Manners Still Matter...Don't They?

By Lindsey Townsend

A soccer mom pulls into the handicapped space at the grocery store and flicks her cigarette on the ground as she rushes by you; a pickup truck snags the parking space you’ve been waiting for just as its occupant backs out; the store clerk ignores you to talk on the phone while you stand there, fuming.

If you leave home today, you’ll probably deal with at least one such scenario. Even if you stay in, some telemarketer is likely to call you right when dinner’s on the table and insist on rushing through his script without asking if it’s convenient for you to talk. Suddenly you no longer feel like being polite as you hang up on him.

Whatever happened to old-fashioned manners? In a 1996 U.S. News and World Report/Bozell poll, a whopping 89% of respondents believed that incivility is a serious problem, 91 percent said it contributes to violence, and 84% said it erodes moral values. Three out of four Americans felt that incivility was getting worse. And with kids seemingly behaving more rudely-and parents letting them-there’s a whole new crop coming of age that appears to have a permanent case of the rudeness virus, with a good dash of meanness thrown in.

My three-year-old regularly comes home from preschool and announces things such as “Grant punched me in the stomach today, and I cried.” Yesterday I was talking to him about the golden rule. “If you’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to you,” I said. “If you share with them, they’ll share with you.” He looked at me gravely, as if I were seriously disturbed. “Mom,” he said gently, the way the nice nurses talked to the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “They don’t share with me when I share with them. And they’re not nice.”

Even if kids aren’t more aggressive than they used to be, it sure FEELS that way, and isn’t that just as bad? It’s like Rosie O’Donnell’s great line in the movie Sleepless in Seattle. During a business meeting, all of the women are hotly contesting a survey that has been published that says a woman over 40 is more likely to get shot by a terrorist than to get married. “That’s not true,” the women all insist. “That statistic is NOT TRUE.” “Maybe it’s not,” Rosie deadpans. “But it FEELS true.”

So how do I teach my child to be civilized when all he sees when he looks around is evidence that the law of the jungle applies-that bigger, stronger, meaner kids get all the goodies in life? How do I teach him that it’s important to wait your turn when we’re stuck in traffic and he sees car after car zooming down the shoulder, squeezing in ahead of everyone else? How can I emphasize self-control when so many of the adults around him routinely refuse to play by the kindergarten rules: share, wait your turn, and be nice?

You’d think that people who work in the service industry would have this stuff down, but it seems the new customer service policy is “How to Give Service With a Snarl.” With the labor pool so tight in the country, employers are so desperate for employees-any employees-that people skills are no longer a requirement. I walked in to get a haircut the other day and was blatantly ignored for 10 minutes by three stylists who refused to acknowledge my existence with even a “Hi-just a second and I’ll be right with you.”

People who work in the service industry, of course, have their own complaints: long hours, inefficient procedures, and impolite customers, whose behavior they may use to justify their own nastiness. As someone who was taught to always be polite, though, I am just astounded by the rude behavior that I see. Then again, I’m the kind of person who bumps into a mannequin and says “excuse me.”

So how can you beat the bullies without joining them? First, resist the impulse to sink down to the level of whoever you’re dealing with. Don’t respond to rudeness with rudeness, no matter how tired, angry or justified you might feel. Turn the tables on them. The next time some snippy service person mouths off at you, say “Wow, you must be really having a bad day”--and try to say it sympathetically, not sarcastically. It may throw her off just a tad.

Remember the “Practice random acts of kindness” movement that swept the country a few years ago? Maybe it’s time for a revival. Try holding the door for the person walking in the drugstore behind you, or offer to help an irritated mom struggling to carry a stroller down the stairs at the airport. You may inspire someone else to act a little better, too. At the very least, you’ll be part of the solution, not the problem.