. But she was the tipping point for me, as rude behavior now seems so commonplace.

Whitmore teaches business clients that they must acknowledge other human beings, and be mindful of their behavior and how it affects other people. That's a lesson for both sexes, especially as some of my male Facebook friends reported holding the door for women who castigated them for their chivalry.

"All I got was a dirty look and no thank you," said one. Another was called "sexist" for holding a door for two women, and a third got a finger shake in the face. "Hurts," he wrote.

Others wrote that if you can't teach manners, you can at least be an example for others. Furthermore, in holding the door, I should not have expected anything in return, one friend ventured. After all, graciousness is its own reward. Then there's the karmic component. "Mother would say," wrote a Nevada woman, "'if you do good, the good comes back to you.'"

And, indeed, on the very afternoon of the Great Door Incident, I was driving out of the post office parking lot, trying to turn left into a long line of vehicles backed up at the stop light. As traffic began to move, car after car refused to let me in. And then a woman stopped and motioned me to pull in front of her.

There are some good people still left in the world! Thank you, dear lady. Thank you!